Travels in Times of Covid, 7: The Ancient Highway

An ancient highway connects Deal with neighbouring Sandwich. With my daughter Annabelle, her husband Ben and their daughters, Lara and Poppy, I spent the afternoon of Wednesday 2nd September strolling the full length of it. The route of the Highway peregrinates more or less due north, partly on a metalled road, partly on a by-way and partly on a footpath. Passing the clubhouse of the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club and some farm buildings on the edge of Deal’s built environment, the Ancient Highway progresses, between three consecutively overlapping golf links on its seaward side and marshy farmland on its landward, into the suburbs of the Cinque Port of Sandwich. The undemanding walk, while pleasant enough, had little in it to provoke my attention. The three championship Golf Clubs must hold interest for people who take pleasure from whacking around them but tees, fairways and greens have little about them to command my attention. Nor do flat, marshy fields, etched with streams and dykes, admit much to hold my interest.

Mary Bax’s Stone, is an exception. On a Sunday morning, 25th August 1782, twenty-three year old Mary Bax, was walking the Ancient Highway from Deal towards Sandwich near to the Chequers Inn. She was carrying a bundle. Martin Laas, a Norwegian sailor, accosted her, demanding she give him her bundle. She refused. To gain possession of the bundle, he killed her. Unbeknown to Laas, the murder was witnessed by a young lad who had been sheltering in a nearby hut. When Laas was out of sight, the lad ran to the Chequers Inn to raise the alarm. The following day, Laas was found, with Mary’s bundle beside him, asleep in a churchyard at Folkestone, twenty miles away. He was duly arrested, tried, found guilty and executed; a twenty-three year old life accounted for with one of twenty-seven years. Although it is believed that Mary was not buried there, a stele, half hidden amongst rank weeds and grasses, yet marks this woebegone place.

At Sandwich we strolled streets defined by the river on one side and on the other by high, red-brick walls behind which fine Georgian houses could be glimpsed in part through their open gateways.

Looking forward to refreshment, we made for the Bell Hotel, a large Victorian pile one side of which faces the fourteenth-century Barbican, the fifteenth-century Crispin Inn and the sixteenth-century Admiral Owen pub. An unhappy-looking young woman, standing beside a small table bestrewn with bottles of hand disinfectants and rolls of paper towels, guarded an open gate to a paved hotel courtyard.

Had we a booking? She asked, rather dourly. Not having previously booked we were condemned to sit at one of the outside benches. After a long wait, a young man appeared to take our order. We were, he told us, too late to order food. Mildly disappointed, we settled for drinks. Not unreasonably, the children complained about being hungry.

An appetising aroma wafted from a nearby fish and chip shop. Ben wandered off to investigate, returning to the table a few minutes later with two boxes of chips, one for each of his esurient daughters. The effect of his handing these innoxious-looking boxes to his children was similar to that experienced by Alladin when he rubbed his magic lamp, except that, in the yard of the Bell Hotel, rather than a benevolent genie, three Pharisaic members of staff instantly appeared to order the extrinsic boxes off the premises. The boxes, they insinuated, might possibly be infected with covid virus.

We had no regrets about leaving this over-managed establishment and repaired at once to the river bank where, untrammelled by officious covid apparatchiks, the children enjoyed eating their improbably contaminated boxes of chips.

We ended our stroll by making our way through the mediaeval alleys and streets of Sandwich to its train station, its platforms lengthened and buildings refurbished in advance of the covid cancelled 2020 British Open Golf Championship, from where we rattled the six-minute train journey back to Deal.

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Travels in Times of Covid, 6: Dealvelopment

To the south of Deal, streets of terraced and semi-detached residences merge imperceptibly with neighbouring settlements; Walmer, Mill Hill, and Shoulden. To the north, the built environment ends abruptly at the scant remains of sixteenth-century Sandown Castle, beyond which the links of three well supported golf clubs stretch for several miles along the coast to Sandwich.

Deal’s oriental limit, the English Channel , is an absolute. A thalassic obstacle, impregnable by developers however indurate they may be. Only the town’s thousand-foot long pier proturberates from Deal’s eastern boundary. The present pier is the third. The first, a wooden structure built slightly to the north, succumbed to the ravages of the sea and, interestingly, to a sand-worm peculiar to this coast. The pier collapsed before it was completed. The second pier, constructed using cast and wrought iron, served purpose from its opening in 1864 until January 1940 when, during a violent storm, some of its supports were struck and broken by the drifting wreck of a Dutch coaster which had collided with a drifting German mine which exploded terminally damaging the vessel. Initially beached near to the pier, a further storm had lifted the wreck back into the sea where it was driven into the pier’s supports. When, a few months later, the fall of France called for sea defences to be strengthened, the remains of the pier were blown up to allow onshore batteries a clearer view of the channel. The third, present, reinforced concrete pier was opened in 1957. In January 2019 a new, elegant, RIBA award winning café opened at the end of the pier.

Deal pier is one of very few to have been built around British coasts since the war and is the only pier left in Kent. The pier at Ramsgate was demolished in 1930 and that at Margate, closed on safety grounds in 1976, was wrecked by a storm in 1978. After several failed attempts to destroy what remained of the pier with explosives, it was finally dismantled in 1998.

Only to the west of Deal do edgelands provide opportunities for property developers to sate their rapaciously ambitious appetites. Homes which until recently looked onto farmland now back onto a ‘new build’ estate. Elsewhere in the town a substantial estate of homes, offices and shops is presently being built on several acres of previously unused ground. Susceptibility to flooding had, hitherto, preserved these acres from being built on. Presumably the developer has been required to address the drainage nodus. A marshy field or two further to the west of this aggregation of buildings the same property development concern has bought Betteshanger Park, hundreds of acres of former colliery land, presently a public amenity. Unless there is material profit to be returned, property companies cannot afford altruism. This being so, I expect Betteshanger Park to undergo substantial changes sooner rather than later.

On Tuesday 1st September, I took a stroll with Annabelle through residential streets where an interesting amalgam of Georgian, Victorian, twentieth century and recently constructed homes reflect the outward sprawl of Deal’s built environment. We strolled into a new estate where, although only recently occupied, the houses have a faded look about them. Untended, weedgrown communal garden beds, despite having been planted for no more than a couple of years, are presently very draggle-tailed. Through the estate, we walked around one of suburban Deal’s few remaining cultivated fields. The field, now bounded on three sides by residential and commercial buildings can, I fancy, have but a limited agricultural future.

A broad old hedge lines the far side of the cultivated land. Beyond this wild oasis, flows a stream on which I watched moorhens paddle the water under dragonflies, which darted through dappled sunlight to flash sparkling rainbows from their diaphanous wings. A path passes through the hedge, bridging the stream to issue back into residential and light industrial suburbs. Strolling through these places I ruminated abstractly, poring over imagined stories of the lives of people who populate this parochial, pleasant, peaceful, coastal community.

Travel in Times of Covid, 5: Betteshanger Country Park

Formerly a coal mine spoil tip, Betteshanger Country Park is a large open space; hundreds of acres of fenced, controlled, warden-patrolled, public playground, a palliative paregoric for the third estate. The park’s web-site is mazed with unintelligible psychobabble. From it I have learned only that Tamsin is ‘Head of Development, and Dean is the, ‘Estates and Facilities Team Leader’. I cannot imagine what these people, or other members of the interestingly labelled ‘Team’, do to earn their livings. Whatever, I hope they find it fulfilling.

Betteshanger village, with its unusually attractive Victorian church, is a diminutive wooded island of bucolic beauty in an ocean of landscape desecration. The village is old; mentioned in the Doomsday Book. Early in the twentieth century deposits of coal were discovered deep under land centred there. In the late 1920s a coal mine, which was to become the largest in Kent, was sunk nearby to reduce the purlieu of the village to desolate wasteland.

From its opening, the mine was blighted by hostility. Initially, genteel indigenous locals objected to having large numbers of considerably less refined miners drafted from distant places into their communities. Some of the miners who migrated from Wales and the north of England to the new mining communities in Kent had been black-listed in their previous workplaces for militancy. For these rabble-rousers, Betteshanger was a fertile environment in which to sow seeds of conflict.

Through the fifty years of its productive life, the mine was beset by labour disputes and successive strikes. During WWII, a treasonous stoppage of work resulted in over a thousand miners being handed down custodial sentences which, for lack of prison capacity, had straightway to be suspended. During industrial unrest in the 1980s the mine was strike-bound for more than a year. Towards the end of that strike, Betteshanger became notorious for the brutal violence of internecine struggles between strike supporters and those who, for need of income, wanted to return to work. Union strike fund charity had, by then, long been exhausted. The mine closed in 1989.

After closure of the mine, land laid waste by it was acquired initially by Dover Council who sold it to the Hadlow Group. This lately august paragon of horticultural and agricultural academic excellence lost all to commercial ambitions. Within very few years the group faced bankruptcy bought on by ineptitude and miss-management of funds granted to it, including millions provided by public institutions. At the end of 2019 Hadlow sold the park to more practised commercial swamp-dwellers; Quinn Estates, an established property development concern. The history of Betteshanger Colliery is a litany of narratives concerning public assets being evaporated to distill into high-octane private wealth.

Notwithstanding my personal distaste for the authoritarian prepotency of its management, I enjoyed my Bank Holiday Monday stroll around the park. Well made paths, laid with re-cycled mine shale are well drained, free of mud, ruts and clear of obstruction. The park is well supplied with interpretation boards and containers into which canine emptiers can dump their charges’ noisome spoils. Beside and away from the paths, an abundance of young trees has been planted. I wish these saplings well but, given the nature of their new owners’ business, I shall not be rushing to profit from offering them life-assurance. There are fine views to be enjoyed to the east of the park over marshy farmland to Prince’s, The Royal St George’s and The Royal Cinque Ports golf links and to the sea and, on fine days, to the french coast. It was heartening to see the park well patronised by so many people following diverse interests; casual strollers, serious striders, joggers, sports-cyclists, mountain-bikers, bushcraft exponents, birdwatchers and amateur naturalists. On one of several ponds, I watched a group of youngsters practising stone skimming.

Quinn Estates is not a philanthropic entity. It is a substantial commercial concern which, to survive, must generate material profit. Expensive to maintain and providing no revenue, free-access Country Parks generate no temporal profit. Quinn Estates will of necessity have had a lucrative motive for investing its, or its lenders, money in the park. Their business is to generate income from covering vacant or uneconomically occupied land with saleable or leasable residential and commercial properties. Aware of this reality, I have sceptical concern for the future of this presently not unpleasant open space. That I am reconciled to the inevitability of its partial or total loss saddens me.

In a way, irrational deprivation of public amenities is consistent with the myriad of impositions which have, in lieu of self-control, common-sense, and common law, mannerly trust in human altruism, been inflicted on the public through the past fifty years or so. Many particulars, once familiar to our everyday lives, have been outlawed and subjected to licence. Despite official proclamations to the contrary, none of these unreasonable impositions make any cogent sense to me. But, as is the case with the idea of cogency, I am now an anachronism.

Travel in Times of Covid, 4: Annabelle’s Birthday

Sunday morning. Doing my best to not disturb anyone in the house, I crept downstairs to find, on the dining room table, a neatly arranged pile of gaily wrapped presents and cards. Annabelle’s two youngest daughters, Lara and Poppy, leprechauns both, had sneaked out of bed during the night to make this. By degrees, the rest of the house appeared. While Annabelle opened her cards and presents, we ate our breakfasts. Later, at intervals, visitors arrived. The party grew until a dozen of us were gathered. An unordered babbling bubble left the house to stroll to the seafront where we mustered outside a fish and chip shop to order lunches. The shop was well organised to provide meals under covid regiment. Customers joined a queue, which covid ‘social distancing’ commands dictated to be long, to place their orders and pay at a counter blocking an entrance where they would be given a numbered ticket. At a second door, several yards further along the road, customers joined a second queue to reach second door, also bared by a counter, where tickets issued at the first door could be exchanged for the food ordered. Our cardboard-boxed meals secured, we took the across the road to eat them sitting on Deal’s pebble beach or, in my own case, on the low, concrete wall which separates beach from promenade. A lively breeze blew cool air from the east. A colony of gulls plagued us, perseveringly rifling food from boxes which had inadvertently been left open. These practised scavengers will also take food from unwary fingers. The wind and the gulls bothered me. I did not enjoy my rapidly cooling lunch. Only when our party began to move, to stroll along the promenade, was my torment alleviated.

We ambled past the flower-festooned King’s Head, the picnic benched area in front of which was sparsely occupied. In pre-covid-control times, it would have been crowded with bank-holiday revellers,. Beyond the pub, Deal’s ‘Time Ball Tower’, is a Victorian precursor of the internet. A tall building, once a semaphore tower, has above its roof a large iron ball which, triggered by a telegraph message from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, drops from the top to the bottom of a central shaft at precisely the same time each day to provide mariners with a reliably accurate reference with which to set their chronometers.

Until the early 1980s, beyond a rather plain terrace of yet standing, tall, Victorian patricians’ houses, the magnificent Queen’s Hotel looked out over the sea. Designed for the Southern Railway company by church architect, James Brook, the Queen’s Hotel was an exemplar of Victorian decorative excess. During the 1970s, financially unbearable fire-safety impositions forced the hotel to close. By then it was already a shabby anachronism, designed, built and maintained for a class of people which had been decimated by the First World War, further diluted by the egalitarianism which followed, and all but totally extinguished by the Second World War and the draconian taxes imposed by a lubberly post-war administration. For a further decade or so the building mouldered into visible decay. While developers, conservationists and planners wrangled over its fate, and despite being subject to planning controls, parts of the building, considered to be unsafe, were demolished. In 1977 a fire gutted the derelict pile to finally bring the wrangling to an end. Planning approval was given to demolish what remained and for a soulless development of flats to be built on the site.

Safe, I hope, from similar social ravages of time, although the site would allow for a good number of ‘affordable homes’ to be built upon it, is the erstwhile Hotel’s neighbour: Deal Castle. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the castle was built at the behest of King Henry VIII to protect the low-lying land from invasions from France, and to protect the important naval anchorages between the coast and the Godwin Sands. The castle is one of three built simultaneously and in close proximity; the other castles being Sandown to the north, of which little remains, and, to the south, Walmer, local residence of the Lord Walden of the Cinque Ports, presently the Lord Boyce, Admiral of the Fleet.

Beyond the castle the ground on the landward side of the path opens onto a grassy space on which was parked an ice-cream van. Some of the party indulged in one or another of these. I thought mine very second rate; no match for soft, twirly Irish ice-creams.

Safe, I hope, from similar social ravages of time, although the site would allow for a good number of ‘affordable homes’ to be built upon it, is the erstwhile Hotel’s neighbour: Deal Castle. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the castle was built at the behest of King Henry VIII to protect the low-lying land from invasions from France, and to protect the important naval anchorages between the coast and the Godwin Sands. The castle is one of three built simultaneously and in close proximity; the other castles being Sandown to the north, of which little remains, and, to the south, Walmer, local residence of the Lord Walden of the Cinque Ports, presently the Lord Boyce, Admiral of the Fleet.

The beach side of the promenade path opposite Deal Castle is a farrago, enshrouded in rank, flowering weeds, of halieutic tackle and draff; boats, bits of boats, winches, rusting engine parts, fish-boxes, nets. Here we saw a frail young fox poking about the detritus, presumably searching for food.

Beyond the castle the ground on the landward side of the path opens onto a grassy space on which was parked an ice-cream van. Some of the party indulged in one or another of these. I thought mine very second rate; no match for soft, twirly Irish ice-creams.

Ice-creams ingurgitated, we sauntered back along the promenade, into the town, and along Middle Street. Lined with expensively renovated largely eighteenth century buildings, Middle Street evokes a salty maritime past. Shades of long passed sailors and smugglers regularly brush by me there; particularly when I am leaving the Ship Inn after having bided there for longer than is prudent.

Travel in Times of Covid, 3: A Ramble About Deal.

The second morning of my stay in Deal. A Saturday. Overcast, dry and mild. A leisurely breakfast, after which I wandered into town with Annabelle and my granddaughter, Poppy.

I cannot remember when I first visited Deal. It was probably around sixty yeas ago, shortly after I had passed my driving test. At that time roads were very quiet. The only speed restriction, out of towns and villages, was one’s own common sense. Compared to today, English citizens enjoyed unimaginable freedom. From my home at that time, in one of London’s leafy Kentish suburbs, Deal was a less than two-hour drive.

Having spent many hours of my London childhood playing in feral refuges from the controlled milieu; bomb-sites, abandoned railway stations, neglected Victorian cemeteries and other forbidden but unguarded places, I developed a taste for derelict, down-at-heel places. Deal, in those days, fitted my appetite for dilapidation. From its many eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings eidolons of past occupation had yet to be exorcised, presences manifested in unrestored facades and interiors. Through the 1960s, many aberrant wights had settled in the town, adding to its quirky character; faded thespians, retired military careerists, would-be artists, writers, poets and potters.

In many ways, Deal has hung on to its past. On and behind the sea-front much of its stock of fine old buildings survive, albeit bereft of their soul, long since extirpated by serial renovations, refurbishments and make-overs which have conspired to confer onto the buildings a patina of vulgar, prosaic uniformity. Grey paint is currently universally popular as are absurdly incongruous olive trees. Dispite its attraction to a collective faction of aquiescent camp followers, Deal yet appears also favoured by a healthy dusting of interesting individuals; colourful types, at odds with the grey conformity of ovine herd conformity. There are many good shops in the High Street, butchers, bakers, greengrocers, some of which have been long established in the town. Others have opened more recently to capitalise on the wealth brought to the town by locally labelled, ‘DFLs’; ‘down from London’ people who have brought wealth milked from the great Wen to cream into weekend and holiday homes. The flow of new money is also supporting prosperous and attractive cafés, both chain and independent, as well as several excellent delicatessens, wine bars, restaurants, speciality food shops and a variety of interior design emporia; purveyors of antiques, fabrics and exclusive housewares. Although Deal has lost the raffish charm it once held for me, and despite covid impositions with which I must try to become accustomed, it is yet a pleasant enough town through which to aimlessly saunter.

Had I such, I would spend a fortune in ‘The No Name Shop’, a small but excellent delicatessen at the more interesting, west end of the High Street. I spent quite enough buying a wedge of Appenzella cheese and a couple of hundred grammes of Neapolitan Salami, both favourites in their field for me and both less than widely available.

On my passage along the High Street, I met a long-standing acquaintance whom I had not seen for a long while. Dutifully masked, at first he seemed mildly concerned as, ‘bare faced’, I approached him. As is my custom when meeting anyone, I threw out my hand which, without hesitation, he took, shaking it warmly. I was relieved. My unpremeditated, impulsive action had also seemed to ease his original distracted demeanour. I certainly had not meant my gesture to cause any embarrassment or distress. I felt a little pity for him. One of many people presently affected by covid restrictions and publicity who are living in constant fear of the present and of their futures.

Travel in Times of Covid, 2: No Room at Any Inn.

The Royal Hotel, Deal, has long been one of my favoured watering holes. I like the eighteenth century ambience of the place. Despite much of its original character having been lost to serial, largely inapprpriate renovations, the “Royal’ yet holds, for me, much of the spirit of its past. Horatio Nelson entertained Emma Hamilton there, (Or was it she who entertained him?). Princess Adelaide stayed there before her betrothal to William IV. In the early 1960s, London publisher Anthony Blond exiled wayward writer Simon Raven to the Royal, paying his board and giving him fifteen quid a week to keep him from his sybaritic, dissolute and unproductive life in London that he may concentrate on his writing. Eccentric English actor, Charles Hawtry, collapsed in one of the hotel’s doorways, breaking bones, hastening his final exit. A subliminal soul in the fabric of the building communicates with me. A animus to which, perhaps, my own past blithesome gatherings amongst friends and family may have added some gist.

At lunchtime, on Friday 28th August, I arrived at the beach entrance of the hotel with my daughter, Annabelle. Since my last visit, which was perhaps a year earlier, nothing of the outward appearance of the building had changed. But the place had a different strain. The imposition of covid diktats had altered its ambience to something strangely unrecognisable; a cold, inhospitable, atmosphere hung over its elemental familiarity. There were no welcoming smiles from congenial bar staff. Instead a young man, bearing an expression more befitting an undertaker, blocked the hotel entrance. “Have you a booking?”, He asked, gazing at the clipboard in his hand. “A booking to get into a bar?”, I exclaimed. I told him I had not. “Bookings”, he continued, “Are mandatory. Without a booking I cannot allow you inside the hotel.”

‘Mandatory’, in these times of covid, seems to have considerably increased in popular usage, displacing softer, less hawkish words, ‘necessary’, or ‘required’, for instance. Perhaps the Latin root of ‘mandatory’, ‘mandate’ (Command), has something to do with the current popularity of ‘mandatory’. With manifest disinterest, and disconcerting formality, the turnkey offered me the option of waiting in a queue until an outside terrace table became available. Once seated, a member of staff would take an order for drinks and deliver them to us. No food could be served outside. Should it rain we would not be allowed to shelter inside the hotel.

Although the morning had been fine, to our north, above neighbouring Ramsgate, heavy clouds had gathered and, portentous of imminent heavy rain, were clearly moving towards Deal. Recognising this, we chose not to accept a less than tempting invitation to tarry outside the Royal and decided to try our luck at the café at the end of the pier where the fare is reputed to be good. It is but a short distance from the hotel to the café but the clouds and their consequent rain were quickly approaching. As we hurried along the pier, dark panes of rain plunging from the clouds into the sea were close by. Halfway between the pier entrance and the café, rain began to fall. Thunder rumbled in the distance. We hurried to the pier end to find a longish queue of people outside the café, all waiting for a ‘socially-distanced’ table to become vacant.

That there would be a long wait was obvious to me. Few people would want to exchange their safe dry seats inside the café for a certain soaking outside. Around the café is a deck, under what appears to be a glazed roof, broad enough on its south side to accommodate a small wooden cabin, a bar, from which a pleasant young woman served drinks and snacks. Despite the light rain, I was happy to be in a refreshingly covid-free environment. I ordered beers and crisps. The roof above the decking transpired to be no more than an architectural aesthetic conceit; a roof of unglazed rafters devoid of function. Despite exiguous shelter from the overhanging eaves of the café, rain was getting to us; our clothes were becoming damper by the minute. A fork of lightning flashed from the belly of the blackness above the town, striking behind it onto higher ground. Shortly after, clouds of black smoke billowed from where we had seen the lightning strike. I later learned that a cottage had been struck, causing it to instantly burst into flames.

With no indication of the deluge abating we decided to make a run for home. Inside the café people were comfortably sat at their misanthropic, covid-spaced tables gazing out at us with as much compassion as people might show rats drowning in a bucket. Covid regulations have allowed for the arrest of charity, denying any permit of sanctuary. “We are in this together”, so the covid ads artfully inform us! An odd slogan to be promulgated by the forgers of covid diktats, most of which seem to me to have been created to eradicate all notions of spontaneous sociability.

We had moved no further than a dozen metres from the non-shelter of the deck’s non-roof when the rain began to pelt down seriously, bringing with it hailstones large enough to hurt when they struck bare skin. To avoid the hailstones we sheltered in one of the roofed lay-bys along the pier. Fortunately, the shelter, already well full with fellow refugees from the storm, seemed to be imposing no ‘social distancing’ rules. One of our fellow shelterers, a woman, was wearing a white cotton dress which the rain had made transparent. She reminded me of an artist’s nude model, having only gossamer veils to preserve a remnant of her modesty.

A brief lull of the downpour allowed us to hasten to the pier entrance building where we were again obliged to shelter from a further heavy down-pouring of hailstones which were falling with force sufficient to bounce them knee-high from the pavements. As with the anglers’ shelter, the well attended pier entrance building was also a mannerly refuge from any taint of ‘social distancing’ impositions.

Eventually, the storm began to abate allowing us to set out across the flooded promenade to paddle through back alleys and narrow seventeenth century streets towards Annabelle’s home. At one point, near a railway level crossing, we were forced by flooded roads to turn back to take a longer route home. On the far side of the tracks, flood water had risen to the arches of cars parked in the road.

Back at the house, cold and wet to our skins, our clothes dripping, we were thankful to be able to change into warm, dry clothes and enjoy a welcome, albeit belated, lunch.

Travel in Times of Covid 1: Out of Ireland

On 28th August I began a journey from my home to visit my daughters in England. Lisi drove me to the bus stop in Skibbereen from where we waited for the bus which would take me to Cork airport. While waiting, I felt in a pocket for a wallet which was not there. Immediately I realised I had left it at home in the pocket of trousers from which I had changed. The wallet contained my bank card, cash and various other trip essentials. I had no choice but to return home, recover the wallet and to decide thereafter how I would get to the airport. By the time I had retrieved the wallet, the bus would have long departed from Skibbereen. Without any hesitation, Lisi offered to drive me to the airport.

The forecourt there was strangely muted; bereft of vehicles; bereft of people. Only people bearing boarding cards, wearing appropriate lanyards and, of course, face coverings were permitted to enter the airport building. Several bored looking security personnel, wearing ‘Hi-Vis’ over-vests, dripping with electronic gadgets, strutted about the entrances. I passed their gauntlet into the airport foyer, a place I had only previously known to be buzzing with life; two cafés, car hire offices, help desks, a newsagent/sweet shop, check-in desks and a lot of people. On the day I was there, only one of the check-in desks was open. All other services were closed and had the appearance of having been so for a good while.

I rode the escalator to the first floor where I entered a pointlessly ribbon-cordoned, corridor which snaked over an area the size of a large ballroom to the narrow entrance of ‘Security’. I was greeted there by a dozen or more staff. Despite being their only ‘customer’, prior to passing through their bomb detecting gadget I was required to remove my belt and braces. Beyond ‘Security’ I entered the commercial maze which passengers have to negotiate before reaching the departure lounge. Having no need of perfume, Toblerone, gift boxed whiskey or of any ‘Irish’ novelty souvenirs, I passed quickly through into an all but empty departure lounge. One small coffee bar was open, offering for sale hot drinks, soft drinks and a very limited range of snacks and sandwiches. The bar had no alcohol licence but staff there advised me that the ‘Duty Free’ had a good supply of bottled beers, single-glass sized bottles of wine and miniature bottles of spirits for which the café would be happy to supply plastic containers from which to drink.

Ryanair, with whom I had booked my flight, make an extra charge for selecting a ‘preferred seat’ on their flights. As I was travelling alone, there was little advantage in my paying this extra charge. I was content to allow Ryanair to choose for me any seat which suited them. They allotted a centre seat of three;26E. I was happy enough with this and even happier when it became apparent that the seats each side of mine would be unoccupied during the flight. I moved into the window seat to enjoy fine views of Welsh and English countryside as the ‘plane flew east.

From Luton airport, through which I passed without delay, I took the cattle-truck shuttle-bus to the railway station where I boarded a train to St Pancras. A grim ride through the suburbs of Luton to the suburbs of London. The line passes through tedious, cheek by jowl utility housing, industrial estates and retail parks. Covid diktats were continually broadcast over public address systems and visually displayed on posters; gimmicky slogans bestrewing fear behind a facade of advising watchfulness.

At St. Pancras, which appeared to be refreshingly pre-covid normal, I had only to stroll through the concourse to reach my next train which would carry me to Ashford, Kent. St. Pancras, and every other station through which I passed has ‘International’ as an appendage. I wonder why. A pretension? The stations Stratford, Ebbsfleet, Ashford (International’s all) have in common a bland, grey, concrete nullity; stark, soulless, God-forsaken places. When the train arrived at Ashford night had all but fallen. I was once told that, should England ever need a catheter, it would be inserted at Ashford. At late dusk on that Thursday evening the homology seemed appropriate. The station was deserted, the town beyond the station deathly quiet. There was nowhere to go. No refreshments were available at the station. There were at least some benches on which to sit for which I was grateful. Few trains arrived or passed through. I waited on the platform for fifty minutes. The time seemed to pass remarkably quickly, perhaps I dozed into some kind of travel stupor for some of it. If so I was out of it when the slow, stopping train which would take me to Deal arrived. The train crawled out of Ashford and into Folkestone West, out of Folkestone West into Folkestone Central and on through Dover Priory, Martin Mill and Walmer to eventually arrive at Deal where my daughter, Annabelle, was waiting to greet me. In her home I slept soundly through the first of fourteen nights I would spend away from my own home.

A Blogger’s return

Today is my birthday; the first day of the seventy-seventh year of my existence. A good day, I thought, to begin a new blog. I have blogging history; on the 19th March 2010 I began my first blog, ‘Wanderings of a Sensate Man: Excursions in Words and Occasional Photographs’. For reasons long forgotten, the Google blog, ‘Sensate Man’, morphed into a WordPress blog; ‘Unreasonable Jottings’. My last entry there was on 26th January last year. Reflecting on the idea of establishing a fresh blog, I concluded that to so would be futile; I need only to continue to make entries in my current blog. As previously, not necessarily for others to read, more for me to maintain a loose document of some events presently shaping my life.

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I am conscious of spending far too much of my time idly ‘surfing the net’, largely on Facebook and You Tube. I do not consider this to be a total waste of my time, I compare net-surfing to panning for gold; hours of effort expended for a disproportionally occasional reward.

Yesterday I copied the following from a Facebook comment:

The principle factor in my success has been an absolute desire to draw constantly. I never decided to be an artist. Simply, I couldn’t stop myself from drawing. I drew for my own pleasure. I never wanted to know whether or not someone liked my drawings. I have never kept one of my drawings. I drew on walls, the school blackboard, odd bits of paper, the walls of barns. Today I’m still as fond of drawings as when I was a kid – and that was a long time ago – but, surprising as it may seem, I never thought about the money I would receive for my drawings. I simply drew them.” – Winsor McCay

I like this sentiment, the idea of doing something for no better reason than to please oneself. In my own case though it applies more to writing than to drawing.

Windsor McCay (b.1866-1871 d.1934) was American illustrator, cartoonist and animator. Successful in his time, he is regarded by many as an important artist. Recently, however, his memory is being tarnished by political correct bigots who have unreasonably branded him a ‘racist’.

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A Bump in the Night

My twenty-something, number-two, granddaughter lives in a flat in a Victorian pile in South London. She runs a small, less than brand new but very precious to her, car; her pride and joy and essential transport to her workplace in one of London’s North Eastern suburbs. In common with most in the area, the building of which her home is a part dates back to the dawn of the motor age, when cars and their parking were not a consideration with which architects or house builders needed to be concerned. A century and a half later, my granddaughter is obliged to park her car, along with those of her neighbours, at the kerbside of the street. A week or so ago she was distressed to find that, overnight, her precious machine had been damaged; something had struck the rear quarter causing considerable damage; a good deal of scratching and denting. She reported the accident to the local police telling them that she wondered if a CCTV camera further along the street may have recorded some useful information. The duty officer thanked her for her report but doubted much would come of it.

A few days later she received a letter. Recognising from its envelope its source, her immediate thoughts were dark; notification of a parking or speeding fine perhaps. With more than a little trepidation, she opened the letter which was indeed from the Metropolitan Police but, far from being an indictment of any kind of transgression, it was an apology for damage caused to her parked vehicle by one of their own drivers; police cars are obliged these days to carry live video recording equipment at all times. Following the apology the letter went on to explain that the damage would be repaired at police expense as would the provision of a hire car throughout the period during which repairs were to be effected.

An exception to the rule maybe, but cheering confirmation of communications from official sources not necessarily being harbingers of doom.

And so to Greece

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December, West Cork.  Storm-felled wood, Ash, Holly, Oak, which Lisi  gathered, sawed, and split into logs, burns brightly in the hearth; warming our bodies; flames throw dancing shadows on the walls, mellowing our souls.  Evenings will be like this here for several weeks to come.  Not until April will temperatures begin to rise, the rain to ease a little, the ground drain, days to lengthen as nights shorten.  Until then, little useful work can be done outside.  The slow growth of recently sown and planted vegetables, Broad-Beans, Garlic and Shallot, will continue unseen, below ground.

Christmas cards arrive from friends in Greece evoking memories.  The reality, wild winter days, chilly evenings, cold nights, torrential rain, all of which are typical in Southern Greece through the early months of the year, are largely forgotten; ignored, eclipsed by memories of ‘Alcioni mares’, halcyon days, successions of sunny winter days, warm under clear blue skies, calm seas, enduring periods of bright sunshine, gentle strolls along byways lined with early spring flowers; squat Iris, Oxalis, Crocus, Colchicum, Anemone, Grape Hyacinth, scented Wild Narcissi and Giant Orchid.  Such are the rather rose-tinted memories of place and people which engendered within us an eruption of nostalgia for our former home; a  wistful longing to be there.

A search of meteorological records informed that, during the early months of the year, the Southern Peloponnese can expect average day temperatures around double those recorded in West Cork; sunshine hours are treble.  In Greece, January, and February in particular, are wet months, around 230 millimetres falls there compared with 260 in West Cork, but Greek rain invariably falls in relatively short, very heavy showers; total hours of rainfall are considerably fewer in Greece, furthermore, skies are rarely fully overcast for more than a day at a time.

A further search for flights to Athens found mid-January seats costing less than twenty euros.  I needed no further encouragement.  Flights and accommodation are booked; our 2019 late-winter adventure will begin when we leave here for two months on 16 January.