The rising sun catches the wings of a seagull as it flies along the street at the level of the roof tops. It is not lost having been blown inland: Totnes lies at the tidal reaches of the Dart river, which joins the sea at Dartmouth, some twelve miles south of here.
Locals here will tell you about “the seal”. It seems to be some kind of right of passage to spot “the seal”; people may even ask you, “Have you seen the seal?” (although it is probably, in reality, more than one seal, but let’s go with the seal, it is more befitting of the place).
You can catch a river cruise from here to Dartmouth come summer. The Dart winds through fields and forests, passing a couple of waterfront pubs and smart boathouses, polite lawns rolling down to the river, then it seems to undergo a personality change as it widens to do a fairly good impersonation of a lake before entering the sea. On the way, just out of Totnes you will pass the wreck of the Kingswear Castle, a paddle steamer which once ran commercial voyages up and down the river. By 1927 it was moored in Dartmouth harbour as a hospital isolation ship, then towed to its final resting place here and left to rot as a hulk, a ghost ship perhaps still visited, they say, by some of the former TB patients.
It is hard to put your finger on what it is that is so likeable about Totnes. Maybe it is the way that it is quite natural here for strangers to say hello to each other in the street; or the fact that often, and it could even be on the same street, women of a certain age, wearing flowing skirts and with a far-away look in their eyes will smile at you, or chat about your dog as they pet him; perhaps the fact that some will tell you that Totnes is twinned with Narnia. This may go some way to explain why in 2018, when the Telegraph wrote about the town in its travel section, the article was entitled: Is this the most eccentric town in Britain? It is certainly a place at home in its own, rather unique, skin. One local declared independence and issued Totnes passports to inhabitants so they could remain in the EU. And then for a few years Totnes actually issued its own currency (the Totnes pound) which you could spend in some local shops, in an attempt to keep money in the local economy. As the Telegraph puts it:
This place has earned a reputation for a level of eccentricity beyond the usual cream tea and antiques shop fare that characterises a day trip in this part of the world – but in recent years it has also developed more pedigree and poise than many of its south-west siblings. Indeed, back in 2007 Time magazine hailed Totnes as the capital of New-Age chic, and today’s Totnesians are certainly a well-heeled bunch, who are likely to sport a black labrador with their multicoloured festival wear…
You certainly couldn’t describe it as an identikit town centre. Totnesians new and old fought a valiant battle to stop a Costa Coffee opening, which tells you how they feel about chain stores around here.
At the bus shelter a puffy face, heavy eyelids, and hair standing up in straight tufts, emerge from what seems to be a pile of clothes. Jack, who is actually wearing this mound of fabric, assures me that there is a huge drug problem in the town. He has left his housemates because they were doing too much coke. This is why he is sleeping here. Jack will be out busking on the high street today; he just needs to collect his guitar from a friend’s house. He’s been to the council to try to find accommodation, but he is a young, single male, so that will be a mañana then. We share an interest in 70’s music, Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the like, even though he is half my age.
The High Street, is in fact called Fore Street and climbs up from the bridge, past the Royal Seven Stars Hotel through the town centre to its castle peak. Independent shops and boutiques, interior furnishers, art galleries, wholefood or vegan cafes and gift shops crowd shoulder to shoulder along the pavements. Eastgate, the Elizabethan arched entrance to the walled town, straddles Fore Street – destroyed in a fire in 1990, but now rebuilt. The equally Elizabethan market is also still going strong every Friday and Saturday with its colourful characters touting clothing, plants, foods, antiques, collectables, hot food, and an array of unusual products. You may even be lucky and catch the farmers' food market once a month. Shrouded in a warm aroma of Nag Champa joss sticks mingled with hot punch and roasting chestnuts, the Christmas market takes over the whole street on Tuesday nights in December.
Close to Eastgate, outside number 51 Fore Street to be precise, you could be easily forgiven for stepping past, or even inadvertently on (since it was lowered by 18 inches to be flush with the street when Fore Street was widened in 1810) one of Totnes’ cherished historical landmarks: the Brutus Stone. This lump of granite has a (some say spurious) connection to the ancient explorer who is said to have founded Britain. According to legend, the Brutus Stone and the origins of Totnes stretch all the way back to ancient Troy. After accidentally killing his father, Brutus set off to Greece with his army of followers, where he defeated the king Pendrasu. The king gave Brutus his daughter to marry, and 324 well-stocked ships, at least one of which ended up on the River Dart. Following the advice of the oracle Diana, who suggested the Trojans should travel to an island in the Western Seas that was possessed by Giants, Brutus set sail for Great Britain – at the time called Albion. It was on the Brutus Stone that he made his proclamation: “Here I stand and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes,” after landing on Britain’s shores, undeterred by the giants and attracted to Totnes by its location and fish-filled rivers, and probably the New Age vibe of the place as well. Not only was Totnes named by Brutus, but it’s said he named Britain after himself. Or so they say. Whether or not Brutus stood on the stone, it’s a town custom that royal proclamations should be read there by the mayor.
Overlooking the town is the Norman motte and bailey castle. In its grounds there is graffitti on the trees left by prisoners of war during the Second World War. It is said to be one of the best surviving examples of an early Norman motte-and-bailey structure. But doesn’t every Norman castle claim that? It was built during the reign of William I. At the top of Fore Street the road takes a ninety degree turn to the left into the Narrows, where you will find the first zero packaging shop in the country. You bring your own containers to buy from here. And even weirder (this is Totnes after all), it is owned and run by a former Manchester United defender. OK, so Richard Eckersley only appeared twice for Man U, but he did play alongside Rio Ferdinand.
For lovers of spooky country tales the surrounding area is a fertile hunting ground. A couple of miles outside Totnes the village of Berry Pomeroy boasts a spooky, haunted castle, or rather a spooky, ruined, haunted castle – which makes it even better – where believers of the supernatural flock to the rubble in search of signs from the other side. Berry Pomeroy Castle has spawned tales of ladies in grey, spook lights, anomalous noises, unexplainable shadows, terrifying screams. cold spots and just about every other hallmark of supernatural activity that you may care to name. Tales of heroic brothers who, instead of accepting defeat in a battle, together rode their horses from the top of the ramparts to the precipice below. A Blue Lady, full of sorrow and vengeance after killing her baby fathered by her own father, luring people to her tower from which they then fall to their death. A White Lady whose jealous sister imprisoned her in the dungeon to forever wail and moan at the cruel punishment she received for being hotter than her sibling.
Or if you head a few miles further, up to Hound Tor on Dartmoor, then you can visit the legendary grave of Mary Jay, who, in the 18th century, was abandoned by her mother and given up to a local orphanage. She was given the surname J (or Jay) because she was the 10th girl to arrive at the orphanage. Until her teens Mary was content at the orphanage, living and taking care of the younger children, but living in disgrace as a penniless orphan. When she grew older, she was sent to Canna Farm near the neighbouring hamlet of Manaton to earn money. She was employed to work in the house as help, and also in the field as a labourer. At this point in her life, she was given the nickname Kitty, which had become synonymous with promiscuity. Shortly after she arrived at the farm, she was raped by a male farmhand and became pregnant. Cursed by the locals as a whore, she was forced to leave the farm, as no one would employ such a woman. With nowhere else to turn, she ended her life by hanging herself in one of the local barns. Since she had committed suicide, she was not allowed to be buried on church land. Instead, she was buried at the crossroads of three parishes, none of which would accept and bury her. Following her death, stories of haunting began immediately, as locals claimed a hooded figure often knelt by the grave in the moonlight. Legend asserts that the spirit of Kitty Jay haunts her grave and Dartmoor. Besides that, there are ghostly happenings around her grave; fresh flowers mysteriously appear on the grave every day, with no indication of who places them there.
Like so many other English provincial towns, Totnes lays its own claim to a few notable inhabitants. But being Totnes they are quite a quirky, diverse lot: from the author Mary Wesley who did not publish her first of a string of adult bestsellers until she was in her seventies, and lived and died in Totnes, through to Charles Babbage - mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer - who originated the concept of a digital programmable computer and had a strong family connection with Totnes attending the King Edward VI Grammar School here. Not to mention Rick Mayall. Nothing more needs to be said about him, other than that he fits this eccentric-genius-of-a-town perfectly. It is still early morning when I return from my amble around Totnes. The cries of the seagull are echoing away, backed by the chiming of the quarter hour from the church tower. There is a splash from the river, and for a moment I am convinced that I will finally catch a glimpse of the seal and become a proper Totnesian… but it is only the swan (that’s another story) flopping off its nest into the leat by the semi-island under the bridge. “Morning,” smiles a stranger as we pass mid-bridge. “Morning,” I reply. I am greeting a stranger. Maybe I am half way there, half-way-Totnesian. If I could just get one of those passports I would be on the home run. I’m sure of it.
(ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATASHA)
A man is bent double, his overall-clad body hidden from waist upwards submerged inside the engine of a tank. As the Mutawa approaches all he can see is the buttocks and legs of the man. He is saying something about this being the time of prayer and how the man should not be working at this hour. Al Mutawa are the religious police in Saudi Arabia, charged with enforcing the upholding of sharia law. He is now raising his voice, whilst the top and bottom half of the man carry on working. Shouting and fingering his stick the Mutawa is screaming for the man to get out and get praying. It will involve a beating and a night in jail for this infringement. Suddenly the top half pops out of the engine revealing a broad smile under a baseball cap, a double thumbs up and a broad Kentucky-voiced: ”Yo! What’s up bro?” Billy, our old friend with whom we caught up in Aqaba, as larger than life as ever, arriving in what he called “a beaten-up ol’ green Chevy”, with every single warning light illuminated and guzzling litre after litre of oil. It had taken him a long time to get through the border, where he tells us that cars can be literally stripped down, and left for you to reassemble – engines out and doors dismantled in the alcohol check. Al Matawa could not touch a westerner, non-Muslim, so Billy had escaped a beating and the officer had looked away, avoiding eye-contact and just carried on walking in silence. As an anniversary present, Billy stood us a night in a top hotel in Aqaba. Having decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary by coming back to the place where we were wed, and our daughter was born, we returned to Jordan. We had left when she was five months old, so it was also a great chance to show Iona her country of birth.
Catching up with Billy
Catching up with old friends is a great bonus to a travel. Carol has left our old school (now an UNHCR centre and refugee camp) and here she is now in the middle of the busy two lanes and three lines of cars all jostling for position, arms aloft and hands waving in the air. “This is the only way to cross,” she tells us. It should be noted that in getting to the restaurant where we had arranged to meet we ended up getting a cab to cross the four lanes. It was just so busy in each direction so we had asked the cabbie to take us up to the roundabout and back to the other side. I had asked him to put on the meter. It is one of the Arabic phrases I remembered. “How much money you got?” was his response. After a short debate we simply got out.
Amman is cleaner than we remembered it being. And a lot busier with regard to the traffic. Now everyone has house numbers and their streets have names, so a whole new world has opened up since we left. Addresses were always PO Box numbers and you told taxi-drivers a local landmark, like a bakery or the nearest named main street. Now they can have home delivery from the supermarkets, home delivery takeaway meals and a private, reliable, cheap minicab service has started.
Two weeks is plenty of time to visit old haunts and see some highlights of the country. We had seen these before, floated in the Dead and snorkelled the reefs of the Red, Petra etc. but Iona had not. There are however, always new ways of seeing things, new highlights, pleasures. In Aqaba the sun puts me in mind of a great orange pool ball slipping into a pocket as it sinks into the hills of Israel above Eilat. At the Dead Sea the sunset is peaceful beyond compare.
Or marvelling at the sophisticated underground sewage system and earthquake-tumbled, columned streets of Jerash; the ancient Nabatean hieroglyphs and stunning landscape of Wadi Rum.
Drinking coffee roasted over an open fire then ground in a mebash (large mortar made from a decorated hollowed out log with a long club shaped wooden pestle) and listening to stories from our Bedouin hosts was another new pleasure. Staying in Bedouin camps is to be recommended.
In October 2018 the Jordan Times reported:
It goes without saying that Amman has a large traffic problem and the gridlock on the city’s streets is getting worse… you need to spend one hour to take a ride that should usually take you fifteen minutes.
So that is the context of my experience of driving around Amman, as well as up and down the country. And here below are ten things I have learnt about driving in Jordan.
- Whereas the relatively new initiative to give names to all streets can be helpful and denotes a certain unusual level of sanity with regard to driving around here, you will still be seen as mad if you ask for a seat belt, or use indicators.
- Do not be surprised if a small boy runs repeatedly across the street in front of you to fly his kite.
- The number of lines of cars bears little relationship to the number of marked lanes.
- Overtaking is just one way to pass a car in front of you – why not just undertake (even if this involves the creation of a whole new one-car-line-of-traffic, which only requires a 2 cm clearance between the sides of your car and the two moving vehicles either side of you)? And if you ever find yourself wondering whether that car will pull out in front of you, or cut you up, the answer will almost certainly be “YES!”
- Taxi drivers will shift mountains to get you there as quickly as possible as part of the service – the slow pace of relaxing on holiday is not relevant – and so the art of weaving at speed between multiple lines of traffic should be seen as the mark of good taxi-driving.
- Whatever you can physically get onto the back of your pick-up is permissible: precariously-balanced overloaded cargo; camels tied to the cab; horses tethered in the same way, manes streaming in the wind; wives and children.
- If your car does not have air conditioning, you can always drive with one hand holding open your door to maximise ventilation.
- If you miss your turning on the highway you can always do a U-turn and drive back along the hard shoulder.
- The crawler lane on hills may be unusable due to the presence of fruit or vegetable sellers’ stalls.
- Taxi drivers have perfected the art of smoking, talking on the phone and driving simultaneously.
On a plus note: petrol is cheap.
In Bedouin tradition, any stranger can turn up at the door (if tents have doors) and receive free lodging for three days without even being asked their name. After that time, questions may be asked. Coffee is roasted slowly and cardamom is ground separately to add at the end of the process. This negates the effects of caffeine. In the grinding, the pestle thumps against the neck of the mebash in an intricate regular rhythm, like the beat of a bongo drum. The coffee is brewed with water boiled over a brush wood fire and poured from a long-beaked brass pot into porcelain thimble-size cups or small cups that look like egg cups. The host always drinks first to prove that there is no poison present. A guest customarily accepts three servings. Bedouins signal they have had enough to drink by twisting the cup back and forth with their wrist. Imagine sitting in a large, comfortable tent on black and red-patterned floor cushions around an open fire, the aroma of the coffee roasting on a long-handled pan, while the host tells you about these traditions. After the grinding an old Bedouin man sings and plays a rebab (one-stringed bowed instrument) while the coffee brews. If you can imagine that, then you can come close to understanding the feeling that Jordan leaves me with on this return visit after ten years away.
Krk is a beautiful Croatian island in the northern Adriatic Sea, near Rijeka and we did a long drive there in Peaches from Bratislava one summer.
It has quite a diverse, rich cultural history: once ruled by the Romans, then the Croats before returning to Italy under the control of the Venetians. After the decline of Venice, the Austrians took control, but subsequently Italy briefly tried to take it back during the second World War before Nazi occupation. Yugoslavia and then Croatia were the post war rulers. It is a rocky, hilly island and also a lovely location to camp for a while. Today the Middle Chakavian dialect of Croatian is the primary dialect used on the island. Up to 1898 (the day the last speaker of Dalmatian language, Tuone Udaina died), five languages were spoken on the island: Middle Chakavian, Venetian, Croatian, Dalmatian, and Istro-Romanian.
After queuing to get over the famously long concrete bridge to get on to the island we set up camp on a rural seafront site and I started to cook the dinner while the girls went off to explore the beach front. I enjoyed the cooking and sat down to read for a bit. I read quite a lot. Then I fiddled about on the guitar. And read a bit more. Beers were drunk and I started to get a bit annoyed at the time they had been gone. Then worried. Finally, a man on a moped pulled to a halt outside the camper. “You must come with me. Your daughter is hurt. I have been looking for you for a long time.”
It was a shock. The site was quite large and he had only been given a description of Peaches, for Tash had no idea of exactly how to describe the location, having only just arrived and meandered this way and that towards the sea. So I sat on the back of this moped, wondering just how bad the injuries were. I found them in a seafront bar. Iona had tripped and gashed her forehead on a sharp bit of the undulating, uneven concrete, depositing bits of gravel into her skin and had been bleeding profusely. An ambulance had been called and turned up very soon. It was hard to assess the extent of the injury due to the amount of blood that had gushed from her forehead. The paramedics were delightful and spoke good English. They were kind to Iona and manged to calm our fears of a serious injury. It involved a couple of butterfly stitches and keeping an eye on her for the next few hours. They drove us back to Peaches. We had no money to pay the bill, but they told us where to go the next morning to a cashpoint and then a medical centre to settle it. So all in all the Venetians, or Romans, or Austrians, or Yugoslavs, or Croats, or Germans or whatever it was that these people were, looked after us well. We enjoyed the rest of our time on Krk.
1971, Cairo, Egypt. My Dad was at the time an academic at the university of Surrey and somehow got sent to the university of Cairo. He worked there leaving my mum to look after us three boys. He wrote postcards to each of us and some very lovey-dovey letters on thin blue specialised airmail paper that folded up to make the envelope to my Mum. Whilst there he became aware of the Egyptian government’s drive to control rural population and how it involved enforced sterilisation of women. So he came up with a scheme to initiate work projects so that the women in villages had more to do than sit around all day getting pregnant. Actually, maybe “sitting around” is not quite the expression I need here. No matter. You know what I mean… Apparently it worked and after the pilot projects he was invited back to work for the government there. He flew back on an Egyptian Air plane and when he landed there was an announcement that “Mr Bakteer” was kindly requested to exit via the rear door. Eventually he worked out that “Mr Bakteer” was in fact him, Mr Baxter, and politely complied. He was shocked at walking down the steps onto a red carpet and finding himself shaking hands with an official looking gentleman. They chatted about his work and mutual places in England that they both loved. Only afterwards someone asked him if he knew who he had just been chatting to. It turned out to be Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, who was thankful for his humanitarian approach to rural population control.
So shortly after, on a subsequent visit to Egypt, he was able to take the whole family with him. I can date this precisely to 1972 because the Tutankhamen treasures were in London at the time we were there. There was plenty else to see in the Cairo museum, including the mummy of Ramases III whose bony arm was known to raise in a ghostly fashion when the heat got too much for him and expanded the corpse . We flew on BOAC and the plane developed engine problems so we ended up having to stay for a night in a swish hotel in Zurich. All quite exciting in the middle of the night. We got a pack of cards on the plane. The next day we flew to Cairo but because of the odd hours we arrived in the mid-day heat. This was generally avoided because the heat at that time of day tended to throw aeroplanes up as they landed, so it was quite a hairy, bumpy experience. In fact the plane was the same one that we had flown on the day before because the ground crew could not find any problems with it. Over the Mediterranean one of the engines had failed and started smoking. The plane plummeted thousands of feet before the pilot regained control, whilst the man next to my Mum calmly told her, “Don’t worry, these things glide quite nicely.”
The university had arranged a flat near the Nile river on a busy road. My Dad’s friend and colleague, Tom Hollingsworth was around as were other of his acquaintances from his earlier travels to the country. Tom and my Dad had obviously formerly had a bachelor-boy abroad relationship which was quite fun to be around. Tom told us how he had taken a mouthful of the Nile-caught fish on a hydrofoil trip, then turned it over to find it crawling with what he described as worms. We were invited to the house of one of my Dad’s other local colleagues where the teenage daughters spent the whole evening try to grab the small blond boys and kiss them. Eeeuw, we thought at the time. People in the street were always trying to kiss us on our blond heads. It doesn’t happen so much now to my grey head. Looking back, I could have made more of this! We played football on the balcony of the family’s flat and later down on the street with the street gang. Another colleague was a German man, Franz, who had lived in Cairo for a while. He was a professional-standard chess player who would suddenly do five moves for both players and say “And that’s how you will check-mate me”. His entire family had been killed in the bombing raids the English made on German cities, but he and his wife, Etta, were incredibly kind to us.
We all headed off to Alexandria for a break. Tom came with us and the hotel had a cage lift running up the centre of the lobby/restaurant. We used to have a sweeps on how long the first course would take to arrive, and my mum dutifully delivered the exhausted children one by one back up to the room as the tiredness became too much. I don’t think any of us three boys made it through to the dessert course. Habitually it took over an hour for each course to arrive.
Of course we visited the pyramids and the Cairo museum and the zoo. At Giza my Dad bought us a camel ride around the Great Pyramid. But the guy disappeared, freaking my mum out somewhat, with the three of us on the back of his camel. He had taken us back to his house to show his wife the three blond boys and take some photos. At the museum one of the guides tried to give my Dad one of the ancient artefacts. We were taken down hundreds of steps into a tomb and the guide wanted to take us further. My Mum declined. I later learnt that she was worried about scorpions. We climbed up the lower parts of the Great Pyramid and I remember that the blocks came up to my shoulder. The Khan el-Khalili souq was amazing to walk around, each area specialising in certain goods, and the usual glasses of mint tea in shops were an unforgettable early experience.
We were made to take a siesta at the hottest part of each day. It rarely worked. How could it for children under ten? So there would be cross words and tellings off and much “GO TO SLEEP”-ings. I don’t think any of us ever slept for even one second. We were also completely freaked out by the cockroaches we shared our flat with. We also detested the “foul” (a dish of pureed fava beans) and the sticky dates we were constantly finding ourselves served with. One day, after one of the usual arguments about us boys not being interested in a siesta, I took one of the dreaded dates and put it in one of the dark corners next to the front door. I then screamed merry hell about the cockroach in the hallway. My Dad came manfully running and dutifully whacked the date hard with his shoe. I called him a Brussels sprout for some reason (I think I wanted to be really rude after all those enforced siestas and that was the best I could come up with) and told him that he had just done me a favour and whacked one of those horrible dates.
My Mum used to sit in the back of taxis, gripping each of the rear doors to stop them from flying open and depositing us on the street, and the one we took back to the airport was memorable for my older brother sneezing for the entire half hour journey, which impressed the driver mightily. I have been back to Egypt since then, but this was my first travel out of Europe and lives in my memory as one of the best. Who, at the age of nine, would ever forget that?
I was there in the late nineties; we did all of those normal things people do there, and it makes me think that there is a bit of a formula thing to Sri Lanka tours… but on the stomach thing… my son was 3 years old, lived off poppadoms and profiteroles (he famously ate 11 for breakfast) and was never ill. We paddled in the sea and got swept off our feet from ankle deep in a couple of seconds by a big but apparently normal wave and I was lucky to catch him as we were swept out. The waiter in the hotel, of a certain age, reluctantly confessed to dying his hair because he would loose his job if he were ever to go grey. We broke the rules and brought a durian back into the hotel room. Some people love them, but for me it smelled and tasted like a sewer, or what a sewer would taste like – I have never tasted one … obviously. It was also a spiky devil that was nearly impossible to break into. Wish I had not have bothered really. My daughter at 4 had a massive fall out with our friends’ son of the same age over whether the sky was blue or grey and I loved the second hand book stalls in Colombo where the books were old and smelled of mildew. We ate vege curries and none of us were ill. On the drive up to Kandy our tame-adopted-taxi-driver told us on the way back that the road was very dangerous for walkers at night because many snakes came down to the warm tarmac. The elephant procession was impressive. We visited a Victorian machine-clanking tea factory and a herb garden on the way… saw toddy tappers climb coconut trees and walk along high suspended ropes and bring down the hooch and bought some gemstones. The elephant orphanage was cracking and Kandy was sublime. All in all I enjoyed it, although the tourist route did seem a bit formulaic. I’d like to go back again but this time travel independently.
- So you need to go and check this out for the first reason. I can not even begin to express how proud I was of her for these weekends.
2. My daughter told me yesterday that her friend at school (older by one year), with an incredulous look on her face, did not know who Barack Obama was.
3. Iona (nee Mollie) was delighted to see the Donald Trump toilet paper I had put in the bathroom. I had to tell her that she was rationed to one sheet per visit.
4. She was up for drawing pictures of Trump based on this (although I had not mentioned any Trump mistresses to her).
5. Iona also has a much better hit rate for countries visited to years of age than I have. At 55 years, I have 80%. At nine years she has nearly 266% (24 countries for 9 y.o.).
6. She has always understood, even from when tiny, when our wanderlust is kicking in…
She also loves her doggie (PHOTO BY NATASHA):
I had a dream last night and it was so vivid I just wrote it down as a short story. Please don’t analyse this!
TQ9ers – a Tale from Totnes
Hey Abs, meet me at the top of the wiggly path. Got something to tell you…
The message was from her best friend, Iona. It was strange. They almost always walked to school down in Totnes together in the mornings anyway. It must be important, if she had to make sure of it and leave a bit early this morning.
The girls exchanged a greeting as a determined, sliding drizzle began to dapple their faces from the direction of the river Dart. They headed down the zig-zag path that led from their modern estate to the river. Normally they would cut the corners and walk more directly down the hill, but today it was sodden and muddy, and theirs was a school that would not take kindly to them arriving covered in mud. Even if they were to arrive with muddy shoes they were likely to get a dressing down, and probably a phone call home. That’s the sort of school it was. The education was good, but the views were quite old-fashioned. The parents liked that. That is what they paid for. Smart uniforms and, on the face of it at least, exemplary behaviour and manners.
“Only our school thinks that it knows better than everyone else and ignores a bank holiday,” complained Abigail. “Pricks.”
“But get this: McGonagall isn’t even going to show up! She’s taken the day off, the sly cow.” This was what the girls called the head teacher on account of a vague resemblance to Maggie Smith who plays the character in the Harry Potter films, even though she was a good few years younger. “My Dad saw it on the web page.”
“How fair is that!” Abi watched a drop of water run down her friend’s cheek. It was getting heavier and they huddled up against the wind which was sending the rain at a forty five degree angle now. It seemed determined to batter and soak them. They walked more quickly and had to raise their voices against the moans of the weather.
“Listen, I’ve got a plan, that’s why I texted you. I’m going to throw a sickie. I intend to be gone by break time. You should do the same. I’ll act out a fever, I’m good at that, and you just say the English have landed.” The girls at Leatside Independent Day School had learned in French that this was an expression derived from the Redcoats’ bloody fights against Napoleon which means that a girl has her period. Abi frowned. She wasn’t sure. What would their parents say? How would they get away with it?
Iona Meehan was destined for great things. Her quiet intelligence was not apparent at first. But she was a shrewd listener who generally got what she wanted, simply by working out other people’s feelings and what the stumbling block was. Or what the sweetener could be. She had even got herself a false Facebook account so that she could get an invite to TQ9ers – a private residents’ group to which their Head Teacher belonged. This was for what she termed “information gathering purposes”. For sure Iona was destined for success.
She stopped and turned to her friend, putting one hand on her shoulder so that Abi had to stop too and look her in the eye, her back to the wind now.
“We could meet those Spanish boys.” They had exchanged mobile numbers with some of the language students who often came here to learn English, two days previously. Abi had been particularly taken by one of them. They crossed the bridge where the conversation had started and it was at exactly this point that Iona dropped this suggestion. She was aware of the extra persuasion the location would add. One of the boys had picked up a torn flyer for the anti-Brexit march and stuck it back on the wall using the gum he was chewing. He had smiled at them and said,
“We need you in Europe. We are friends.”
“I agree. But you do know that we are twinned with Narnia in this town, don’t you?” Abi had laughed. The Spanish student had enough cultural knowledge to understand the joke, or had been told about the place before his visit. It was indeed said that the town was twinned with Narnia and it was hardly surprising that views on Europe between the Spanish boy and the girl from Totnes coincided. There was even a man from the town who had declared independence, made EEC Totnesian passports and distributed them to people free of charge.
And that is how it had started. They had all ended up going for a coffee together and had swapped numbers.
“McGonagall can hardly complain, being as how she’s taken the day off herself.”
So Abi was persuaded. By mid-morning the two had executed their plan. The rain had stopped and the clouds were moving away. She had had little trouble persuading the school nurse that she was suffering a rather intense bout of stomach pains. Iona had dishevelled herself, spent the first lesson looking miserable and listless, then made her cheeks red with hot water before going to the sick bay.
As agreed, they met in the café by the market place. A warm aroma of Nag Champa joss sticks and patchouli, mingled with fresh coffee fell about her like a heavy blanket as Abi walked in. Iona was already sitting at a table. Her phone sat next to a large slice of banana cake and she was smiling.
“Hi, I’ll just get myself something.” Abi returned with a huge whipped-cream-topped mug of hot chocolate and a slice of cake. She sat down beside her friend.
“So you got out OK?”
“Piece of cake.”
“So, shall we ring them?”
“Let’s eat first.”
The phone buzzed. Iona took it up and swiped the screen. She frowned.
“I don’t know really.” She handed the phone to Abi to read the message. It was a post on TQ9ers Facebook page from their head teacher:
You would have been 10 today. We miss you and think of you every day. I love you. You were only three when you left us, but I thank you for every minute of your short life, for the love and for the joy you gave us. Sleep well, my darling,
We had to hire a car to see this country – and to escape the threats of violence along with demands for money from a man who targeted us and appeared every time we left the hotel. This hotel, where the package tour company sent us, was plagued by many of these rather aggressive “bumsters” as they call them… We asked the company rep to change hotels, but with no joy. Although she did arrange a part-time police presence for a couple of days outside the entrance.
Some of the European “ladies”, of a certain age would hang out in the bar up the road with young local men. They danced together. We did not hang around to see what happened next. It was a bit of a sleezy place.
We had been warned on the tourist bus from the airport to “take it easy” with the locals, but one young girl in the bar told us she had hooked up with a local guide. He had shown her around, even taken her to his village to meet his family. He was somehow different from the others she told us. Her instinct told her so. She just felt it. We met her on the bus back to the airport. He had just disappeared the previous day. So had her phone and cash.
The guide asked everyone to fill out a survey to win a free tour back to the Gambia. “Who wants to win?” he cried. At least three “NOT ME”s were heard from somewhere on the bus. The problems are caused by the incredible poverty gap between the tourists and the local population and despite the tourist bucks, the money mostly ends up back in the hands of western companies and the hotels they own. Meanwhile it is one of the poorest countries in Africa for the vast majority of Gambians.
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This is me and my dear friend Jennifer, who for some reason didn’t like her vocals and swore like the Canadian trouper she is at the end of the song… personally I felt honoured to work with a singer like this.
Well I sort of liked Hungary. My first experience was when we had just picked up Peaches the campervan in the UK and drove back to Slovakia where we were living. It appealed to see some new countries so we went to Sopron (“Shop-ron”) for a bit. Hungarian pronunciation has and remains a bit of a mystery to me – much like Irish Gaelic. But anyway, we found ourselves in a pretty town on the southern edges of Lake Neusiedl/Lake Fertő near the Austrian border. The waiter was kind to our daughter in the café we ate in, but like any free-spirited two-year-old she was having none of it and ignored his efforts.
Who would have thought that in the end the Iron Curtain would be brought down not with a bang, but with basketfuls of sandwiches and hot dogs?
And yet that is what happened. On August 19, 1989 it was agreed to hold a “Pan-European Picnic” just outside Sopron, right on the border with Austria.
The idea was to open the border for about three hours and allow people to cross unchecked into Austria, taking a step further a process started two months earlier when Hungary and Austria, in the physical form of Gyula Horn and Alois Mock, had picked some notables to take some clippers and symbolically cut through the barbed wire.
The picnic organisers reckoned on a crowd of several thousand (it was over 10,000) who would come to enjoy the removal, albeit temporarily, of the once impregnable Iron Curtain. But they did not foresee about 600 canny East Germans who, hearing what was planned, thought they would take full advantage of the situation and escape to the West. The Hungarian border guards turned a blind eye and let the East Germans through. Although the border was subsequently resealed, a chain of events had been set in motion that led, less than three months later, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Today the site of those dramatic scenes is touted as an “international tourist attraction”. A lone watchtower – from which soldiers were at one time authorised to fire – is a reminder of how things once were.
Sopron – a delightful town dating back to Roman times that contains a wealth of medieval, baroque and rococo architecture “second only to that found in Budapest itself”. Sopron has another unique selling point: very Liechtensteinian in its quirkiness. The town has some 300 dentists and, while much of the trade comes from nearby (much more expensive) Austria, many of the practices now cater for English-speaking clients. There are worse places you could go to get your teeth seen to.
And then for us there were frequent trips from Bratislava for weekends in Budapest. Budapest is beautiful, and the locals will tell you that the most beautiful women in the world are from Hungary. On one trip, our daughter ran off down the train into a carriage where I met my now lifelong friend, Eric, a worryingly tall Californian who ran a language school in the capital. He was hospitable and invited us back to his flat. We were staying in a hotel on Andrassy – a wide main street where you could imagine the military parades of the communist era, so vividly depicted in the “Museum of Terror” , which showed in graphic detail the sufferings of the local population under first the Nazi, then the Russian occupations. Here there is a whole enormous wall of photograph portraits of the “disappeared” behind a real live Soviet tank, and rooms depicting the various offices of the various occupiers. Well-written leaflets in several languages tell the whole story. At the end of Andrassy lies Heroes Square, replete with soldiers in unfathomably clean boots and teenagers doing tricks on their mountain bikes, along with Roma beggars and passing tourists. Cross the bridge towards the Buda side of the two cities (Buda and Pest) and there is a funicular railway up to the lovely city on the hill. The taxi drivers from the station we found to be complete sharks and would drive you around for a good half hour for what should have been a five or ten minute ride.
My Dad, who was dying from cancer and walking with a stick, and my mum came to visit us in Bratislava. I knew it would not be long so wanted to show them the best of the region: time in Bratislava, trips to Vienna and Budapest but most of all time together. He was famous for accosting any random stranger and having their life story, family history and occupation of their father within a few short minutes. He did this a lot. Including on our trip to Budapest where I had found “bargain” accommodation behind one of those doorways that always make you wonder: “I wonder what it’s like behind there?” Well the answer was that the doorway was ornate and the building was a rambling old set of apartments that, judging by the ones we stayed in, were poverty-stricken ex-grand residences with electrical issues that freaked my wife out for the sake of our daughter. We ended up fashioning an outside table to eat at in the courtyard from the building debris that was left around and actually did quite a good job of this. It was interesting to wonder up the spiral staircase to explore the rest of the ancient building and Tash took some fabulous photos of puddles reflecting the impressive buildings all around. Up in a restaurant in Buda some very accomplished classical/folk musicians came and serenaded us and my Dad made friends on the street. The subway system was fabulous and the trains there were reminiscent of miniature Victorian toy trains. The escalators ran so fast, clanking in a surprisingly pleasing way, that we had to hold on to my Dad’s arm when getting on or off them.
On another occasion we stayed in a hotel with a roof top pool heated by thermal waters. How amazing it was to swim on this roof top, overlooking the snowy tiled roofs of Budapest on a freezing winter’s evening. Some Russian businessmen were there also. They led the way in their swimming habits, afterwards going to lie on the snow capped “sun loungers” on the roof top terrace and rubbing the good white stuff all over the corporately corpulent bodies. No matter; there was always the Christmas market a short distance below where the delicious punches could warm you to your very boot-tips.
Taking the train down from Bratislava we would pass the Danube Bend, where you could see the impressive basilica at Esztergom, just as the Slovak train crew were being replaced by Hungarians. You can see it from all around. Here it takes nine seconds for the reverberation echo to cease if you shout into its dome. Not that you would want to embarrass yourself in that way. One weekend we took off from Bratislava and camped here. The site had no electrical hook ups, but the accommodating owners ran a cable from their office to help us out and I got bitten by a snake as I put my hand into the wood pile to restock the campfire.
On the way down to Croatia we stopped once at Revfulop (I think the Hungarian pronunciation may well be something like “Burnham-on Sea”) on Lake Balaton. The campsite was a perfect lakeside location and the people there seemed rather more over-fed than the misnomer “Hungary” would suggest phonetically. Another favourite haunt was the thermal swimming pool in Gyor (“Gee-yer”) where the thermal spring fed the inside pool and you could swim out of the archway to the outside, perfectly warm in the water, even in the snow. You had to remember to take Forint down with you as they did not have Euros there. Eric called me a common tourist when I mistakenly referred to the currency as “Florint”, which made a lot more sense to me. And then we come to the way in which we saw the Hungarians dealt with the refugees when we were working on the Austro-Hungarian border down there. Neither country came out covered in glory from this, although I do know that some groups were doing some very philanthropic work down in Budapest with the multitude of migrants who found themselves camping out around Keleti Station in Budapest.
My Dad fell down into the street in Bratislava. He was lucky it was a weekend. He stumbled, and spiraled downwards in slow motion, grabbing at a bollard on the edge of the pavement on the way and then fell into the (weekday busy) road still in slow motion; he had cracked a rib on his camera as landed on the tarmac. He was as stoic about the whole episode as he was about the dive we ended up in in Budapest when we went there together. And I think that if you are stoic then you will like Hungary. It has suffered a great deal from Russian and Nazi occupations. It treats minorities appallingly – Roma and more recent refugees. But for me, somehow it charms and fascinates.