Don’t look them in the eye: A sunny walk up Old Winchester Hill

A famous and popular beauty spot since Victorian times and rich in archaeology from the Mesolithic period right up to World War II (when the British Army used it as a mortar testing range), Old Winchester Hill is actually about 11 miles south-east of the city of Winchester.

Crossed by both the South Downs Way and the Monarch’s Way, in 2009 it became part of the South Downs National Park. On its summit is an Iron Age hill fort and earlier Bronze Age barrows or burial mounds, plus a marvellous, sweeping 360-degree view of the surrounding Hampshire countryside.

Sheep graze the hillside, lovely fluffy ones, with luscious, silky, grey coats…and an evil glint in their eye. Ok, so I may be fibbing about that last bit. Since re-watching Black Sheep (2006, dir. Jonathan King) at Christmas, every quietly grazing bit of mutton I encounter seems to be looking a little too intensely at me, barely containing its murderous rage, just waiting for me to turn my back so it can pounce and make a delicious snack of my juicy entrails.

Thank god I’m not going to New Zealand any time soon, where the ratio of sheep to humans is six to one. Doh!

Morocco day 10: Kasbah Oliver: A sunny walk followed by a vigorous scrub down

Our night in Kasbah Oliver was very comfortable. Hot showers, heated by solar power, were a special treat in what felt a fairly remote spot, and porridge for breakfast was a real home comfort.

Those of us who were keen headed out just after 9 am for a three- to four-hour walk. We left Tighza village along a donkey trail through a valley framed with almond trees in blossom and terraces of barley. Irrigation channels kept the valley floor a verdant green against the rocky orange/red valley walls. It really was very pretty.

A barking dog, simply protecting its territory, freaked me out as it ran from a local home, bearing its teeth. No amount of reassurance from our guide that I should simply stand my ground and show it who was the real boss could stop me visualising a vicious mauling. Fortunately it didn’t really want a bite of a passing tourist and just stood there growling menacingly. The nice sedate mules that passed by, loaded up with dung for fertiliser, were more my thing; however, they weren’t exactly fragrant.

It was such a lovely day, the February sun having encouraged me to finally break out my shorts.

We walked an out-and-back route and at our furthest point we rested for 20 minutes, enjoying the all-encompassing silence. There were certainly no distant sounds of traffic congestion to ruin the peace. Mohammed informed us that much further along the track was a lake that made a good camping spot in the summer, whilst the Explore Mount Toubkal Trek also passed this point. Both seemed very tempting prospects for future holidays as we headed back to the kasbah.

Lunch consisted of omelettes cooked in large tagines, with sardines and salad. It was possibly the best lunch (or indeed meal) I’d had since Fes on day four. Simple, yet very tasty.

The afternoon was to be spent at the hammam, a steam room similar to a Turkish bath, where people go to cleanse themselves. Sponsored by Exodus to raise extra income for the local community, I thought I’d better go along and support it.

The ladies would go first. The seven of us were led into a steamy little room in our bathing suits. (I have a funny feeling this was really supposed to be done naked, but see my previous post on Freikorperkultur in Germany for my prudishness when it comes to public nudity.) Two local women were to assist us with our hammam, one of whom sported a tattoo from her lower lip to her chin, reminiscent of a Maori moko. The hammam basically involved us lying on the floor whilst being vigorously scrubbed down with black soap and an exfoliating glove. I’m not sure it was quite my thing, so I waited until last, unconvinced by the whole procedure. This of course meant that I ended up with both women energetically ridding me of any dead skin cells that dared to cling to my pasty British body. It would have probably been more pleasant if I hadn’t got sunburnt on our earlier walk! (Wear sunscreen people, even in the winter in northern Africa when it’s still only 12 degrees.)

The boys, who were up next, and assisted by a gentleman, had quite a different experience, apparently. Whilst they scrubbed each other down, with his guidance, us ladies sat on the front terrace of Kasbah Oliver enjoying the afternoon sun.

Our final village encounter was a visit to the house of a local lady. She provided an incredible platter of nuts and fluffy cake, washed down with a thick, spicy coffee, whilst our guides translated any questions we had for her about village life. This was much more civilised activity and a real treat to be able to visit someone’s home.

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Day 9: Morocco: Roses and Kasbahs

Day nine found our modest minibus manoeuvred very carefully around some hair-raising mountain roads in Morocco’s southern High Atlas by our skilful driver—along the route of a thousand kasbahs.

We passed through the Vallée des Roses, at the point where the mountains meet the Dadès Valley; then it was on to Ouarzazate, Morocco’s Hollywood (or Mollywood if you please). We stopped very briefly to admire Kasbah Taourirt—at one time considered the largest kasbah in Morocco—from across the road. There was apparently no time to explore, or to visit the fascinating-looking cine museum opposite. An unfortunate drawback to pre-organised group travel.DSC_0094DSC_0102_editedDSC_0101_editedDSC_0100

The thought of a dreary bowl of unseasoned cous cous and vegetables for lunch resulted in a mini rebellion. We abandoned day nine’s fancy tourist restaurant, which refused to serve us anything other than their expensive three-course set lunch, and found an attractive, and very characterful café/hotel just across the road. It was run by a French Moroccan lady, and we troughed defiantly on pizza and beer, a rare treat indeed. Magic.

After lunch we walked up to Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed fortified city and a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture. Having not changed a great deal since it was built in the eleventh century, most of the area’s inhabitants now live in more modern surroundings across the river. The city itself is made up of numerous kasbahs and ksars and has been made famous over the last fifty or sixty years as a backdrop for epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, Alexander and, my personal favourite, Gladiator. It is certainly worth a visit, and the view from its very breezy top was fairly spectacular.DSC_0112DSC_0120DSC_0121DSC_0158DSC_0159DSC_0135DSC_0123DSC_0142DSC_0146DSC_0145

We would be spending the night in our guide’s village, Tighza, at Riad Kasbah Oliver, an hour’s drive away along some seriously snaking mountain roads. Thankfully, we covered the final stretch of the journey on foot. There were mules for our luggage, and as the sun started to settle into a distant valley we strolled along a rocky road watching the changing colours of what was an extremely picturesque landscape.DSC_0173DSC_0179DSC_0181DSC_0192DSC_0193

Big Sea Swim 2014, Eastbourne UK, well almost!

Eastbourne pier by night

In February I moved to the coast where I have been doing my best to fully embrace the pleasure of living by the sea—by swimming in it, in a wetsuit, usually with about 80 other people, most Saturday mornings. The idea was to join the local triathlon club and meet some like-minded folk, but really it just means that every week I spend an hour experiencing an unusual combination of joy and abject fear as I pootle along the English coastline, dressed a bit like a seal.

The season is nearing its end though—most people stop this nonsense at the end of September when the water temperature drops to a level where their hands are too numb to actually dress themselves post-swim—and having failed to enter a race this year, my thoughts have turned instead to an event I took part in last July: the Big Sea Swim, in Eastbourne.

Now, I’m a bit barmy, if there is an event with a range of distances, I immediately choose the longest available, to get the most from the experience. This meant I’d be covering 3 km rather than 1 km.

I stayed in The Sheldon Hotel, not far from the start/finish line. The night before the race I stuffed my face with pizza and wandered down by the prom, listening to loud rock music blaring out of the bandstand on the front.

Race day dawned fresh and bright, the sea “looked” calm.

It was a nice little set up, with plenty of safety boats and kayaks provided by the town’s lifeguards. We would swim along the coast, towards Eastbourne’s charming Victorian pier, turning at the end around a couple of massive orange buoys, swimming back down past the start line (if you were doing the 1km at this point you’d just head in to shore), then up and back around for another lap. I wasn’t racing, I’m not exactly swift, so I hung back and avoided any potential maelstrom at the start. However, with only 67 people taking part, that probably wasn’t going to be much of a problem.

It took a long, long time to get to the pier…the nice calm sea was hiding an impressive current.

Delightfully, once I’d turned at the pier, I was shot back down to the start, hardly noticing the buoy marking the turn for the 1 km swimmers as I passed by. As I came round again at the far end, ready for my second lap, I got a touch of cramp in my left calf and took a moment to massage it out. An inflatable lifeguard dinghy pulled alongside to check I was ok. I wasn’t defeated yet, but lap two was going to be tough, I was hardly fresh.

I asked the lifeguard if I was ok for time. He assured me there were some who hadn’t made it to the pier on their first lap yet. Reassured, I set off against the current once more.

Lap two was interminable. I tried aiming for points of note on the Eastbourne seafront, but I wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, having favoured breathing to my left to track my progress, I glanced to my right and saw I had my very own lifeguard paddling at my side. He directed me to slightly better water. However, if I stopped to take even a brief rest, I just drifted back the way I’d come. I needed to keep bloody swimming. I was also now the backmarker. More folk must have bailed at 1 km than had swum on. I wasn’t too far off the man in front of me, but it took all my willpower to get to the pier again. Once I was around that buoy I could surely just float back down to the start?

I rounded the buoy. Too close. I got taffled in the rope anchoring it to the sea bed. Trapped momentarily under the buoy, I panicked, turned onto my back, and got cramp again, this time in both legs. This was it, this was how I was going to die. My mum would not be impressed. What a stupid way to go.

I popped up on the other side, more than a little bit freaked out and with both calves still slightly cramped. A lady in a kayak paddled over, asked me if I was ok.

No. I really wasn’t.

I’m not one for giving up, but, as I clung to the end of her kayak, common sense finally took over. It was time to bail.

The lifeguard dinghy motored over. I was hauled on board, and we headed for shore. A woman told me it was ok, I wasn’t the first. I said I’d failed. She smiled and said I’d been in the water for nearly two hours and that I should be proud of myself, others hadn’t battled on that long. Time obviously flies when you are having fun, the whole distance in better conditions should have taken me just over an hour. Back at the start/finish, I climbed out of the boat to a round of applause and a medal. I felt like a fraud; I hadn’t finished. Somebody gave me hot chocolate and I sat in the sun, relieved that it was over.

Recovering later in a charming café cum antiques shop not far from the sea—Jasper Wood—I realised I had some pretty impressive chafing and could hardly lift my arms.

This Big Sea Swim is a well-organised, friendly event, and in aid of a very good cause (the Marine Conservation Society), but I’m not sure I’ll try it again, not unless someone can promise to turn off that epic current.

Note. Parts of the Eastbourne pier were sadly ravaged by fire later that month. I will treasure the view I had of it as I battled to reach the water in its remarkable shadow.

The disadvantages of travelling alone #1: scary rooms in castles (Gorey Castle)

I love a good castle, and have done ever since I was a kiddie. The best ones contain dungeons and dank and shadowy stone rooms—the draughtier and murkier, the better. When I was a kid such places were made a lot less scary by the fact I was generally accompanied by my dad when visiting them. Although, he couldn’t necessarily be trusted not to hide behind things and jump out at the scariest of moments. Sadly, nowadays, more often than not, I travel solo—no big strong man to keep me safe. In February this found me alone in the casemates at Kronborg Castle with only Holgor the Dane for company—a big strong man of sorts, although more the strong, silent type. Little did I know that my delicate nerves would be tested again so soon after Hamlet’s castle, this time at Mont Orgueil Castle, overlooking Gorey Bay in Jersey. Mont Orgueil Castle is fabulous, construction having begun back in 1204. Centuries of adaptations and repairs have resulted in an incredible maze of a place, which has been ably assisted by Jersey Heritage Trust who have seemingly purposefully left off any signs directing you around the property. Not a complaint, at all, I enjoyed exploring all its mysterious nooks and crannies in search of hidden treasures, including the medieval wheel of urine and “wound man” (don’t ask, just go see for yourselves). Well, that was until I entered the room that contained The Witches of Hell and turned around and found this chap.

Gorey Castle decor

Gorey Castle decor

Competitive travel or sibling rivalry: A circumnavigation of Herm

Big Sis and I claim not to be competitive, but that’s a bit of a fib. We are actually slightly competitive about all manner of random things, which explains how a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Guernsey. You see, Big Sis had already been to Jersey, so when I decided to go to the Channel Islands for a brief holiday in June I automatically chose to visit Guernsey, because she hadn’t been there. It’s tragic, I know, but that’s just the way siblings work sometimes. And just to score an extra point in the “who has been to the most interesting places” game, I spent a morning on another island in the Bailiwick of Guernsey too: Herm. The Channel Islands are an archipelago of British Crown Dependencies in the English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. Herm, measuring just a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, lies three miles from Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands. It’s dinky, and very picturesque; it can be circumnavigated on foot in under two hours. I caught the early ferry, which had a number of advantages, including being cheaper than the later ones and depositing me on Herm before the multitudes arrived, and trailed around its empty clifftop paths and beaches anti-clockwise, marvelling at the beautiful coastal views and the fabulous beaches. I’ve always had a thing for islands and Herm could hold its own against any other. Sometimes, being a little bit competitive with your siblings definitely pays off.

Herm

Herm

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Herm Ferry

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Herm coast

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Herm coast again

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Some Guernsey coooooows

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Towards Shell Beach

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Herm coast again #2

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Herm, pretty flower

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Shell Beach

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Shell Beach #2

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Herm coast round t’other side

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and back towards Guernsey

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Pierre Aux Rats obelisk

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Herm coast, back to the beginning

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Herm Harbour

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Herm, pretty view

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Herm island transport