Turning space into place: why we love exploring forbidden places.

A closed-door represents a wealth of temptation. It is a barrier between two separate spaces and can represent a change between any numbers of dualistic properties. For example: private and public space; exterior and interior, as well as the segregation of people for any number of socio-political reasons. But unlike a wall, a door is imbued with the potential for movement and the process of opening it can eradicate the certainty between extremes. Doors create grey areas. They make some people very uncomfortable. 

Privileged space is one where a person must have special rights, advantages or knowledge to enter. This is often achieved by holding a key (an object of privilege) or by gaining permission (a contract of permission). For some people it is one of life’s greatest temptations. To want that privilege, or to want the knowledge those privileged people have, is irresistible. It is a very human urge to want to break down doors.

From the outside, I think a lot of our instincts make this sound like a noble pursuit. After all, it is akin to crashing down the gate of classism, racism, sexism and any other ‘ism’, which institutionally works to keep certain people out of certain places. But sometimes, places are barred for our safety. In particular, the rules to stop climbers scaling our skyscrapers consequently endangering themselves and others. And yet, despite my better judgement, I still enjoy reading about the horror and daring of such attempts.

Privately, houses are aimed at letting in the minority of people, i.e. the residents whilst offices and factories are reserved for the workers. These spaces are exclusive but can create strong bonds between the residents or workers. Places give us a sense of belonging. These are the doors that we don’t often wish to break down. They demand a higher level of respect.

Holding an object of privilege or a contract of permission gives someone a greater amount of personal control (be that illusionary or real) over a space, and also over transitions within that space. It could be suggested that just the act of imagining these internal space is enough to reproduce a similar feeling of control, as well as reconnecting people with the emotions associated with them, such as safety, intimacy and belonging. For example, sometimes we can stare through an unclothed window from a moving car. Doing this gives us a view straight into orange lit rooms, we watch families on sofas around T.V. sets and we share that comfort. But we also simultaneously feel we are intruding in place we really shouldn’t. Cars are similar – ever caught the eye of a driver beside you. It feels wrong somehow. Cars are public places that feel private or is it the other way around?

When we see images of places on social media we feel the same sense of familiarity that we would towards places significant in our day to day lives. Is this the sense of entitlement people always complain about? The mass of images that saturate our lives makes us feel at home in places we’ve never been. Meaning that search for the new becomes more and more elusive. Now, it’s found by the ignorant, the extremely curious – or those that shun the stories of others.

Tickets, passes, swipe cards, tolls, stamps, wrist bands, keys, codes – all giving us possession over spaces – turning space into place. Is this why I have a box of tickets placed squarely on top of my bookshelf. A list of places that have touched my consciousness: a box of privilege.


Marrakesh: The Mint Tea is Delicious

I was on the plane. My row didn’t have a window so I looked across the aisle and observed, through the nodding heads of a family of three,  how clouds bubbled at the edge of the atmosphere – producing premonitions of sandy cities, citadels, square roofed buildings, terraces, spires and domes. This dream city slowly transmuted and sunk; then grew and stretched out of the blueness that underlay it like a deep ocean. It told stories beyond the scope of my life, until it too sank, like the gifted mirage it was, into oblivion, and the true coast of Africa glittered on the horizon. 

Touch down felt like our plane had just fallen out of the sky and landed, on one wheel, with a crack. The passengers, who were already predisposed to be quite vociferous, screamed and squawked like too many chickens jostled in a cage. The plane consisted of numerous hen parties, a fortieth birthday party and a couple of other spur of the moment get togethers. Ryanair enabling celebrations for the masses, and that I thought, was probably the nicest thing I could say about Ryanair. Although it wasn’t their fault that the French air-traffic controllers were striking that morning and had left us sitting on the tarmac for two hours. At least our pilot had a lovely Scottish accent.

But at soon as my feet hit the tarmac all worries were extinguished. A gentle heat rose, the sky was clear, and we were situated in the middle of what us Brits would call summer (despite it being February). We were greeted by palms and agarves. 

In the distance, the Atlas mountains rose from the smog like an illustration – slightly unreal but sublime. Their points were scrawled as if by a youngster’s hand and snow covered crevices were arranged upon it like the crisscrosses in an un-ironed bedsheet. They were the protective arms encircling Marrakech – forcing back the suffocating sands of the Sahara.

It took us a while to get out of the airport. First, we got our passports stamped; after which, I spent some time beholding the ephemeral document in my hands – my previous travels abroad to Europe having not necessitated a stamp I was quite intrigued. 2020 felt like it was to be my year of travel and this was an excellent way to kick start it! Little did I know we were a few weeks away from a complete lockdown!

Overhead, the lattice structure of the airport building inaugurated a sense of awe. It was like being nestled within the confines of a big empty beehive. Above, the ceiling struts were arranged like geological or astronomical patterns.

They x-rayed our bags (again) and we all crowded round little booths to fill in our coronavirus declaration forms – borrowing and lending pens as none had been provided. Clustering close together to lean upon small stands. (*insert dramatic irony here*)

When we arrived at the Riad our host greeted us with mint tea (poured from a great height). Beside which, we were handed little hand-baked orange blossom, almond and sesame biscuits. That evening we had a banquet under the stars, the temperature pleasant on the terrace even in February. The banquet didn’t look much – but it tasted. Dear God, it tasted.

Starting with a lamb stock pumpkin soup, we moved on to a lamb tagine, with preserved lemons: subtle, yet greasy in all the right ways, graceful with the sharp saltiness of lemons kept in jars. The vegetables steamed in stock: salted and seasoned. Every inch of our salad leaves soaked in dressing. The couscous was sweet with onions. I wished at this point my stomach could have been bigger – that it was concertinaed like an accordion so that I could have continued eating well into the night. Because pudding happened next. We were dished a poached pear in syrup (thick and golden), with mint and raspberries, encased in which was a paste of sesame and almonds. This, I realised, would be my choice for a death row meal should the occasion arise that I need one.

Afterwards, with the cheerful chang and chick of wine glasses and the rapid emptiness of our bottles, our evening entertainment arrived: the fire-dancer. He was a bit more dad-grooving-out-at-a-reunion-disco than you might expect and his act was perhaps less ‘gasp’ more ‘Catherine wheel’ but lets not disparage the poor man to much.

Mornings at the Riad were filled with incense and birdsong. As dawn approached, the call to prayer rang out. The voices, lifting me from the grave of night with its cacophony until the hush returned, petering, until the quiet was whole and surprising.

I rose and lay in the sun on the balcony. The cool of the night quickly evaporating until I was bathing in the light, simultaneously thinking and not thinking, and enjoying just that.

At ten-thirty, the appointed time, I met Msemmen, the world’s most delicious pancake; we made an informal introduction to each other over the breakfast table after a little light flirting, and then I promptly fell in love. At home, I stalked youtube for glimpses of its buttery deliciousness. Watched as a myriad of skilled cooks fried up these flaky breakfast treats. This was to be my latest culinary obsession.

Buoyed with butter, our next rendevouz on the itinery was a ‘camel ride though the deset’. So we clambered into our hire vehicle and drove to a sandy district on the outskirt of town were we met our pop-princess eponym camels: Madonna, Shakira, Christina, Beyoncé, and Britney.

Feeling rather like a Pepsi advertisement circa 2004, the entourage and I snaked awkwardly through the disused lot, towards a series of houses on the other side. In order to avoid the fly tippers, we arrived outside a fluttering line of brightly coloured clothes – royal red tablecloths, blue pyjamas, t-shirts, scarves.

The animals were led in a line upon a rope. Whilst I appreciate their need to earn their bread, their treatment struck me as a little cruel, and this uneasy feeling increased the longer our walk went on. I think, I’d have been happy just to stroke the camels and feed them whatever camels like to eat (popcorn or maybe watermelons?).

Sylvia (the camel) kept walking with her head turned sideways. I didn’t know if she was struck by the beauty of Katie’s blue scarf flapping in the breeze, or whether her rope was too tight, but it made me feel uneasy. Especially as we drove away afterwards and our camel-steeds (bffs forever) were tied back to the ground on a short lead. I guess everyone has to work for their wage – but I hope they got time off – you know – to be camels and do camel things.  Like visit camel cinemas, and gossip about camel-news and eat camel tagi-  no wait. Not that last one. That would be terrible.

In the afternoon, we went to a rooftop restaurant called Terrasse des Epices. This time I had tagine stewed lamb stuffed into ravioli with preserved lemons and saffron served with bread with oil. I literally can’t get over the food. It was so good. As I revisit this a few months later (during lockdown) I’m still struck by the food. I dream about it. That and vampires and joining a prison gang for my own protection. From the balcony of the restaurant, I glimpsed the Atlas mountains. I wanted immediately to get in a car and drive out there, watch the twists and turns of the mountain road. I felt something growing inside me, some yearning, some want, which when I’m luckily, always appears in a new place. Oh to have longer.

I had a hot bath and fell asleep.

The souks, the bazaars, the walled medina of Marrakech demanded a new vocabulary as well as fresh eyes. Every other moment some psycho on a moped or a bicycle threatened to mow me down. They called us, ‘Lady Gaga’ and collectively we were ‘Spice Girls’, only once was I ‘Glasses! You a Doctor?’ They really need to work on their misogyny.

The next day I sunbathed, sun-glozed and soaked. And when the fancy took me I plunged deep into the cold waters of the pool. Then I’d lie, once more, in the sun, skin exposed. As with all milky white Brits, I burned not having brought a stitch of sun cream.

That afternoon we toured the Souks. I bought a scarf; some Ras el Hanout (a mixture of 35 herbs and spices) to make my own tagines at home; and some mint because I couldn’t fathom how anyone could make a mint tea so delicious and different and I thought perhaps by examining the dried remains of the plant that I might divine the answer. 

That evening our dinner reservation was cancelled, but by way of an apology we got an invite to an exclusive open bar party that evening. So we walked the main square and got food at a place they recommended called Le Salma. It was a beautiful looking place, with dancers, and I ate the requisite tagine (whilst delicious not at good as the other two meals).

Back to Kabana.

Cocktails lined the bar, appetisers proliferated. Everyone here was so cool it was painful. Well-coffered women à la The Hunger Games tottered on Lady Gaga heels. People wore suits in bold African print and designer trainers. Everyone looked rich and arty. They were celebrating – as far as we could gather (not speaking the language) the end of the Festival of Arts in Morocco. Some Amazighs came and sang. Someone whispered, ‘they’re wearing the designs of that man’ and they’d point, again, at someone hopelessly cool. Later Guiss Guiss Bou Bess, a Senegalese band started playing, performing in French. The lead singer comes from the ‘griot’ tradition of oral historians and storytellers from West Africa. The musicians wowed the crowd, the drums loud and timpaning, the video recording behind the band showed us scenes from their home life in Senegal. Cooking, and cleaning and hanging out with friends; dancing in front gardens. We were dancing. I was exhausted. They were dancing and I collapsed in a chair and realised there was free wifi. We walked back to the Riad bouyed and I crash straight to sleep.


The Art of Being Lost

How can we define the state of being lost?

The idea of being lost is one that is difficult to define – it seems initially to refer to that purely animalistic experience; one akin to a state of confusion, a panic that floods the body with endorphins as you realise you are somewhere you don’t want to be and you don’t know how to get back. But actually, I think being ‘lost’ is less of an individualist experience, and more a community issue: an idea based on a local scale rather than about vast open spaces.

In fact, it is possible to define lost as being either external or internal. Physically being lost is about the relationship of knowing where you want to be, and being unable to get there. It is about the relationship between the self and our physical surroundings. To be internally lost is about having a heighten sense of awareness concerning your current environment and not having a social role to fulfil. These two states of ‘lost’ are the opposites of each other.

Why do creatives crave the unknown?

The state of being lost is often a driving force behind modern artists: be that visual, literary, musical or otherwise. It can be seen as the obtainment of freedom from contextual information. This includes, the art world, market forces, and other personal stresses. This freedom promises the elusive elixir of artistic life – true originality. To find this we must travel outside of all recognisable signs and symbols, and inhabit the land of the lost. This state can be seen as a doorway to another way of thinking, another way of living, and ultimately another way of creating. It represents adventure and freedom. Why wouldn’t we like being lost?

Well, in reality, both adventure and freedom (along with being lost) can all be terrifying and all three states represent a loss of control.

What is feeling lost anymore in art and culture when everyone is interested in creating the boundaries of identity and protecting them against appropriation and mimicry. Is this about keeping our originality or is it about being very definitively not lost?

Where now?

I would like to suggests that whilst we might think we understand the world around us better due to our collective knowledge – that actually our individual knowledge is less than our ancestors. We think we know what is there, because someone has told us; someone else has photographed it; someone else has interpreted it, but it is not our knowledge and it does not possess the specifics that would make it useful. How many times has someone visited us and shown us the place we live in, from a totally different perspective?

The idea of getting lost is nearly always portrayed metaphorically as travelling into areas of urban decay, ruins, uninhabited areas, jungles, deserts, and places unlike that of where we live. This image is a metaphor for the loss of contextual relationship to the external, but it can also be quite literal. To be lost, is a description of your state of being. It means that something was lost and that person has become subsequently isolated from conclusions. If a person looses a map, they become lost, i.e. unable to draw conclusions concerning which direction to walk. If a person looses their community, they become lost in concerns to their own identify that was, (as is human nature) determined by their context to others. Without context we have no directions as to who we are. We have nothing to compare ourselves. And it is through these comparisons that we determine characteristics such as funny, agreeable, determined – or even physical details such as, tall, strong, etc. We can only determine these things in relation to others.

Thus attaching the logic to travelling to far-flung places in a bid to ‘find yourself’. Only when we are in a place significantly different from the original can we start to be aware of our former roles and place within that society – or at the very least, the role which we’d like to have.

Think about the people around you. What do they like? What do you like? If you don’t like change and are happy with your environment, does that mean you feel defined by it? If you hate getting lost does it mean your sense of self is fragile? Think carefully as you step out the front door.

Hunstanton in the Gloom: Norfolk

Hunstanton is near enough to where I Iive to be classed as home. It’s familiar and comfortable, which is why I sometimes overlook the concrete ugliness of the locale. Its ramshackled portacabins house cheap and glitzy gambling dens, and little greasy cafes. It’s disappointing, but familiar. The former pier was lost years ago, cut off by the sea, and the town suffers from its loss like a man castrated by a naiadic Lorena Bobbett. Under the remains of the broken shaft, sits shops I’ve never seen open. They stare out, hauntingly, wishing for summer. Above rages the amusement arcade and the self declared ‘fun-size’ bowling alley.

The seafront is, in many ways, like a disappointing shrine to a 90s pop-star by a lovestruck teenager, except its hallowed idol is gambling. The games induce punters to risk pennies on coloured toys and games. They invite in the crowds and hopelessness; giving joyless fun in return. It’s all good, as long as you only partake ironically. The moment you enter the noisy game hall and start taking things seriously is the moment you know you’ve got a problem. It offers something mindless to stop our brains from screaming. Or maybe they’re still screaming but you just can’t hear them over the din. A little bit like the children who are dragged in by their owners.

The afternoon was howling – rain driving down with a force that could rend skin from tendons. An impromptu party was assembled, invited, some self-invited, and tumbled into a car. We had a few umbrellas which periodically blew inside out, so we carried them like batons wielded by troopers along the promenade. Our clothing was drenched. Whatever notion we had of walking along the beach was quickly dashed from our minds, so we clambered into ‘Thomas’s Bingo’. It’s not just Bingo in these hallowed halls: Rick and Morty toys line the inside of claw machines, two-penny slides hand out skeleton key-chains; you can throw a ball at something or other and win a prize, and a tune and some flashing lights.

The noise! Bleeps and bloops, and ringings and whirring, songs and tinkling melodies – the chink of change, falling coins, children crying and laughing. It’s over-whelming, terrifying – time slips by us – mesmerised by the stacking of slots.  There’s something comforting about such a place – you can hide within the noise and lights. You don’t so much blend in – but smudge away.

Then the rain stopped, and the clouds slowly begun to part – allowing lances of gold to strike the clifftops and crowning them princes in the murk. We took a wander. Along the boulevard, past a hopeful vendor who’d set up shop, to the red cliffs. Here millions of years of history crumble into the brown waters. A few gulls circle overhead. The  broken fences, bored like thorns upon the cliff’s pate, were snapped into fragments and bent into crucifixes, amongst the empty nests of terns. 
Sunny Hunny it might be from June to August, but at other times it turns into a different creature. Cold and eerie, quiet and forlorn with just a few strange bright aspects of its exuberant personality shining through and reminding its inhabitants of different times.

We stopped at a pub up the road – The Wash and Tope – had a hot chocolate and an enormous meal. It was very satisfying – in its own way. Around us people lounged  in warm conditions huddled from the February air; fires lit, football on quiet – sofas snuggled with cushions. Just before dusk swooped in on black wings, we staggered back to the car and drove home to the melody of the wind-screen whippers battling back the rain . 


A Very English Winter: Sandringham

A few months on from my first article about Sandringham,  I decided to revisit and reconsider a forest that was blistering under the cold of winter. It was dark and gloomy even in the early afternoon. The drive was peaceful.

Around me, the greenery was limp, yet it endured, continued, and straggled onwards towards the warmth of spring’s re-emergence. The light today, beautified the decay amongst the soft mosses, whilst evergreens held the spotlight. The shade at times was heavy as though someone had pulled the blinds on a forest in a fitful sleep. My breath escaped in bursts of cloud like a mechanised dragon.

From October til December, the trees say goodbye to their leaves. They do this not because they’ve had a spat, or because they’re bored of green (as appealing as those ideas are) but because winter equals drought. In a time when most water is a solid, hydration is a key concern for deciduous trees. But water expands when it freezes, so how do the cells in the bark and branches cope? Well, the remaining cells pumps water out of their vacuoles and cytoplasm. Draining water from their internal spaces into the adjacent cell space. When this freezes and expands, it has less chance of bursting and killing the cells. Thus, the trees are thirsty and in their dormancy they wait.

And I understand that feeling. Autumn through winter sees me moving ever more sluggishly. I get slower and slower. Sometimes, I feel like I’m walking through fudge. I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I can’t stay awake during the day. I have difficulty making plans about the future. I dream of hot beaches, but it is just that dreams.

Winter is the doldrums of life. Thank God the solstice prompted our ancestors to have debauch celebrations. From Saturnalia, Christmas, Dong Zhi in China, Shab-e Yalda in Iran, Toji in Japan, to Soyal of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona. They all celebrate the longest night of the year and the turning of the Earth towards the sun and longer days. It also marks the end of the harvest period – thus the feasting! Of course, over the millennia the day of celebrating the solstice has changed and sometimes the reason for the celebration itself has become vastly corrupted and altered and added to and lost. Knowing I have the big glitzy banquet of Christmas to attend (a day of utmost indulgence and, quite frankly, an obscene about of day drinking) really gets me through the Autumn.

Forests, however, are magical anytime of year. Most notably because we see them as areas of transition. Through a forest the ancient Greeks reached Hades (the underworld) and Dante reached the gates of Hell. These wooded areas of the imagination lead us to planes of existence outside of mortality and not always to pleasant locales. The Forbidden Forest in Rowling’s Harry Potter is a world unto itself where magical creatures reign supreme and the trees seemingly stretch out into infinity. The occupants of a particularly special wardrobe stumble into a wintery arboretum of magical delights. It’s in forests that ghouls and goblins challenge epic adventurers; where spiders grow to the size of busses; where hobbits hide, and witches build lairs.

These jungles are the hearts and souls of humanity. Appealing, perhaps, to our primordial desires to swing along canopies where they also rend our senses from rationality.

I love the forest at any time of year, but soon I hope it will be spring again.


Sandringham: On Forests

I lay looking upwards into the bronzed leaves of autumn. The land had already started to hibernate and that mellow scent of mould and leaf litter filled my senses. It’s too cold to stay in one place for long, but I lie a little longer none-the-less. This is the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ and autumn makes me feel loved but hopeless.

I’ve been reading ‘The Consolations of the Forest’. It’s a memoir by Sylvain Tesson about his hermitage on Lake Baikal. He muses on the nature of time, memory, the uselessness of life, all from the stillness of a cedar cabin in the woods. Quietitude stretches out moments – hanging them as though in a gallery. It glorifies them and allows us to examine moments in singularly. It’s true that sometimes we need an existential remove to rediscover who we are. But then again, are these self impossed exiles merely giving us the space to indulge in the narcissism that says “we are a product of the soul only and not of our communities?”

Tesson also meditates on happiness, deliberating on how we must balance danger and peace, winter and summer ‘never settling, always oscillating from one to the other extremity on the spectrum of sensations.’ Knowing this to be true, I must find a way to work through the sadness that is the onslaught of winter. Winter creates a certain emptiness inside me that’s difficult to alleviate, despite the stolid toilings of my atheistic mind. The world will renew, summer will burn, peace is cyclical and winter will test.

His forest filled my imagination. Permeating all corners like a thick fog, filling in every crevice, creating borders and salients, building battlements and forts – keeping the riot of real life out of the lucid bounty of my imagination. The forest grew monstrous in my mind. It was black and dense, like deep waters, at once shocking and thrilling and dangerous. Midsummer, this year, seemed to throw us straight into Samhain, ignoring the equinox as if it meant nothing. And now, I wanted to do nothing more than observe death in the forest.

Forests are deep and quiet. The further into a forest you go the quieter it becomes. Just like the closer you are to the suffocating dark of the winter solstice, the more that weight of sonant silence pushes in upon your psyche. It tests the rationality of a consciousness shaped by stories of spirits and magic.

But this is October and the sun shines golden. Leaves crackle with the colours of fire: oranges, reds, ochres and umbers. They proliferate in the canopy above and drench the forest floor. My boots spring over this spongy carpet, their tips dappled with moisture. The soil is starting to squelch and the ground is carpeted in biscotti coloured acorn hats. Littered below me are glossy chestnuts bursting out of spiked casings, clutches of egg-shaped pinecones and crisp crimson leaves . 

Today, I’ve travelled to the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk with an inquisitive mind and a yearning for arboreal company. I photograph leaves and trees – identifying them as I go; creating a small checklist of species. It’s a meditative process filled in creative investigation. 

Beneath me, toadstools multiply around moulding stumps. Some fungi ooze out of broken branches, whilst some glisten with waxy caps or stand upright like honey coloured parasols.

Looking upwards tells a different story. Above I see sanguine yew berries clustered on their evergreen boughs, waiting to burst like blisters. I once heard a story about a friend of a friend who had committed suicide by boiling up a vat of yew leaves into a heady brew and swallowing the vile concoction with a bottle of vodka. She died twisted in her bed sheets like her sinews in agony. Some people say that on a hot day, the sun’s rays can cause yew leaves to expire and create a miasma of psychotropic mist which bewitches those sitting underneath into a slumbering stupor. Heads softly drooping, and snores gently tumbling, we enter the limbo that is unconsciousness – the land between life and death. 

Red and native oaks grow side by side, pitting the English against the American. But both alike, sprinkle the ground with nutty treats for their squirrelly lodgers. Overhead tower Corsican pines, shooting up in uniform lines, striping the blue sky with white limbs.

Neither are native to our small island, but then again, a lot of the species at Sandringham are not native – is it an amalgamation of arboreal love strewn by aristocrats across the Norfolk landscape? Or a travesty of ecological management? I cannot tell.

The more natural Scot’s pine, with its heady scent and more painter friendly silhouette, stands black against the setting sun, as I head deeper into the undergrowth. Pushing my way though birch leaves, dropped in their thousands like leaflets advertising the end of days, I find my way back to where I started. Was civilisation a welcome relief? How long had I been gone? Six months alone in Siberia? Or 160 minutes in a pathed wood, a couple of acres in size?

I don’t find it unreasonable that our neolithic ancestors would pray for spring, or indeed for the sun to rise – because sometimes these things don’t feel inevitable. Is it the sublime immenseness of trees that make us feel this fragile? Or the sudden realisation that we must be stopped as a species, that it is us and only us, that could ever create a darkness from which we will never return?

Kassie: Contemplating Her Own Demise

Sandringham Woods, the Queen’s own private property, is open to the public all year round and is a 10 minute drive outside of Kings Lynn. Parking is free, and I’d recommend stopping for lunch, as the food is always good, and the tea respectable. Just recently, I had a partridge and pork terrine with toast and a salad sprinkled with a zingy mustard dressing which really hit the spot. You can visit all year round, but there is something about October colours that really bring the place to life. 


Wicken Fen: Watery Field

Wicken Fen – the place sounds a bit like some sort of prison from a Sherlock Holmes novel – at least that was my initial feelings. But it’s actually worse. It is in fact, a watery field in the East of England, which the National Trust tries to charge you seven quid to enter.

It was a warm day at the end of summer when I decided to visit. I brought some family, and a camera, and hoped the place was as riveting as the write-up on their website sounded. Of course, the pictures looked a bit dull on Google-images, but I knew that in these flat areas  finding  beauty   sometimes relied upon adopting a new perspective. This flat landscape was all about the interaction between  ground and    sky. About sitting amongst the reeds and listening. 

I imagined the Fens to be a verdant playground of rushes and rivers. The water  black and glossy. I would peer into  rivulets and watch small fish move in formation. Deeper still, in the mud, might be eels: long and full of sinew and eggs. 

I was promised an encyclopedia of birds. Kingfishers, cranes and herons that would peer with beady eyes across the gloomy water. I imagined the crouched tiger stance of bitterns with their houndstooth undercarriages and sturdy Roman noses, as they stalked through the undergrowth. They would have pale green talons held underneath plump bodies and they’d feast on frogs and fish and insects. I’d hear their strangely futuristic, yet  pulsing cries (akin to that of a thick woodwind instrument) hoot across the way. I’d see great crested newts waving their tails in the air and slinking through the pondweed. Their shiny, globular bodies covered in brown and beige scales  arranged like a reverse piano. Cranes, with plush burgundy crowns, would have grey silken bodies perched upon twiglet-like legs. And they would surprise me in a moment of particular zen by rustling dinosaur-like out of the verbena. So much to see apparently, but what did I actually observe of the 9000 species recorded here? 

Of all these fearsome beasts;  I mostly just saw dragonflies, grass, some fish, and a few finches. And plenty of prams, children, retirees and people who like to talk with booming voices in a nature reserves. Plenty of those that like to sit in  hides and discourse at volume – their phones bleeping out with pips and whistles and the occasional Nokia dirge – seemed greatly enamoured with the place. I don’t think the term ‘Nature-reserve’ was fully understood or respected by many. Which is why the National Trust obviously hid all the good stuff.

99% of fenlands, as mapped in the 17th century, have been draining for farming and building. This environment is, therefore, rare, and causes endangered species to flourish. There are marsh-harriers, soprano pipistrelle bats, Konik ponies, cattle, otters, water voles and many more interesting creatures besides the multitudes already mentioned in this article. The Nation Trust’s official vision is to create a ‘diverse landscape for wildlife and people stretching from Wicken Fen to the edge of Cambridge.’ It is a 100-year plan to cover 53 square kilometres in restored fen and ensure it’s ‘thriving’ with animals. It hopes to promote ‘Ecosystem services’ which have the key aims of locking carbon in the soil, providing recreational activities and habitats for animals. Call it an eco-social project.

Mark Harold, from the National Trust says, ”Wicken is a real illustration of our strategy and desire to create a healthy, natural and beautiful environment that is bigger, better and more joined-up for both wildlife and people.” I found it less wildlife emporium and more field with paths. Maybe there’s a good reason they charge people £7 to enter – it must put a lot of people off. Although considering that public footpaths run through the place, I think you could probably see a lot of it for free by merely circumnavigating the visitors’ centre.  As a member, I can’t feel too cheated.  

Would I visit again? Maybe on a Monday morning, during school time, in the spring. The ponies and the fish were pretty good and I’d like to see them again. I would also like to find myself a newt. I would only look, of course, but I would imagine putting it into a jar and using it to prank my enemies (of which, as a grown woman, I have plenty). With my supernatural powers, I may, or may not, cause said newt to spring into action and attach itself to the ribcage of a terrified person (of whom I am wreaking revenge upon). Fear is a simple minded pleasure. Except, to all those who understand my reference, I am much more likely to sympathise with the Trunchbull these days. 


Cambridge: Yesterday & Today

Cambridge started like most British cities. Way back, when the Egyptians were busy building pyramids, we raised some lowly farmsteads  in the swamps. The Romans appear afterwards and build some roads (handy) and then the Saxon and the Vikings did various medieval things, after which William the Conqueror assumed control. Then, the tumble of the next millennia created the anthropocene that we lament today. Curiously, the village of Cambridge, used to be called Granta-Bridge (or some middle English variant) it then changed to Cambridge at some point – and according to my dubious sources at Wikipedia – the river name was changed because the city had, not the other way around. 

I guess if you had to pinpoint the defining moment in this city’s history it would be the fleeing of scholars from Oxford in 1209. They came here and created a similar college system of learning to that already established at Oxford. These two cities ran a monopoly on education or the next 600 years. If you wanted to be a priest, a doctor, a mathematician, a scientist, a theologian or whatever – you had to come here. The next university established in England was the University of Manchester in 1824. In light of this knowledge, I really don’t think we appreciate the privilege of education as much as we should.

Beside the industrial and scientific research centres, beside the centuries old colleges, and bookshops, is the sprawl of the homeless and a deep feeling of divide. The poor struggle in this city of money; that is obvious. Restaurants and high end retail outlets proliferate. The picturesque is mostly behind pay-barriers and the influx of Asian money is palpable. Tt sponsors wings in museums. But it’s the prestige they salivate over: the prestige of Western education. They throng the byways with cameras dressed in curiously quintessential tourist garb – beige chinos, rugby shirts and ill-shaped fishing hats. I wondered whether Cambridge to the British is perhaps how Venice feels to Venetians. And I’m not just saying that because of the punting. 

What Cambridge is best known for amongst the locals of the county, however, is its the terrible road system. The A14 is gridlock and parking costs £30 a day. Trains and busses are a must and they rarely represent value for money. Luckily, the park and ride system  isn’t too bad at £3 per person (return) on the bus, or £8 for 5 people – but it’s still an irritant with trains from my local station costing £7  for a less than 30min journey. That’s £14 return – imagine that every day.

And Cambridge is messy. It has a wealth of history (and actual wealth – buying a house involves mortgaging your grandkids), a mash of touristy rubbish, places aimed at students on a budget, and others aimed at the rich kids shoehorned in from Eton. It’s a transient home to students, and is also plagued by a swathe of strangely dressed middle-class posers who worship the eco-warrior slash primary school teacher aesthetic. 

As soon as you jump off the park and ride bus, signs proudly boast that there are 8 museums within walking distance. Most notable of which is the Fitzwilliam Museum, followed by the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, The University Museum of Zoology and The Kettle’s Yard.

I love looking at the art in the Fitzwilliam – I could happily spend most of the day there – wandering the aisles. My rule for museums is always: take away three things. This usually means, remembering three weird items on display, and making sure I learn three things that will enrich my understanding of life. To take away any more is far too laborious.

Anyway, me and a friend decided to spontaneously visit Cambridge last week, hence this post. We are Peterborough natives and we were bored. So why not Cambridge? We walked around the old colleges, admired the architecture, watched the punting on the river Cams under the Mathematician’s bridge, and walked through the park towards the MillWorks where we ordered up one of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever had. After another amble around, I had my first Pho at Pho. And yes it’s a chain, but I still had a lovely meal andI tasted a lot of new thing. The noodle broth is served with bean sprouts, coriander, mint, culantro, lime, Thai basil, and a chilli shrimp paste. The idea being you luxuriate the herbs in the broth at different intervals to reveal different sides to the dish as you go along. I enjoyed this theatrical approach to eating. I even had a go at using the oversized ladle! Although, I reckon after that I’ll go back to the spoon. 

Then I went book browsing in one of the lushest book stores I’ve ever seen – floor upon floor of books, shelves to the ceiling – did I ever mention I loved books? I had a member of  staff hunting around for an obscure out of print book about Licoricia of Winchester (to no avail) and then covetously browsed books on Edward I and II – which may just be one of my favourite episodes in medieval history. I kind of messed up the shelves a little bit on account of being too short to put the books back on the top shelf and then I mused about writing a work of fiction based on the life of Edward I. I’m still quite interested in the idea – but realistically I don’t think I’m the right person at the right time to write it. Never the less, the thought left me somewhat buoyant.

As evening set in, the light turned golden and we decided that one last coffee was in order, so we stopped at Fitzbillies on Bridge Street. I ordered up a latte and a ‘Duke of Cambridge’ which isn’t a euphemism, but a type of delicious chocolate biscuit (favoured by the Duke himself, apparently). I don’t know if that’s true – but, to be honest, I don’t see anyone not loving that calorific chocolatey creation. I’m craving one now just thinking about it. Then we strolled a few meters up to the bus stop and made our way back to the other city in Cambridgeshire, the bigger, but completely un-famous, Peterborough.


On Beaches: Brancaster

Brancaster beach is three thick splurges of colour, fudged onto a canvas by a thick-fingered God. Marked in front of me is the deep royal blue of the sky, the muddier cobalt of the ocean, and the creamy-yellow of sand metres deep. The tide has receded far out towards the horizon and instead of hearing the crush of waves against the shore, you hear the dangerous sibilance of sand, snaking out of formation and whipping across the shoreline onto bare legs. The hissing is mixed with the chatter of homo-sapiens and the screeching of gulls. But walking East, away from the chaos, the voices slowly drain away.
My picnic comprises of homemade strawberry lemonade, held in a flask with ice; a caramelised onion burger fresh off the griddle, topped with melted cheese on a bed of slaw; a jar of artichoke hearts in oil, eaten liberally with bare hands; and the whole feast is sprinkled with the salty crunch of sand. It isn’t the beach without a picnic and I like to pack well.

It was Sunday. The heat in the back garden blistered, so I decided a quick jaunt to the coast was in order to escape the mugginess of the inland air. The journey was uneventful. It was all screeching around corners on two wheels and overtaking traffic at 125 miles an hour. This was, of course, all undertaken on small country roads, in order to avoid the crawling A149 from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton. At Sainsbury’s, we picked up food supplies and the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. So with Mr Blue Sky rising out of the speakers, we descended through the small village of Brancaster and towards the dusky dunes.

Contemplating the roll of the ocean is rather a solitary habit – but kites and splashing and picnicking are group affairs. I am always torn between these social aspects of the shore and the introverted appeal of being alone with nature. I appreciate that other people want to go to the beach, but I wish they’d pick a different time to do so. And sometimes their conduct is baffling. Take for instance your typical beach seating arrangements.

Imagine – it’s 28C, the queue to the carpark takes 30min, the entrance paths are busy and filled with the stench of humanity, the toilets are badly cared for – someone has urinated everywhere. Where should I make camp for the day? You certainly wouldn’t pick that exact spot, would you now? Where the constant crush of the semi-dressed multitudes will traipse past you all day, and stare at your every move, scrutinising your pale flesh as it bakes in the heat. Thinking – are you sure you want to eat that? Are you sure you should wear that? Are you sure you should be shouting at your kids like that? Where the sand is saturated in sweat, cigarettes and other human debris. Where the natural beauty of the landscape is at its lowest. And yet that’s what everyone does – sitting on top of each other like the inhabitants of a Mega-city from Judge Dredd.

Why not walk for a few minutes? – could be five minutes, could be fifteen. Watch as the landscape changes and the beach gradually reveals more pristine sands, less clamour, and less screaming. Keep walking and the beach will clear completely. You’ll have your pick of the dunes to nestle into for the day; surrounded by a cocoon of sand and tranquillity. So I ask you, why sit by the entrance? I mean, I don’t really want to dissuade too many people from doing this – after all, this means I don’t have to walk as far to gain paradise. But, honestly? Why? And I don’t blame some – some cannot walk, have babies, are elderly or unwell. The rest of you though, I simply cannot fathom.

I want my beaches to be white on blue – lapis-lazuli on marble. 

Take a look at the picture above (excuse my charming sister circa 1996); this is my definition of a beach. This is the white sands and turquoise waters of a beach on the Western Isles of Scotland (I suspect Hosta or Sollas). It is a remote and out of the way kind of place. Unspoilt beauty here isn’t something that anyone has to hoard or fight over. It is provided free of charge, unasked for, and I was spoilt. In England, I’m hunting a rarity. Am I harking after this golden period – searching for what once was and will never be so again?

As I examine the picture more and more, I notice the fly tipping on the dunes, and remember the half-burnt rubbish, the rusted bed springs and chunks of charred fence posts. Funny how I’d forgotten about all that. The distance of memory having swept away the little details and left just those three crisp lines of colours.

In my search for this beach though, am I seeking out the ideal photograph, the ‘grammable jealousy maker? I’m not really a victim of FOMO (fear of missing out) – except on the sort of grand scale which is in no way created by social media. I get FOMO over the fact that I’m not sitting on the iron throne already, that I haven’t climbed Everest, that I’ve yet to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon, that I haven’t survived a zombie apocalypse, developed superpowers, saved the world or won an Olympic medal. Even in 1890, I’d have been a FOMO suffer, but I’m not a 2020 FOMO victim. I don’t really care about people’s terribly staged Instagram photos, or spending hours getting the perfect shot – or wearing a summer dress on a hike so I look good at the summit. I don’t feel like I’m missing out when I see these pictures. On the contrary, I think they are image hunters, as opposed to photographers enjoying their art. Never-the-less, is that me? Is this my mirror?

Instagram is an envy machine – it’s the green-eyed-monster from Shakespeare’s pen. It’s a creation that robs people of their happiness. Instagram is the external embodiment of jealousy. A few weeks ago I was in Tynemouth and a friend of mine asked me to take a picture of her – but it wasn’t just any old photograph. It was the perfect photograph. 150 tries later she was finally satisfied with the attempt to emulate another Instagram photograph she’d seen. She had a collection you see, of photographs that she wanted to copy, each one was beautiful, but I felt like she was missing the point. Thinking carefully about it though, I guess we were just telling different stories. One is weaving tales of other places and people, and one is about weaving a tale of self. She was telling a story about herself; there was an internal purpose. Whereas I always feel motivated by the other – an external purpose. Both narratives are as interesting and varied as each other, and yet strange when you don’t understand the other’s motivations.

There is, however, also an issue with perfection. The perfect gram versus the everyday snap. I preferred the old Instagram when the photographs were mundane and every day – they told stories of imperfect places, people and things. The artistic qualities sometimes weren’t there – but that didn’t matter because they said more than the studio staged and photoshopped lollipop coloured grams we are saturated in nowadays. I don’t think taking a hundred pictures to ensure you look perfect is the best way of going about it – but I guess that’s because my motivation is recording and not creating a story of self..  

Where I am?

No, where am I? I’ve woken up bleary-eyed, my sunglasses askew. I’m lying in a sand dune, the breeze blowing across my crisping skin. The sweet smelling sun lotion filling the air.

Beaches in the public consciousness are different to beaches in reality. Beaches in stories tend to kick start or end a story. In the Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, Coral Island, Lord of the Flies, the T.V. show Lost – they all start with their protagonists being washed-up on the beach – like a re-birthing in salt and fire. It is a transitional area of arriving and departing. In many ways, visiting a beach is like visiting a train station, but instead of staring at that Teletextesque screen revealing all the destinations up and down the country, we stare at the ocean.

If our geography is good, we can have a pretty good guess at where we will end up if we take a boat to the horizon and sail in a straight line, but if we bathe in ignorance, then the possibilities are endless. As we look at the horizon line, the one that marks the end of the known, we realise we are looking into the land of the imagination. This wonder is a far stronger lure for our brain to mull over than any memory of a real beach – than arguably the very physicality of being there. Being at that edge is a moment of potential. A moment of imagination. It fills us with the power of possibility.

Map of UK, Brancaster
Guardians of the Galaxy: Road Trip Sounds.
Norfolk, on the way to the beach.
Road, blue sky, to Brancaster.
Brancaster beach
Sand with sea shells: Brancaster beach, Norfolk
San Pellegrino on the beach

Sand dunes at Brancaster
Burger on the beach

The Flood: A Forgotten Village: Grimwith

I’d been to Grimwith Reservoir before and I remembered it being supremely walkable. And by that I mean it’s only a four and a half mile long circular; you might want a bottle of water and some trainers, but no other equipment is needed. There is no way to get lost – you just follow the reservoir round and round; and to top it all off – there is a free car park and a toilet block. If you like the wilds, this probably isn’t for you. Regardless its a beautiful country walk, flooded by geese who in the distance look like brontosauruses.

Moorland surrounds us – buoyant with heather, which springs with purple flowers like the tops of sprouting broccoli. This heather is burnt in the Autumn to promote spring growth for the grouse, but right now, it bounded across the hills.

The place had changed slightly in the last few years – when I was here before, the path was skinny and rocky. Rivers were only passable through the use of single file bridges – basically a plank of wood with sides. Now, they were so wide you could ride a quad bike over them. We started our walk towards the dam and finished by the old Grimwith House (undergoing some extensive renovations now, but last inhabited in 1970) – bright yellow flowers, neon, almost like the shine of the battenburgs on an ambulance, greeted us with swaying stems.

The deep blue waters masked the real colour of the waves. The deepest waters were a tremendous beef stock brown; when the waters were clear enough to see the rocks at the bottom, they coloured the milky stones with a red devil-like hue. The puddles we splashed through betrayed the broth like nature of the water. Faint yellow water came out the taps at our campsite and resembed urine. It was slightly off-putting. 

The reservoir was Victorian, built between 1856 and 1863, by the Bradford Corporation Waterworks to support factories and their worker population in the area. The small village of ‘Gate-Up’ was flooded, leaving unscathed a laithe, Grimwith House, and a couple of cottages above the water in the present day. A ‘laithe’ is the Viking name for a barn. This particular example was deemed important because they simply can’t build them like this anymore. There are no trees in the area large enough to create the ‘crucks’ (the long eaves). The heather thatching is also decidedly endemic. 

I liked Grimwith – despite its unsatisfactory name. It is the biggest patch of blue on the OS map of the Yorkshire Dales. Cars may be necessary – but you could feasibly walk there from Grassington as well. Check out the photos and enjoy.