Category Archives: Journal

Twilight on The Thames

Twilight falls over the Thames with St Pauls Cathedral in the distanceI have long been a  Joseph Conrad fan – Heart of Darkness, Typhoon and Lord Jim being old favourites. I especially love the opening in the Heart of Darkness. It’s day’s end, not on the Congo but along the Thames,  with  Marlow and four other men – the  Director of Companies, a lawyer, an accountant and the unnamed narrator, all old seafaring men – sitting aboard the Nellie, a cruising yawl.

They are a companionable bunch, quietly neglecting a game of dominos in favour of an appreciation of the gathering dusk. The Thames – “the waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth” – is solemn and still. There is little need of speaking for the men are comfortable in the easy familiarity of each other’s company and shared experience; ‘the bond of the sea’, Conrad calls it.

As twilight settles of the Thames, Marlow is suddenly moved to speech. “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

He imagines what the Thames must have been like in the days of the Romans, a river of marshes, forests and savages and precious little to eat for a civilised man. This train of thought sets him to thinking of his own days in freshwater service along the Congo in Africa.  And so begins an extraordinary tale…

I was thinking of this narrative of Marlow’s the other day when I was up in London doing some background research for a story that very much touches on the Thames in Roman times, when this stretch of the river was indeed one of the dark places of the earth. Twilight was falling as I was getting ready to take the train back home to Sussex and with fond thoughts of Marlow, I snapped this photograph.

Those Poppies at the Tower of London!

Blood swept lands and seas of red - poppy display at the Tower of LondonFor some time now I have been meaning to get up to the City to see the poppies at the Tower Of London and yesterday, with time running short, I finally had my opportunity. A need  to see some archaeologists for a story on which I am working provided me with the pretext  and while I was in the City I made my way over to the Tower along with most of the rest of London by the look of things. I was not disappointed. In fact I would go as far as saying that this must be the most successful piece of public art I have ever seen or even heard of – a perfect combination of art, stagecraft and commemoration that has have captured the imagination of everyone who has seen it.

To imagine as you gaze over the vast field of ceramic poppies that each one of them – all 888,246 – represents the life of a British or  Commonwealth soldier or  sailor that was taken in the war is to get a vivid idea of the magnitude of such a loss. Numbers on that scale are ungraspable in our minds – six soulless digits, almost meaningless – but to see this mass of blood red poppies and imagine each one as a life, is something else again. The hushed wonder of the throngs that file past is also eloquent, of the brilliance of the concept behind the display.  Artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper have much of which to be proud.

One of those poppies, I am pleased to say, is ours.  I ordered it way last August, when I first learned about the display – titled Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red. Having at least seen the result, I wish now that I had ordered two, or even three, but alas that is not possible.  I understand all 888,246 poppies have been sold – great news for the artists and other  people behind the exhibition and the charities that will benefit.

As one of the owners of a poppy I am quite happy for the display to continue. I’d be quite happy for it to remain in place right through the Christmas season so that everybody has a chance to see it. I am glad at least that part of the display will remain up for another three weeks – and I wouldn’t mind at all if my poppy was among those that stayed up the extra time.  I am in no hurry.

I do wonder though about the calls for a permanent display in the War Museum, and a touring display that will do the rounds of the country over the next three or four  years. It is all very well, but it would be good if the politicians and fans of the exhibition could remember that every single one of those poppies at the Tower of London was bought by somebody. I gather there are not going to be any extras made – that much was made clear when the orders were being taken. So I am left wondering whose poppies are going to be delayed several years in the delivery, and who will never receive theirs because their poppies have been expropriated for the permanent display?

Blood swept lands and seas of red - poppy display at the Tower of London

Blood swept lands and seas of red - Poppies at the Tower of London

 

Isle of Wight

Osborne House Isle of Wight

I have been off the bicycle these past few days, away from my desk and out to the Isle of Wight, which has long been one of the Smith family’s favourite holiday boltholes – as it has been for a good many people going back to the Roman Days when the rich folks that could built villas put here and paved them with beautiful mosaics. Back then, of course, the Isle of Wight was known as Vectis

It was Queen Victoria though, back in 1845, who put the Isle of Wight firmly on the nation’s fashionable holiday map when she and Prince Albert bought a property called Osborne House, knocked it down and put up the modest little weekender (pictured above), which is also known as Osborne House. It was designed by Prince Albert (with a bit of help from the architect who re-did the facade of Buckingham Palace for the happy couple) in an Italianate style which went well his his Continental fancies and the fact that the view over the Solent apparently reminded him of the Bay of Naples. It became the royal family’s favourite retreat, with its 3000 secluded acres and private beach where Victoria could bathe in the comfort and privacy of her ‘bathing machine’, and a life-sized Swiss chalet as a playhouse for the nine royal children.

Nice for some. The Smith family had to make do with the Travel Lodge in Newport and its all-you-can-eat breakfast, but we did ourselves proud and between visiting Carisbrooke Castle and the delightfully twee old-fashioned tourist village of Godshill managed to swing by Osbourne House (twice!) for ice cream cones on Queen Victoria’s no-longer-quite-so-private beach.

Dawn – Cooden Beach

Lugworm diggers at low tide, dawn, Cooden Beach, East Sussex, England

 

A nip of frost in the air this morning and a dense blanket of ground mist clinging to the marshes made me wish I had dressed a little more warmly for my ride over to Pevensey and back. The mists were dispersing by the time I was passing Cooden Beach, on my homeward leg, and with the sun just about to rise I stopped to photograph the luggers coming up from the low tide with their shovels and pails full of lugworms. I often see their lights bobbing along the water’s edge when I am out riding early in the morning, and the tide is out, and I have been meaning to stop and get a photograph of them as a part of my visual chronicle of my bicycle rides – and today’s scene at Cooden Beach just seemed to be  the one.

Flying The Flag – Lavenham Jacket & Gilet

King George V Colonnade on the seafront at Bexhill, East Sussex, EnglandHow nice it is to see something made in England for once. A press release lobbed into my in-tray yesterday proclaiming the news that the English clothing firm Lavenham – best known for its quilted jackets for the equestrian set – has teamed up with London’s trendy Look Mum No Hands cycling café to design what appears to be a rather stylish (and quilted, naturally) cycling jacket and gilet.

In looks and design both the clothes and collaboration appears to be taking up where Rapha left off – a sort of gentrified urban chic, with a generous dollop of English country squire thrown in.

Unlike Rapha though (unless Rapha have changed since I bought my classic softshell from them ) the new Horringer jacket and Withersfield gilet are actually made in England, at Lavenham’s workshop in the Suffolk village of the same name.

Both jacket and gilet are made of pure English wool whose quilted outer surface has been coated to make it water resistant. The jacket has raglan sleeves, tailored for a comfortable range of motion on the bike, and ribbed cuffs to keep out the breeze. Cutaway slightly in front, and long in the tail it is designed to drape well over your back and give you good coverage from the elements when you ride. It has three utility pockets and reflected piping around them – vital, one would think, given its navy blue colour. It has stud closures up the front.

The gillet is cut along a similar pattern, but with two utility pockets, piping and a zip front. It, too, is navy blue.

You can see them both here

At £250 for the jacket and £185 for the gilet, they are hardly budget apparel – but then they wouldn’t be, given they are made of pure wool and made here in England. At that their prices compare favourably with Rapha’s softshell classic (£260) and Transfer Gilet (£150), both of which are made in Asia (I believe) and practically giveaways compared with Brooks line of made-in-England John Boultbee clothing (Blackwell jacket €550; Criterios jacket €1000)

There are no reviews on the Lavenham website yet from purchasers of the jacket or gilet, so I can offer no independent analysis of how they actually perform. They look rather elegant though, and would go particularly well with a classic bicycle. Indeed, if Purdey made bicycles instead of shotguns, this or the pricey Brooks numbers would be what you’d wear.

 

 

Breaking News…?

Sunrise at low tide, Cooden Beach East Sussex EnglandBreaking news … the sun rose over the English Channel right on time, the tide was out just as predicted and the whole scene was rather pink and pretty from where I stood along  Cooden Beach on my way back from my morning ride. Sure such events  might not seem like ‘breaking news’  in the traditional ink-under-the-fingernails, press-card-in-the-fedora journalistic sense, but as a former newspaperman  watching the ‘breaking news’ label being applied to just about anything and everything these days on media websites  (BBC, CNN, Guardian etc) I am starting to feel as though I am  not getting my fair share of great 21st century scoops.

Journalism has certainly changed a lot in the time I have been practicing it. Over the past few days I have seen the pulse-quickening ‘Breaking News…” label affixed to the casual utterance of a minor health official over the possibility of further cases of Ebola in the West at some point in the future, and a several-years-old story of a St Louis family that found their house invaded by poisonous brown recluse spiders and were obliged to move out. Since the family apparently moved out two years ago, the decision by editors at CNN to describe their troubles as ‘Breaking news…” (as I saw on the Guardian website as well) seemed just a trifle overstated.  Apparently the ‘breaking’ aspect of this story was that after standing idle for two years the house was being fumigated this week.  Breaking news? Really? I mean, I could see this being a news story if it was the White House we were talking about, but a suburban bungalow in St Louis?  And ‘breaking news…’ at that?

Such breathless – indeed ridiculous – headlining does no one any favours, least of all the media organisations who practice it or the profession (dare I call it that?) of journalism. I remember the first time I ever saw a breaking news banner (it said ‘Bulletin’ actually) was the 22nd of November 1963 when WGN TV interrupted Bozo’s Circus to inform its watchers that President Kennedy had just been shot.

And now we have – as I also saw not long ago – the ‘breaking news’ banner being trotted out for breathless reportage of a politician’s trite observation that ‘banks put profits before people’.

Someone needs to tap somebody on the shoulder and remind them that just because we can report everything on the instant, and worldwide, it doesn’t make it ‘breaking news…’ Otherwise journalism becomes about as shallow as the film of water coating the low-tide sands on Cooden Beach.

Low Tide, Bexhill-on-Sea

Digging Lugworms at Low Tide, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

 

The tide was well out this morning when I spun along the Bexhill seafront on my way back from my jaunt over to Pevensey Castle. The sun was freshly risen, casting fans of light through the clouds billowing over the channel – forerunners of the heavy weather that is meant to be coming our way this week. As I was riding past the town I noticed the figures of these two fisherman at waters’ edge, with the shimmering tide pools behind them, and hopped off by bicycle to take this image.

 

The Blue Hour

The Blue Hour - Hastings seafront promenade before dawn, Hastings England

Photographers call it The Blue Hour – that magical hour or so just before dawn (or after sunset) when there is still enough ambient light to see and photography by, but the sky takes on a rich luminous blue quality.  Physicists will tell you that The Blue Hour has to do with the relative diffusability of the short blue wavelengths and the longer red ones.

For me the Blue Hour is  best when the sky is overcast, and better still when there’s rain coming or already in the air, as it was this morning when I was riding along the seafront promenade here in Hastings, and pedalling  into the stormy weather that was rising in the west. It was about twenty minutes before sunrise. The wind was blowing, the sea was ruffled, there was even a bit of thunder in the air and this lustrous blue backdrop of rain cloud ahead. I hopped off, unfolded my tripod and fired a few frames, not so much for the composition (although I like it’s simplicity and familiarity) but because I loved the rich blue colour of the sky and wanted to bring some home with me.

Autumn Mists

Autumn Mists over the Sussex coast, near Cooden Well, it looks as though our pleasant run of Indian Summer weather has ended here in Sussex and good old-fashioned October weather has arrived with a vengeance. I noticed it yesterday morning when I went out for my ride and found the air a very sharp 3C with a freezing mist laying over the marshes. More unusually it was hovering over the sea near Cooden Beach, in a low dense ragged pall that reminded me uncannily of sea mists I have seen in Antarctica, along the Antarctic Peninsula. It looked as though there ought to have been pancake ice and bergy bits floating in the glassy swell – it was that kind of a scene: cold and white and ragged.

The tide was in. Although I could see that without that without the requisite bergy bits to give depth and interest, it would not work as a photograph I pulled over anyway and took a few photos along one of the mist and sea along one of the wooden groynes. I didn’t linger. I hadn’t dressed for the weather. My feet were freezing. So were my hands.

And now I am sitting here soaking wet, trying not to let my wet hair drip on the laptop keyboard while outside the wind-driven rain lashes against the window. So much for Indian Summer. Have to start looking for beauty in the melancholy of autumn.

 

A Soft English Evening

Stade Beach-5Oh the irony. When I started writing this blog early three years ago now, it was in part to reacquaint myself with the idea of writing to deadlines, and the fast pace of daily journalism which I had been missing. And now I am finding it hard to find time either to ride or blog because of the string of fast-turn-around stories I am doing for National Geographic and NPR (National Public Radio) in the US.

Don’t get me wrong. As a scrambling freelance I am very happy to get the work. But I am finding myself getting badly behind in my riding and my blog posting. Yesterday I was up early but where I would normally have been out on the road, pedalling across the misty marshes by starlight, I was here at the kitchen table, rounding my shoulders over my laptop and doing Google searches to find Turkish academics and historians and political commentators who might be willing to comment on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah – a curious Turkish exclave in Syria which could well be the catalyst for bringing Turkey into Syria’s civil war.

The tomb itself – which contains the remains of the 13th century Turkic nobleman whose grandson, Osman I, founded the Ottoman Empire –is sovereign Turkish territory; a few acres of manicured lawn and a white stone mausoleum in a field that that will be forever Turkey, despite its being 20 miles inside Syria. This curious arrangement was guaranteed by the 1921 Treaty of Ankara which ended the Franco-Turkish War and established the boundaries of modern Syria.

Had it not been for the Syrian civil war, this geographical oddity – Turkey’s only overseas territory – would have been nothing more than a historical oddity and perhaps a knotty trivia question on quiz night. But with thousands of ISIS fighters advancing on Syria’s Kurdish militias and intense fighting taking place all around it, the Turks are faced with a question of what to do if their sovereign territory (and a monument of great historical significance) is overrun – let alone destroyed, as ISIS fighters have been wont to do to other historical tombs and mosques around Syria. Sensing trouble, the Turkish government last March removed the small group of conscripts that had been guarding the sleepy outpost and replaced them with 60 elite special forces troops, with the president repeatedly warning anyone who would listen that Turkey would defend that ancient tomb. This week with fighting raging around the tomb and the nearby town of Kobane the Turkish Government voted by a convincing margin to enter the conflict.

Researching and writing all this was my lot yesterday with a tight deadline looming. Finally, after I filed my story late yesterday afternoon, and with my eyes feeling like someone had squired lemon juice in them from so much time staring into a computer screen, I went out to the shed and took out the old tourer for a nice restorative ride along the seafront. It is wonderful, the restorative capacity of a bike ride. The evening was warm and beautiful, the air soft with a fine, champagne light raking over the seafront. I could feel the tensions rolling away, together with a quiet sense of gratitude to be living in such a pleasant and peaceful corner of the world.

Moonrise over the seafront along Hastings promenade, Hastings, East Sussex, England