LAND

I have long been a fan of both the Landmark Trust and the artist Antony Gormley, so I was thrilled to learn that to mark Landmark’s 50th anniversary an art installation by Antony Gormley, consisting of five life-size statues cast in iron, would be installed near to Landmark properties. The sites for the statues, collectively called LAND, were to be positioned in the North, South, West, East and centre of the UK so that as many people could visit them as possible. LAND was planned as a temporary installation, running for a year from 16 May 2015.

The opening weekend kicked off a year of celebration for the Landmark Trust, and as I was free that weekend I decided to go and see the one in the centre of the UK, in Warwickshire. Having visited this first statue, I wondered whether it might be at all possible to visit all five over the year, but ruled this out as two of the statues are pretty difficult to get to – the one on Lundy and the Scottish one which was on the Kintyre peninusla. But when I discovered that a holiday I had booked with friends in Dorset was near Kimmeridge Bay, where the South statue was situated, and after visiting Lundy for a day trip on a weekend in June 2015, I began to think that it might just be possible to visit all five. Fortunately I was able to rope some friends into my Gormley-hunting experience, (including one friend who has visited all five with me) and so I booked a weekend in the Martello Tower, Aldeburgh in early March 2016 and another weekend in Saddell at the beginning of May 2016. The latter was a bit of a worry – we couldn’t find a convenient time to fit in a weekend in Scotland until the beginning of May, and I was unsure when they were going to remove the statues which were always planned as a temporary exhibit, but I took the risk thinking that even if the statue had been removed by then we would just have a lovely short break in a beautiful spot. Fortunately the risk paid off, and the statue was still in situ, so I was able to see all five.

The statues are similar and yet also quite different, but they all perfectly reflect their surroundings. The life-like figures appear to be gazing out to sea, or peering into the ground, some with arms folded, and the one on Lundy appearing to have a rucksack on his back. Four of them are very similar in size and shape but the Lundy one is more boxy and abstract, and doesn’t look as if it is part of the same series. I believe that they have individual names – the Lundy one is officially named DAZE IV for example, and the Saddell one is called GRIP, although we named the Aldeburgh one Cliff, as it was often used as a perch for seagulls (as in the joke Q: What do you call a bloke with a seagull on his head? A: Cliff). Gormley has said that he wanted people to interact with them; to touch them, climb on them, photograph them. I found an irresistible urge to imitate the figures’ pose; and standing at the first one watching for a while I noticed a lot of people doing the same.

I’ve no idea what is going to happen to the statues now; I understand that they are being sold by the White Cube Gallery on behalf of the artist. They may well appear next – possibly individually, possibly together – in a museum in New York or Japan or somewhere else. The fact that they have different names, and the Lundy one being so different, makes me think that they are more likely to be split up and sold individually. I can’t help but feel sad about this; it seems such a shame to remove them from the locations that they were designed for – it is almost as if the location and the view are an integral part of the statue and to separate the location and the statue will diminish the statues. I particularly feel this about the Lundy one, and think it’s a great addition to a beautiful island that I have come to know and love, and I wish it would stay and become a permanent feature of the island. I went to a talk by Antony Gormley in which he said that he liked the fact that they were temporary; it made them more ephemeral and seemingly like part of nature that always changes. I’m just very glad that I managed to visit all five of them in the original locations they were designed for. I wonder how many other people have managed to see the full set that make up the LAND installation and suspect it may be a fairly small number.

Lengthsman’s Cottage, Lowsonford, Warwickshire

This statue is situated opposite Lengthsman’s Cottage, on the Stratford-on-Avon canal. In incredibly peaceful surroundings the figure appears to be gazing into the lock, as though something has caught his attention.

 

Clavell Tower, Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset

The Kimmeridge Bay statue is situated right in the water, gazing out to sea, so that at high tide the statue is partially submerged under water. The Landmark Trust property of Clavell Tower sits high up on the cliff overlooking the bay. Sadly, stormy seas at Christmas 2015 resulted in the statue toppling over and had to be removed.

 

Lundy Island, Bristol Channel

Perhaps the most inaccessible of the statues, as to get to Lundy you first need to get to Devon and then take either a 2-hour boat journey in the summer months, or go by helicopter in the winter. The whole island is managed by the Landmark Trust, with a number of properties that you can stay at, or you can go on a day trip. I went on a day trip specially to see the statue, which is on the Southwest corner of the island. Unfortunately, the day I had booked was not great, weather wise, although it does add to the atmosphere as the statue appears to be peering out through the sea mist. This was one of the most controversial statues, as I was aware of many people who love Lundy who thought that it would spoil the natural beauty of the island which is highly regarded for its wildlife and nature. Personally I think it is a fantastic addition to the island, and adds to the wild granite beauty of Lundy rather than detracts from it.

 

Martello Tower, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

The Martello Tower Gormley is the only one that is actually situated on top of a Landmark Trust property, rather than just nearby. This does mean that it is also difficult to get up close and personal to it as even if you do book to stay in the tower as it is out on a ledge on top of the tower. I stayed for a weekend and it was fantastic to have our own personal Gormley keeping guard and a lookout on the top of the tower, even though with its arms crossed it looked grumpy.

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Saddell Bay, Kintyre, Argyll and Bute, Scotland

The Saddell statue, officially called GRIP, is situated in Saddell Bay, on the Kintyre peninsula, looking enigmatically out to see across the Kilbrannan Sound towards the isle of Arran. The Landmark Trust own the whole Saddell estate, with a number of properties including Saddell castle, the grand Saddell House and some smaller cottages, so that 40 people in total can stay on the estate across the different buildings. We stayed in Ferryman’s Cottage, but even if not staying at a property, members of the public can park at the top of the estate and walk down to see the statue. However, it is pretty isolated, and takes a long time to drive to the area from Glasgow or Edinburgh so in reality most people seeing the statue would be staying on the estate.

GRIP stands on a rock at low tide, and at high tide is partially submerged. With the waves crashing against the statue it is incredibly atmospheric and possibly my favourite of the statues. There was an incredible feeling of peace in Saddell Bay, and the statue seemed to change in different lights, weathers and at different times of the tide. But it is the combination of statue and location that really makes it so atmospheric; and again I can’t help feeling that it won’t be as spectacular and effective when removed from its perfect surroundings.

 

There is very little time left to see the statues before they are removed, but if you do live near any of them or can manage to make a special trip to see them, I would urge you to do so as they are really very special in situ. The Landmark Trust are having farewell events on the weekend of 14th and 15th May 2016 at the Warwickshire, Aldeburgh and Saddell sites, (details here) and I believe they will all be gone by early June. I will be very sad to see them go.

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Masterchef 2016

I first wrote about the television programme Masterchef in December 2015, just as the professional series was coming to a close (you can read the post here). This was the “year of the blob” in which the one must-have kitchen item every contestant needed in order to produce the best-dressed plate was a squeezy bottle with which to decorate the dish with little blobs of sauce.

When the series started again in March of this year, I came up with the idea of a Masterchef bingo card with which you could play along. The card contained the ingredients, techniques and phrases which I thought would be ubiquitous based on previous series. However, sitting down to watch the programme and to play along with the card, I found there were some episodes when I could barely cross off a word on the card, let alone get a whole line completed. One episode mid-series did not feature a single item on the card and I never managed to complete the entire card over an episode.

So what does this mean? Does it mean the show has become less pretentious and clichéd, and replaced the ‘foams’, ‘airs’ and paint-brushed plates with just good quality, honest cooking in which a sauce is called a sauce and not a jus or a coulis? I suspect that this is not the case, it is just that in food, like in everything, fashions change. The most popular word on the bingo card by far this year was ‘puree’, with it featuring in almost every single episode. Seemingly purees are not just for babies anymore, but a ubiquitous item on a posh plate of nosh. The most popular ingredient was beetroot, with honeycomb – so popular in previous series – barely getting a look-in. And amazingly, gone were the contestants presenting their plates with the single-word order “enjoy” but they actually managed more often than not to say “I hope you enjoy it” or just simply “thank you”. Also, hardly anyone declared themselves to be “gutted” when their dish didn’t turn out as well as expected or when they had to leave the show. The bingo card would have been more successful with the words ‘tuille’, ‘crumb’ and ‘charred’ – the latter being a new craze which seems to have taken over the cooking world with far too much aplomb for my liking.

The series has now finished; I was away for the last week with no access to a television, so have had to catch up online. I won’t give the game away in case anyone else is in the same position, but the final three were all excellent and the winner was a very well-deserved one. But I did feel that the series was far too drawn out again. Although the heats were fairly to the point, once it got down to the finals there were some pretty pointless episodes that just seemed to be padding. Like the week when the final four went to Mexico and cooked street-food, then in a restaurant, then producing a dinner for the British Ambassador and guests. An entire episode was spent on this jaunt, which had nothing to do with the competition as no-one was eliminated and they all just seemed to have a jolly time for jolly’s sake. Likewise, there was an episode in which they produced food for the “Chef’s table”, a dinner at which some chefs came and ate their food but again which had no bearing on the competition. I couldn’t help wondering as well whether these esteemed “Michelin-starred chefs” might have their noses put out of joint ever so slightly – after all, these were rank amateurs producing top quality restaurant food and therefore doing their jobs seemingly easily and without years of training. With all this extraneous cooking the ‘final’ has gone from one hour-long episode, to four hour-long episodes in one week, requiring considerable commitment from the viewer to stick with it to seeing the winner crowned Masterchef champion.

After the last episode it was announced that the ‘celebrity’ version would be stating in the summer. I just wonder whether this programme really does have legs to run and run, or whether it is wilting like a charred lettuce leaf and should be consigned to the food waste compost bin? I’d be interested to know what you think – have you got bored with it too, or will you avidly watch another series?

masterchef 2016

 

 

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#loveparkrun

 

Across the UK, in fact now across the world, every Saturday morning a quiet revolution takes place. Over 100,000 people of all shapes, sizes and ages get out of their beds and go to a nearby park or playing fields, some to then run 5k, others to volunteer in a variety of roles. And they don’t jut do it on one Saturday, but many do it every Saturday, or as often as they can, as it very quickly becomes a habit that is hard to break.

I’m talking, of course, about parkrun. Started in 2004 by Paul Sinton-Hewitt with a handful of friends in Bushy park, Teddingon, parkrun has grown to become a global phenomenon. Part of its success is that it has stuck to its original principles: that it is a free, weekly, timed run in the park. Much emphasis is put on the word “run” – it is most definitely a run not a race. Although it is timed, with many people chasing PBs (personal bests), there are also local points awarded for attendance and a yearly prize ceremony that rewards loyalty rather than speed. Although such a huge weekly event requires organisation so that parkrun HQ now employs paid staff, the on-the-ground organisation is carried out week-in-week-out by volunteers. Runners who are injured, or resting their legs before a big race, or friends and family of runners, all step in to act as timekeepers or marshals or other roles, so that the parkrun can take place. The volunteers and runners combined make up the parkrun “family”, with many people finding companionship and a social aspect to the weekly run. And with the emphasis also being on the fact that it is free, there are no bars to participation – all are welcome in the parkrun family. This last point has become the source of much controversy and media attention recently with the Stoke Gifford Parish Council becoming the first local council to vote to charge parkrun to use a public park as the venue of the Little Stoke parkrun, on the grounds that it costs them to maintain the pathways that the runners run on. The result was that the Little Stoke parkrun was then cancelled, provoking a storm on social media using the hashtags #lovelittlestoke and #loveparkrun.

My own parkrun habit began thousands of miles away from the UK, in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. And no, before you rush to the website to check, there is not a Wadi Rum parkrun – not yet, anyway! I was on a group adventure holiday, travelling around Jordan visiting the various sites such as Petra and Jerash. For one night we got to camp out in a Berber Bedouin tent in the desert. The communal tent was very hot, so many of the group opted to sleep outside, gazing up at the stars. In the morning the outside group assumed that any people not rolling up their sleeping bags outside were inside the tent, and vice versa with the inside people. So it took quite a while to realise that one of our number was missing; Martin, an academic who was in his late 70s. As we were starting to worry, Martin came running across the desert to be quite surprised at our concern. A lifelong runner who had completed many marathons, Martin had woken up early and gone for an early morning run amongst the sandstone pillars. He was probably the fittest person in the group and fitter than people half his age. Talking to him later about his running, I expressed my admiration as I couldn’t run for a bus! I had been thinking for some time that I needed to do something to combat the weight that I had put on, and the realisation that I was pretty unfit, and it came as a shock to be so shown up as unfit by a man in his 70s. The problem was that I have never been a “sporty” person; I hated PE at school, and have never found a sport that I actually enjoyed. Martin told me about parkrun and suggested that I look it up when we got back to the UK to see if there was a parkrun near me.

I did as he suggested and found Walthamstow parkrun that was easy for me to get to. At this point I couldn’t run for a minute so there was no way I was going to be able to run it, but I saw that they were looking for volunteers and so I put my name down. That first time I was given the task of handing out the finish tokens to the runners at the finish line – these tokens have a barcode on them, and the runners take them to a barcode scanner who scans them alongside the runner’s unique barcode so that the runner’s finishing time and position can then be worked out. It wasn’t a particularly arduous job, just standing handing out the little finish tokens in the right order, but it was a great introduction to parkrun. After the start, the volunteers have a good 15 minutes before having to get ready for the first finisher to come sprinting towards the finish line, and so time for a good chat! Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and I found I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I got home I put my name down for the next week. Very soon I found that I was volunteering whenever I was free at the weekend, doing whatever role was needed, including barcode scanning and timekeeping. I was starting to get to know the regulars – one of the advantages of barcode scanning is that you get to see everyone’s name on their own barcodes, and I was also amazed at how many people would thank me for volunteering. But when chatting to people before the start and after the run, several people started asking when I was going to run it. When I responded saying that I couldn’t run that far, people were encouraging and suggested that I gave it a go, that I could run and walk and it didn’t matter how fast or slow I took.

Various people also told me about the NHS Couch-to-5k plan which takes complete beginners through to being able to run 5km in 9 weeks. I downloaded the app onto my phone, and set off to a nearby park to start the process of learning how to run. That first week consisted of three runs of alternate periods of 60 seconds of running with 90 seconds of walking. It brought me up short as I realised just how unfit I was and what a long way I had to go. Just running for 60 seconds exhausted me, and the thought of running for 30 minutes continuously seemed impossible. But I kept at it, helped enormously when I found a friend who was at the same stage of running and we started running together. I still hated every run, but somehow something was changing, and I soon found that although I hated going out for run, I started to enjoy the feeling I got at the end of the run as the endorphins kicked in. And then much to my amazement, by the time I got towards the end of the training programme, I started to actually want to go out for a run – and realised that I had become a runner!

The first time I turned up at parkrun to actually run it was great – everyone was so encouraging, and cheered me in as I finished. Yes, I had to mix running and walking, and I had a very slow time, but it didn’t matter – I had done it! Since then I have taken part 16 times – I have had setbacks with injuries and many weeks when I have been away or not able to run for various reasons. But it had become such a habit that when I am away at the weekend now, the first thing I do is look to see if there is a nearby parkrun that I can go to. I’ve taken part in 5 different parkruns so far, from Salisbury to Yorkshire, and although they are all very different, they are all very welcoming and friendly. However, like any family member I still feel like I have come home to my parkrun family home of Walthamstow whenever I run there! I am still very slow, and haven’t yet managed to run it without stopping to walk and catch my breath, but it gives me goals to work towards, and I always eagerly wait for the results to come out to see if I’ve got a PB and feel on top of the world when I have. Although I grumble about having to get up early on a Saturday morning instead of having a lie-in, once out I enjoy the fact that I’m up and about before most people have got up and feel incredibly virtuous – it’s a great way to start the weekend. And it’s amazing how many times we can find something to celebrate with cake at the end, with some great cake-bakers that would rival Mary Berry with their creations!

Parkrun is so much more than a run in the park though. It’s also an incredible force for community good. At Walthamstow, one week one of the regular runners organised a clean-up after parkrun, and everyone was encouraged to stay behind and go litter-picking to clean up the playing field producing huge bags of litter:

Then there are the charity initiatives, such as the month in which we were encouraged to donate our “time” to Alzheimer’s UK – a link from the parkrun website converted the finishing time into pounds and pence, or when the founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt ran the London Marathon last weekend and encouraged every parkrunner to sponsor him just £1, raising over £20,000 for Alzheimer’s UK. Every Friday the parkrun newsletter pops into my email, containing inspirational stories of ordinary people who have discovered parkrun and in getting the parkrun habit have managed to lose weight, or beat depression, or fight cancer or diabetes or other diseases. Or just simply have found it to be a great thing to do with family members or who have found friends and even partners through parkrun.

So if, like me, you never thought that you would be able to run for 5km, think again! To get involved and get your own parkrun habit, you just have to register on the parkrun website to get your own unique runner number and barcode. Then look up to find your nearest parkrun and simply turn up at the parkrun for a 9am start. You’ll soon find it’s a habit that you don’t want to break!

 

 

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Sri Lankan food: spicy and abundant

Not for nothing is Sri Lanka sometimes called the Spice Island. I can’t count the number of times I was told that a dish was “not too spicy” only to feel as though my mouth was on fire as chilli appears to be a staple ingredient in Sri Lankan cooking! The little “Spice Shack” in Galle proudly displayed its write-up in the Guardian newspaper and had all sorts of interesting looking spices in jars and baskets, and I wish I’d had room in my luggage to bring back a tonne of their spicy cashews.

As Sri Lanka is an island, it should not have come as a surprise to me to find fish frequently on the menu, with a local fish called Seer fish rapidly becoming my favourite.

For the second week of my holiday in Sri Lanka I was staying at a yoga retreat that was right on the Indian Ocean, where we could watch the fishermen skilfully rowing what looked like very precarious catamarans through the strong waves to land the boats, and where our evening yoga sessions were punctuated with the cries of fishermen calling out their wares for sale direct from the beach. You could also buy fresh fish direct from the fishermen’s stalls next to the sea in Galle, or from fish markets teeming with all sorts of fish, from giant tuna to king-sized prawns. It was a shame though when I came across three picturesque stilt fishermen to find that they were only posing for tourists, and that they could make a better living from the tip-money that tourists gave them than from fishing from stilts as they would have done for centuries.

As well as fish, there was an abundance of vegetables, including many I had not seen or eaten before like jack fruit which was often made into curries, and red bananas that were not as sweet as the yellow variety. It must be a vegetarian’s paradise – as well as a photographer’s paradise as in every town there were markets with colourful displays of fruit and veg piled high on tables, as well as on roadside stalls. And at a roadside stall I first tried coconut water drunk straight from the coconut with a straw – I think it must be an acquired taste though, and one that I’m not that anxious to acquire!

One of the best meals I had in Sri Lanka was a lunch in a village in Habarana, where huge lotus leaves were used as plates – they didn’t absorb liquid and it was amazing to pour drops of water on the leaf and watch them roll off!

One of my favourite dishes was a coconut sambal that was a bit like Russian roulette – some mouthfuls were cool, light and sharp but others again set my mouth on fire. On my return to the UK I looked up recipes for coconut sambal; there are plenty around including a Delia Smith recipe, and they seem to be very simple to make mostly being just grated coconut with lemon/lime juice, chilli and salt, although some also have coriander and tomatoes stirred through. Another sambal that was delicious was aubergine sambal, that was crispy and also sweet – I haven’t yet found a recipe that replicates the delicious sweet aubergine sambal I had in Sri Lana though.

One of my favourite dishes though was one of the simplest and also a staple dish in Sri Lanka – dhal. Whilst on the yoga retreat we had the chance to go to a Sri Lankan cookery class, but I regret that I didn’t take up the opportunity. I am grateful to one of the yogis who not only went to the cookery class but wrote down the recipes – thanks Steve Pearce!

DHAL (for three people)

6 small red shallots, thinly sliced

150g red lentils

2 lge garlic cloves, thinly slice

1 tsp curry powder

1 tsp turmeric

Lge pinch of salt

1.5-2 inch stick of cinnamon (splintered, not whole)

Half a coconut (desiccated)

7 curry leaves (torn)

Add one cup of water to the desiccated coconut and really mix it in well until the liquid has been absorbed. Squeeze the coconut mixture through a sieve, over a bowl. This is the “reserved” first extraction. Repeat this step twice but this time, the extracted liquid is poured straight into the pan containing all of the other ingredients.

Cook everything for around ten minutes before adding the reserved first extraction of the coconut liquid.

NB1 I’ve since read that the reason that the first extraction cannot go into the pan, is that it is more concentrated, and would likely break down if cooked for the ten minutes.

NB2 Don’t worry too much if it looks as though there is too much liquid in the pan when you first start cooking it – the lentils are very absorbent.

 

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Religion in Sri Lanka

I had not given religion much thought before travelling to Sri Lanka, but once there you cannot help but notice it as it is everywhere. I had seen images of giant statues of Buddha in the travel brochure, but didn’t know what to expect and didn’t fully appreciate the role that religion plays in modern Sri Lankan society. It came as a surprise, therefore, to see Christian shrines at almost every street corner in Negombo, or Buddhas in every car and tuk-tuk in Galle, or to go past Hindu temples with every inch covered in multi-coloured statues. The different religions seem to co-exist peacefully, with some temples even being shared by Hindus and Buddhists, and with a Christian church sitting inside the compound of the main Buddhist monastery in Kandy, right next to the sacred Bo tree revered by the Buddhists.

On my whistle-stop tour of the country I was able to visit a number of important religious sites, although I learnt after leaving the country that there are a number of important sites and monasteries that foreign tourists are not allowed to visit. When visiting a religious site I was anxious to ensure that I adhered to any rules and showed respect to the religion concerned, although I found some of the ‘rules’ or conventions rather puzzling. For example, I am used to having to cover up when visiting mosques in Istanbul, or cathedrals in Italy. And so I was surprised to find that at Buddhist sites, although you have to cover your shoulders and legs you have to go barefoot and bare-headed, as it is disrespectful to cover your head in the presence of Buddha. And whilst the guardians of the temple were more than happy for tourists to take photos of the statues of Buddha, taking a photo of the tourist posing in front of the statue was considered disrespectful. I was interested in why it was a ‘no-no’ to have bare shoulders when the Buddhist monks at the site walked around with bare shoulders on display, but when I asked our guide this I was just told “well, they’re monks” as if this should explain it!  At one site we had to take off our sandals in order to climb up an enormous rock barefoot which was rather uncomfortable especially as the stone and rock underfoot became boiling hot under the Sri Lankan sun. But on returning to reclaim our sandals I was rather chuffed to be given a large paintbrush to dust the sand and grit off my soles which worked a treat.

Buddhism is the predominant religion in SL and the country is an important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists from around the world, as it is said that Buddha visited the island three times between 528 and 520 BC. The first Buddhist site we visited was Mihintale, said to be the “cradle of Buddhism” in Sri Lanka, as it is where the Buddhist monk Mahinda, son of the Indian King Asoka is said to have converted the Sri Lankan Kind Davanampiya Tissa to Buddhism, and hence introduced the religion to the island.

From Mihintale, we went to Dambulla where in the amazing cave temples there were more statues of Buddha than you could possibly imagine. It was explained that Buddha is depicted in four poses: standing, seated, teaching and lying down. Of the lying down position, a slightly different position of the Buddha’s feet indicates whether he is sleeping or passed away, although I found it impossible to tell the difference, it was so subtle. The cave temples date back to the 1st century BC when King Valagambahu sought refuge in the caves after being exiled from Anuradhapura. When the king regained his throne after 14 years he converted the caves into rock temples in gratitude to the monks who had offered him sanctuary.

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Photo credit: Ali Shaw

My favourite Buddhist place though was the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. This enormous monastery is a place of pilgrimage for many Buddhists as it contains a tooth allegedly belonging to Buddha and which is kept in a gold casket inside a shrine in front of which devotees place offerings of brightly coloured flowers. This reminded me a little of holy relics in cathedrals in France, Spain and Italy. Despite being very busy with thousands of visitors, the Temple was actually very spiritual, with a number of different places where you could burn a coconut oil lamp and pray for enlightenment, and the racks of oil lamps with the flames flickering in the sun were very atmospheric.

In Unawatuna on the South coast, the village has become increasingly commercialized and attracts many tourists but it still has a laid-back hippy charm. At the end of the beach is a temple which we were told was used by both Hindus and Buddhists. Overseeing the beach and coast is a Peace Pagoda with Buddha looking down on the hustle and bustle below.

Colombo was not on my itinerary, but looking at the photos of my travel companions on return it is definitely a place I must visit next time!

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Photo credit: Ali Shaw

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Photo credit: Ali Shaw

Hinduism is also prevalent in SL, although the Hindu communities are concentrated mainly in the northern and eastern provinces. We visited a couple of Hindu temples but were not allowed to enter inside the temples themselves. My friend and travel companion was Hindu and her grandfather was a Hindu priest so she was able to tell me about some of the stories behind the Hindu tradition but the tales were so fantastical it was difficult to retain all the information! Definitely something I need to read up on.

Christians settled on the Sri Lankan coast in the early centuries AD but the religion, specifically Roman Catholicism, gained prominence only with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Protestantism and other Christian denominations were introduced during the Dutch and British eras. Since the end of Colonial rule, the number of Christians has declined to about 7% of the population.

The only Christian church I went in was in Galle in the South of the island, where there is a Dutch Reformed Church built in 1755 on the site of a Portuguese convent with an attractive white façade, and an Anglican church build specifically for the British community in the 19th century. It was interesting to see the list of past vicars in the church change from English-sounding names to more Sri Lankan names.

Islam was brought to SL by Arab traders in the 7th century, but now the community comprises less than 10% of the population, mostly concentrated along the coast. The Meeran Jumma Mosque in Galle looks very similar to the Dutch church and only on closer inspection do you see the crescent and Arab script revealing its true function.

I hope I can return to Sri Lanka someday and do more than merely scratch the surface of the country. As far as religion goes, they seem to have got it right – the different religions sit side-by-side and coexist peacefully and respectfully. It’s a beautiful and fascinating island, and religion plays a big role in making the country an attractive place to visit.

 

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A short walk through the Isle of Dogs

If you’re looking for a short walk in London, you can’t go far wrong by walking from Canary Wharf to Greenwich, through the Isle of Dogs. I was looking for somewhere to go with a friend and her mother who was down in London from Scotland, and chose this walk yesterday as we wanted somewhere away from the Bank Holiday crowds and thought that places like the Southbank would be mobbed.

The walk takes about 35 minutes, so we thought we would aim to get to Greenwich for lunch. Meeting up at Canary Wharf tube station, you first have to find your way across the South Dock towards South Quay. I always find Canary Wharf a bit disorienting; there are so many high-rise office blocks, it’s almost like a City in its own right.

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But within minutes of leaving the bustling Canary Wharf you very soon find yourself alone and walking alongside Millwall Dock. The Dock was built in 1865 and is an L-shaped dock divided into the Inner and Outer Dock by the attractive Glengall bridge. Millwall Docks were best known for the grain trade, and housed the first purpose built granary for the Baltic grain market. The unique brick-built granary was 76 metres long, 30.5 metres wide and was designed to hold 24,000 tons of bulk grain. It had 11 floors for storage and inspection and a delivery floor and basement. The granary was divided into five compartments with vertical firewalls and had a 20,000 gallon (91,000 litre) water tank on the roof for fire fighting and windows for ventilation. Three pneumatic grain elevators were erected on platforms 15 metres away from the jetty. These could discharge directly into barges or to the granary.

In its heyday there would have been hundreds of dock workers and granary workers working in the area which would have been as busy and bustling as Canary Wharf now is, but yesterday in the sunshine it seemed a sleepy, pleasant, quiet area – a hidden gem that would easily qualify for the “Secret London” tag. There are a few Dutch barges turned into houseboats, and the majority of buildings lining the dock are being turned into flats that are probably being sold for prices that the original dockworkers could only dream of. The dock has one other claim to fame slightly different to its industrial heritage: it was used as the location for boat stunts in the 1999 James Bond film “The World Is Not Enough”!

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Glengall Bridge, Millwall Inner Dock

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The walk then runs along East Ferry Road towards Mudchute, past another hidden gem of Secret London – Mudchute City Farm. I’ve long been a fan of City Farms and used to visit Hackney City Farm quite regularly. Mudchute is charming; set in 32 acres of green space where you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the countryside, although the tower blocks of Canary Wharf are visible in the immediate distance.

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Mudchute City Farm

If you can tear yourself away from the delights of Mudchute City Farm, the walk then goes past the more urban Millwall park and into Island Gardens.

At Island Gardens is the North entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, marked by a glazed dome that was damaged by bombs in the Second World War. Before going into the tunnel, there is time to pause and perhaps have a cup of tea from the Gardens café and to admire the view of Greenwich from across the Thames.

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The Greenwich Foot Tunnel is an impressive feet of engineering in its own right. I love the tunnel, and am always amazed by how few of my friends who have lived in London for many years even know of its existence. The project to build the tunnel started in June 1899, with the tunnel opening to the public on 4 August 1902. It replaced an expensive and sometimes unreliable ferry service and was intended to allow workers living on the south side of the Thames to reach their workplaces in the London docks and shipyards then situated in or near the Isle of Dogs.

The tunnel is classed as a public highway and therefore by law is kept open 24 hours a day, and as much as I love it, I think it would be a bit spooky to go down there in the middle of the night. It would make a great location for a ghost story! The tunnels are accessible by spiral staircases and large lifts which are now self-operated; prior to recent renovations they used to be operated by a grumpy lift attendant who would make sure the ‘no cycling’ rule was strictly adhered to. With the demise of the lift operators and despite the signs everywhere stating ‘no cycling’ several cyclists decided to ignore this rule yesterday. Walking through the tunnel I always have a sense of awe that I’m actually walking under the Thames. Funnily enough I don’t have the same sense of awe when driving through the Blackwall Tunnel – maybe it’s something to do with being a much smaller space.

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The South side of the tunnel brings you out right by the Cutty Sark and into the heart of Greenwich. As it was Good Friday, and a sunny one at that, the place was thronged with crowds all out enjoying the sunshine. We soon realised the schoolgirl error we had made as we hadn’t made a reservation for lunch and couldn’t get into any café / restaurant as they were all booked out for hours. But we managed to find a seat in the pub in Greenwich market, and eventually managed to get some lunch!

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Returning to Canary Wharf at sunset provided a beautiful red sky with the city as a backdrop.

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So, if you’re looking for a short walk that takes you back through time, with some fascinating industrial architecture and a City Farm thrown in, you can’t do much better than the Isle of Dogs. Just remember to book a restaurant for lunch in Greenwich if going on a Bank Holiday!

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Masterchef bingo

The latest series of Masterchef started last night, with the usual line-up of contestants chomping at the bit to reach the finals, with the dream of chucking in their day-jobs to open a resturant, write a cookery book and take part in numerous cookery fairs or pop-up supper clubs. I have enjoyed watching Masterchef for many years, and wrote a post in December about the last “Professionals” series which you can find in the archive section. But are you, like me, feeling that the format is getting a tad clichéd and needs some spicing up? More bang bang chicken than plain roast chicken? Do you find yourself nodding off when faced with Gregg’s pudding face yet again? Well never fear, I have just the answer for you: Masterchef bingo. From now on, Masterchef episodes can be turned into a fun game that will keep you on your toes and riveted to the telly! First you need to download your handy, free bingo card here:

Masterchef bingo card

Then decide how you are going to play; there are no hard and fast rules. If playing alone, you may simply decide to use one card per episode and just see how many boxes you can cross off and therefore which episodes contain the most clichés. If there are more than one of you playing, you may decide to nominate a line either across or down to each person, and the one who gets the most crossed off wins. Or just see who can be the first to shout out “bingo” on getting a full line or “house” for the whole card. Or turn it into a drinking game and take a slug of whisky or your desired beverage every time a word on the card comes up on the programme.

Some of the items on the card are self-explanatory; if you have “beetroot” for example, you can cross it off the first time a contestant uses beetroot as an ingredient; similarly whenever a contestant announces “Enjoy!” as an instruction/order you can take a drink if playing the drinking game. On second thoughts, maybe just the first time as they seem to shout “Enjoy” all the time and I don’t want to be held responsible for your inebriation. Not all the items are words that need to be said by the contestants, however. “Blobs” refers to the fashion for decorating a plate with blobs of sauce from a squeezy container that looks like it should contain paint at a nursery or ketchup in a greasy spoon. “Puddle/smear” can be crossed off whenever a contestant puts a spoon-shaped puddle of ingredient on a plate and then drags the spoon across it to give the puddle a tadpole tail, as a base for ‘plating’ the other ingredients on top. And “paint-brushed plate” does what it says on the tin and can be crossed off when the contestant starts to ‘plate’ the dish by painting a thick line of sauce across the plate.

From memory, fifteen of the items could have been obtained in last night’s episode, which got the series off to a cracking start with the introduction of Indian Sushi from contestant Chris, which didn’t have a single item on the bingo card – oh, except perhaps the ubiquitous ‘enjoy’ command. Still, we can’t have clichés with every contestant, can we?

Enjoy.

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Sri Lankan wildlife

Mention the word “safari” and I’m instantly transported to the wilds of Africa, and to game reserves containing lions, tigers and giraffes. So I was surprised to recently find myself on safari, not in Africa, but in Sri Lanka. I had gone to Sri Lanka for a week’s yoga holiday and preceded the yoga with a week’s tour travelling around the country visitng the cultural sights rather than having gone to the country to see wildlife. However a couple of days of the ‘cultural’ bit of the holiday I found myself on a safari in an open topped jeep, binoculars to hand, eagerly scanning a wildlife park for signs of leopards.

The wildlife park was called Wilpattu National Park, on the North West coast of the island. Although Wilpattu is the largest national park in Sri Lanka, it is also a lot quieter than the other national parks. My guidebook told me that before the Civil War, it was one of the most popular parks but was shut down in 1985 following an attack on the wardens by the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). It reopened briefly but then shut again until 2010.

I started to get very excited when I read that the star attraction of the park are the leopards and also the sloth bear. But then I also read that wildlife in the park suffered greatly at the hands of poachers during the Civil War and is still recovering, and the vast expanse and thick undergrowth keep animal sightings few and far between, although it is great for birds, so I went into the park with little expectation of seeing anything. And with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised at how much we did see, even though the sloth and leopards, sadly, remained elusive.

However, the one animal I didn’t see in Wilpattu that I was expecting to see was the elephant as deforestation due to a rise in population in recent years has dwindled elephant numbers considerably. The British are not covered in glory either with regard to elephant conservation in the past. During the reign of the Sinhalese kings, no elephant could be captured, killed or maimed without the King’s permission. But when the British came to power, this protection was withdrawn. The British saw elephants as agricultural pests and paid a bounty for each elephant killed, leading to the slaughter of thousands of elephants in the 19th century. But the next day I went to another park, the “Elephant Ecopark” where our guide said that we were “guaranteed” to see elephants. And although the trip into the park got off to a bad start as our jeep broke down, this turned out to be fortuitous as we lost the line of tourist jeeps all jostling to be at the front to see the elephants and found ourselves on our own in the park. Not long into the park I saw my first wild elephants, followed by lots more just eating the vegetation and walking out right in front of the jeep, including a two-week baby elephant. At one point everyone was watching the elephants to the left of the jeep and I just turned around and saw the most beautiful sunset on the other side of the jeep which I nearly missed!

But it wasn’t just in wildlife parks that I saw amazing wildlife – the country is teeming with it! There are monkeys everywhere, some of them incredibly daring and we had warnings of monkeys stealing mobile phones or sunglasses. In one park I saw thousands of fruit bats, and even in town centres like Galle there were kingfishers, other birds and the ubiquitous monkeys. And on the South coast you can go whale watching, where I saw a pod of dolphins and two huge blue whales that were like elephants of the sea. So although I didn’t go to Sri Lanka specifically to see the wildlife, I was amazed by the variety of the Sri Lankan wildlife and it would be enough to make any wildlife enthusiast very happy indeed.

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Do you judge a book by its cover?

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Recently I was made to ponder this question, and found that in my case the answer is clearly “yes”! But let me backtrack a bit. How do you choose what book to read? I’m sure that 99% of people do what I usually do, which is to either read a book that has been recommended by a friend or in a book review, or is by an author that I know and like, or simply by picking up the book attracted by its cover and then by reading the blurb on the back of the book. It’s a bit harder to do this with electronic book readers like a kindle, but the latest versions show the book cover in picture format and have the blurb on the back there too. And book covers tend to be very type-specific too; chic-lit books often have a cutesy cartoon image of a sassy young woman and curly writing in pink or purple, whereas books like Andy McNab’s SAS books often have embossed covers and a strong picture of a soldier or weapons on the front, etc. You can immediately see what type of book it is and make an instant judgement on whether you will enjoy it or not.

For the last couple of years I have sporadically attended a book club at my local Waterstone’s shop – sporadically because I work shifts and so often am not available on book club night. But I also have to admit that if I really don’t fancy the chosen book I will sometimes give that month a miss. Life is too short to waste reading something that you don’t enjoy, right? And I’m not very good at number 4 on this advice on how to read more (if you aren’t enjoying a book stop reading it immediately) so often will prefer simply not to start it if I think I’m not going to enjoy it.

Because I miss book club so often, I usually find out which book has been chosen for the month by email. And the book chosen for March was Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. I had not heard of this book, or the author, but had a dim recollection at the back of my mind that someone had written a non-fiction book about London’s underground rivers, and thought that this was the book. The cover showed a map with the distinctive Thames and the words “In the heart of the capital a different world hides”, which only seemed to support my theory that this was a book about subterranean rivers! I was due to go on holiday and was in the process of loading my kindle with holiday reading material so thought I would add this to my list. And then found that it was in the fiction not non-fiction section. But I just downloaded it to my kindle without reading about what the book was about.

And in the heat of Sri Lanka on holiday I started to read it. The first page got right into the story with a murder that had been committed in Covent Garden and took the viewpoint of the young probationer constable who had been given the unenviable task of spending hours manning the police cordon whilst the murder investigation team detectives set about investigating the murder. So, a crime novel then. I enjoy a good crime drama and so settled into my hammock to read on. But then a little way into the novel things got a bit weird. There was a witness to the murder who was a ghost, and a wizard appeared. At this point I started to get annoyed and angry as I realised the book was a sort of Harry Potter / Buffy the Vampire Slayer type of fantasy book. Now fantasy is not a genre that I have any interest in reading, and I would never knowingly buy and read a book in this genre, so I felt a bit duped. But as I had bought it and started it I thought I might as well read on and struggle through it so that I could go to book club and talk about it. And then as I read on, much to my surprise I found myself hooked, and eagerly wanting to carry on with the next chapter.

It’s an easy read, which is just what you want on holiday. There are some really annoying bits of it, but it is quite funny and entertaining and quite fast-paced. And in the end I actually enjoyed it which was a complete surprise to me, so much so that I’m now considering buying the next book in the series. Looking back at the cover I realise that if I had looked closely at the little diagrams lining the river, I might have picked up a few clues about the contents. But certainly, if I had done so, or had read the blurb and realised what it was about, I would never have read it and that would be a shame – I think I would have missed out.

So, do you judge a book by it’s cover? Well yes, but that’s not always a good thing as then our natural prejudices come into play and we may well miss out on something enjoyable. I’ve certainly decided I need to try to have a more open mind when deciding what to read in he future which can only be a good thing.

 

 

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Lumiere London – let there be light!

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January. Dark, gloomy, long cold nights. Christmas and New Year seem a long time ago, and the summer holidays stretch far away in the future. The media is full of articles on how to beat the January Blues, or how to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and for those doing Dry January there is not even the enjoyment of a nice glass of red wine or a pint in front of the fire in a cosy pub.

And yet for Londoners there was light at the end of the tunnel – quite literally. For four glorious nights the capital city was bathed in light for the inaugural festival of light – Lumiere London. Brought to the city by Artichoke – the company who had previously paraded a giant clockwork elephant through the streets of London – Lumiere brought fantastic light installations to various parts of the city for all to marvel at.

This free event had previously been put on by Artichoke in Durham, and there have been other ‘light’ festivals such as Light Night Leeds, but this was the first time that London had been turned into a giant canvas for art installations.

Unlike a number of other events, Lumiere didn’t receive a lot of pre-event hype or marketing, and the event crept up on us seemingly from nowhere. When I first heard about it I was intrigued, but wasn’t entirely sure it would work in such a large city. For a start there were various logistical problems to overcome, such as stopping the traffic in Oxford and Regent Streets and the chaos this might cause. The city is also too big to walk around and see all the exhibits, so for those wanting to see everything in one night they had to use the tube and other means of public transport, which led to warnings being put out through the media that the tube would be unusually busy and for people to leave more time to complete journeys. And although it crept up on us, once it was here the buzz surrounding it was incredible, with articles in the papers and people’s social media accounts being filled with brilliant photos of intriguing luminous objects. In fact, it became so popular and successful that on the Saturday night, day three of the festival, so many people crowded into the centre of the city it became dangerously overcrowded and the festival organisers had to switch off the lights in order to disperse the crowds.

There were four main areas where the installations were centered: Kings Cross, Oxford Circus, Mayfair and Leicester Square. I could only make it to one of these areas, Kings Cross, so the other photos on his post are by my friend Susan Deer, who made it to the other sites and is also much better with a camera than me!

Each area had a different character. Leicester Square was turned into a magical garden of light, with giant snowdrops, huge rushes and grasses and brilliant flowers looking just like the tissue paper ones I used to make as a child.

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Oxford Street, Regent Street and the surrounding roads saw a circus of fantastical creatures: enormous tadpoles floating high in the air above the street, a giant elephant waddling along, balloon-type dogs and stick-men acrobats tumbling down a building.

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At Kings Cross people were led up from the station to Granary Square via various installations, including one where people could make their graffiti on the pavement with light wands. At Granary Square there was a giant Circus of Light, complete with sound effects, projected onto the main Granary Square building. Inside there was also a beautiful installation made from solar powered plastic bottles, with an explanation about how this brilliant piece of simple technology was providing light in areas of the world that did not have access to electricity – art with a social conscience.

In various areas there were volunteers handing out maps with enthusiasm and who reminded me of the Gamesmakers at the 2012 Olympic Games. It was all rather haphazard though – one volunteer stamped my map and explained that there were stamps at each installation and a prize if you collected all the stamps, yet at the next few installations I couldn’t find the volunteer with the stamp. One volunteer said that he knew nothing about the stamps and loads of people had been asking him about them. Other volunteers had no idea where some of the exhibits were and were rather at a loss when being asked for directions. It seemed like they could have done with a better pre-event briefing.

The festival was refreshingly uncommercial; it was free to attend and you could just wander around at will. And yet I couldn’t help thinking that a little bit of commercialism would have been welcome, as it was absolutely freezing when I attended, and I would have liked to have stood in Granary Square watching the Circus of Light for a lot longer than I did but had to give up as I was so cold. If there had been some stalls selling hot chocolate, or coffee, or even mulled wine, I might have been able to brave the cold for a little longer!

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Overall, despite the various problems – the overcrowding, the cold and the distance between installations, I thought it was a brave and ambitious project – and quite a brilliant one. I loved it, and hoped that it would become an annual event, so was disappointed to read in the paper that it would not be returning next year. I think this is a shame, but quite understand why – it is an enormous feat of organisation to do this on such a large scale. But I felt privileged to have seen it and will always remember the time that London lit up the night skies and banished the January blues.

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