Museum

The Archaeological Museum of Agrigento isn’t exactly what I call interactive. It’s more ‘old school’. Or old Sicily. After the Valley of the Temples, and the disappearance of Claudio, we’re let loose in town for just long enough to down a few glasses of wine and a spot of pasta before being decanted back into the coach and poured back out again, against our better judgement.

 

Everything is housed in glass cabinets of which there are nearly as many as there were tourists in this morning’s security queue. Largely, they contain pots and vases. To be fair, she did warn us of vase overkill but one can have too many vases. I manage to locate a case of ceramic penises of differing sizes but then we’re back to pots.

 

Vased out, I escape outside into the sunshine and find the Oratorio – the beautiful church of St Nicholas depicted in the first two photos. A wedding is imminent and due to the heat the ladies are only now arranging the flowers. It’s quite stunning but around the corner I spy two suited types and a pretty woman with long dark hair dressed in a bright orange frock. She looks suspiciously like that female in the art installation up at Concordia. Surely not?

More and more guests stroll up the path towards the Oratorio. This is better than all the vases in history. The men sport dark glasses and super skinny expensive suits. The women are immaculately clothed – many in full length dresses, dripping in diamonds, Heels ridiculously high. It looks like a scene straight from The Sopranos. I feel it must be a Mafioso wedding. Sadly, we’re not allowed to wait for the bride: Angelo, our driver, has arrived and I think has been told to disappear ‘velocemente’. It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened all day – apart from Claudio.

 

 

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Valley of the Temples

We arrive at 8.30am, as do most of the other groups that have been herded onto coaches and disgorged onto a hill before their breakfasts – alleged scrambled egg and suspicious chopped frankfurter – have had time to attempt settlement. They say we have to get here before the day gets any hotter.

Today’s specialist guide is Claudio. He’s very Sicilian in an Indiana Jones type of way. He sports a large hat that might have been white when the Greeks invaded. He wears a grey linen jacket which probably saw better days on a man less substantially built; a lesser man in all ways for Claudio is nothing if not macho.

 

We wait for about twenty minutes in a queue for ‘security’. The crowds are restless and the Italians start booing when someone is allowed in ahead of them. Claudio is bored and demands another gate is opened, which it is. ‘Security’ isn’t very stringent: a cursory glance inside open handbags and a quick body sweep with an airport-type scanner that beeps on making contact with me. The beeps are ignored:’prego, prego’ as I’m waved in unceremoniously. We regroup – all fifty of us who can only spot each other by the orange radio receivers which we wear.

We climb 59 steps to the Temple of Hera. Wasn’t she the one whose head kept talking to Jason on his boat trip with the Argonauts? Love that film. Still. Claudio is a font of archaeological and historical knowledge so is a bit peed off that we want to know about the statue that looks like a spaceman. ‘It’s supposed to be art. Not of importance’, he snaps.

 

We walk the whole length of the ridge that houses five temples. At the Concordia, which is the most complete of these, there’s another art installation. This comprises four large screens, each with a video of a woman in an orange frock simulating sex with some invisible entity – possibly a god. It’s distracting.

Claudio, who every now and then sings in English, gathers us under a 500 years old olive tree and tries to enlighten us historically. In my notes, I’ve written that there are always 613 seeds in a pomegranate. I’ve no idea why as, even with the help of the radio receivers, most of his monologue is drowned out by the initially ecstatic, and subsequently painful, shrieks of the lady in the orange dress. A Daily Mail Brexiteer next to me mutters that she wishes someone would put her out of her misery.

Claudio shows us a rare Argentinian goat but everyone’s lost the plot so no-one knows why we’ve stopped. Some of the less able have fallen by the wayside and have to be retrieved a couple of hours later when we rediscover the coach. Claudio sings ‘when I’m sixty-four’. Most of us would be pleased to see that year again.

Tricky

My friend, the pathfinder, always maintains that nothing goes to plan with me. By this, she means ‘uneventful’ never happens. She’s sent me on ahead to settle us into our new digs; a pretty poor show on her part. After all, she’s the pathfinder.

I always knew it was going to be tricky. Our billet is in the arse end of nowhere. It’s not even mentioned on my map. Fortunately, daughter number one lends me a sat nav. It’s the first time I’ve ever used such a thing. Unfortunately, just when I’m thinking I may ask for one for Christmas, it closes down. That would be at Southampton. Only another fifty miles of country tracks to navigate until Goosegreen Lane.

I take the old school route i.e. I have handy pre-written directions. Sadly they run out in the middle of West Sussex and as there are few options in which to seek help, I go into the local bike shop.

‘Can I help’, asks aging hippie?

‘I’m very lost’, I reply pathetically, hoping the aged blonde bimbo treatment might work.

‘We’re all lost here’, says Donald Sutherland. ‘Where have you come from?’

‘Poole’, I say.

‘Well, you’re closer than you think’, says he. Closer to what? Ohmmmm.

I find Goosegreen Lane and in celebration drive up and down it a number of times, making sure to call in at every house and farm along the way. ‘We have lots of people looking for your venue’, says a jovial type from Oak Farm. ‘Never found it yet’.

Well, I find it but no-one’s answering the phone or opening the impressive electric gates. I hang around for a while, tooting my horn and suchlike. A small bespectacled child appears over a fence.

‘Have you lost a horse mask’, he enquires? I don’t think so but as I have no idea what a horse mask looks like, I can’t be sure.’ I’ve found one’ he proudly informs me. ‘Good work, now can you find me a parent’, I ask? He looks dubious. ‘I’m thinking of climbing over these fences’, I inform him. ‘Do you know if they’ve got dogs?’

‘Well’, he replies politely, ‘they used to have one but I think it may be dead’.

The pathfinder texts me: ‘any progress? Are you sure you’re in the right place?’ Talk about a lack of faith.

Bespectacled child’s papa, who has now arrived on the scene, suggests I go to the stables. This is country-speak for f-off. I f-off to the stables and meet the daughter of the house who maintains I’m not due until tomorrow. Then she breaks down in floods of tears. Mother is very ill.

Well, to cut an increasingly long story short, they let me into the cottage and allow me to help clean up the joint. With some kindness, I stroke the weeping daughter and tell the invalid mother to sit down whilst I change the beds. Then I go to the village and find the pub wherein I’m charged an exorbitant amount for a glass of the red stuff. Happy days

 

Not a great start

It’s a 4am check-in at Gatwick which means I leave Bromley at 3am. Which means I get up at 2am, wondering why I ever went to bed. The airport is a hideously timeless place wherein vast crowds of folk are shopping in the middle of the night. I am disorientated as I wander around Boots. On asking for my preferences – I’d prefer not to be here – I request a seat near the front of the plane and find myself next to Ursula and Anne, opposite the toilet. Those two aren’t happy about their proximity to the facility but they’ve been traveling from Cardiff since 5.30 yesterday evening so aren’t happy full stop. It’s very warm on here and proceeds to become hotter and hotter. It’s about 45C. Something has gone wrong with the air conditioning and the captain, who only ten minutes ago said we’d be departing early, now informs us that we must wait for engineers to come aboard. In lieu of the outside temperatures at Gatwick, and in preparation for our return, we three are clothed in winter woollies. An hour and a half later, when the cabin temperature has dropped to minus 20, all those dressed for Sicily are complaining.

Some weeks later, or so it seems, we arrive at the Hotel Kaos in Agrigento which is sort of shabby-chic without the chic. Most of our party go straight to their beds but the weather is too nice to miss a chance to drink Campari poolside. It’s a very nice pool and has a splendid view of the closed-down cement works. Anne arrives and I say she must feel quite at home: like watching the sun set over Port Talbot.

I close the loo lid in my room and it comes away in my hand. Apparently, it was held on with the paper hygiene label as there seem to be no screws in evidence. I’m too tired to care but the next morning I leave the room early to report the situation and discover a flood in the corridor. The ceiling is leaking from a dangerous looking crack. Still, it means I now have two things to discuss with my new friend, Pablo the night porter. Pablo and I go upstairs to look at the ceiling and he makes a note on the extensive list of hotel defects before deciding to open the bar and make us both coffee, so strong that the spoon stands up in it without support. ‘One for you and one for me’, says Pablo who informs me that the death of the cement works is a crisis: ‘nothing else for people to do here’, he reports sadly. If he was French, he’d say, ‘meh bah’, but I’ve never seen anyone look more Italian, especially at 6.30am.

 

Travels

Another Sunday morning and yet another trip to London Town, this time weighed down by too many bags in lieu of a birthday party prior to a trip to warmer climes. Whilst waiting, I play ‘guess whether the taxi will arrive on time’; a forerunner to ‘guess whether the train will be cancelled’. Martin Lockyer turns up in his cab. He plays golf at the same club as my father and thinks he’s heard of him. Unsurprising.

At the station, Martin follows me with a view to using the gents’. It’s out of order and he forms an orderly queue outside the disabled facility. ‘You could use the ladies’, I suggest and he regards me as some sort of demented idiot. ‘Bloody gents’ is always out of order’, he grumbles. ‘You want to try being a woman’, I don’t say. I dump my baggage with an away-day family and instructions to look after it whilst I take advantage of the working ‘ladies’. Hope I don’t look like a terrorist.

At Bournemouth, there’s a delay whilst another portion of train is added. I always think what an ugly construction Bournemouth train station is but, as with most architectural blots on the landscape, it’s now listed as some sort of award winning establishment. Holidaymakers arriving here for the first time must find their excitement speedily dissipated when they discover how far they are from the town centre; and even further from the unseen sea.

An announcement: ‘this train is now going to Waterloo’. Must’ve missed the earlier one that suggested it was going elsewhere. Katherine, today’s guard, goes on and on with her instructions to remove baggage that may deter the buffet lady who’s yet to be seen on her journey from Eastern Europe. There’s barely a trolley now – what will happen in the buffetless days of Brexit? Travellers will starve whilst those in south coast retirement homes will pass lonely and uncaring ends to their days.

We speed onwards along the rubbish strewn tracks to New Milton which Katherine announces abruptly. I don’t know why. No-one ever disembarks at New Milton. Why would they? In fact, the train stops so far from the platform that no-one could. The folk that live here never get off on the return journey either, preferring to catch a bus from an earlier or later stop rather than risk being identified as an inhabitant. I once went to New Milton as someone mistakenly informed me they had a nice department store in town. It was a lie.

Little grows along the railway embankment apart from ivy and butterfly-forsaken buddleia as we enter the treeless New Forest. Brockenhurst: welcome to the National Park and Cyclexperience with a missing ‘e’. Two types cycle past. The first is making sole use of his rear wheel in an impromptu circus cabaret. Behind, his mate is smoking a fag in that way that serious covert smokers do i.e. not holding it between two fingers, but covering it with his hand and drawing quickly.

Ferns now overpower the ivy and the first of the ponies appear. Followed by herds surrounding tiny hamlets where trains seldom pause. Then, the first water of Southampton where once we spotted an unexpected seal. The vague sun glitters on this morning’s high tide in a desperate attempt to make it appear attractive. A sorry and pointless attempt with the backdrop of steel cranes, gantries to load and unload containers, rubble tips and row upon row of cars waiting to be transported somewhere else. Sunday morning football matches.

Katherine arrives and brusquely demands to see tickets. She doesn’t look at them though or their accompanying rail cards. Just points at them and hurries on in time for Southampton Central where, on the same seal-spotting journey, we saw a large rat. I can’t imagine anyone’s ever going to list this pile of concrete. New passengers board and the once more invisible Katherine introduces herself, reiterating instructions to avoid the trolley lady who no-one ever sees on this trip.

 

Studland and back: a very long walk

 

 

In lieu of next week’s three day jaunt along the Thames, I decide a spot of preparation might be in order and head off to Studland for a leisurely walk. I begin at the church where I was once married in another era; partly because parking’s free and partly to visit my old mucker who passes his time there. On the way back from depositing some cyclamens, and offering a nod and wink to the many others I know here from the old days, I stop to talk with a Dutch lady whose arms are full of trailing hops. She’s going to dry them and decorate her furniture apparently; and she’s thrilled about English hedgerows. There is certainly a proliferation of hops this year – maybe something to do with our glorious summer weather which continues today.

Considering I spent quite a few of my formative years in this village, today brings several surprises. On my way to the beach, I notice a path, in the wrong direction, signposted to a previously unheard of Fort Henry. I double back to investigate and find this porker sunbathing at the back of the aptly named Pig on the Beach restaurant.

 Fort Henry is a piece of WW2 history being a bunker built early on when Studland Beach was deemed to be a prime location for a possible landing by the enemy. The beach was subsequently used for practice for the D-Day landings, and in 1943 Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Mountbatten and King George IV, amongst other top brass, came here to view the next part of my walk. Unfortunately, six tanks sank with the loss of crew members from which a lesson was learned: only launch your tanks in shallow water.

 

 

 

Children being back in the classroom, and parents being back at work, the beach today is empty apart from those accompanied by pre-school small people and those who, thankfully, have relieved themselves of holiday-type relatives. And the scenery changes constantly with the light.

Time is passing and with it, the opportunity for a picnic. I stop awhile to eat my prawn and cottage cheese sandwich at a point which I think is free of naturists. This part of the sweep has been set aside for those who wish to lose their clothing for as long as I can remember. However, there are one or two stragglers who have gone off piste. In general, I don’t mind. However, there are always those who to like exhibit themselves. A large naked man decides to walk across the beach in my path. He is so fat that I doubt whether he’s seen his willy for several years. He is, nonetheless, intent on me viewing his protuberance. The thing I detest the most is when they play volleyball. All that flopping around puts one off lunch. It’s not cricket. Well, no, it’s volleyball.

I round the headland and set off into Shell Bay. The tide has receded considerably and the insistent sunshine creates wonderful colours on the water.

 

 

Here’s the starting point for the South West Coastal Path: 90 odd miles to Minehead but a lot of uphill stuff. Anyway, who wants to go to Minehead? Me, I’m crossing the road.

 

 

It’s a different kettle of fish on the other side of the peninsula. I think I forgot to say that I’m following the second walk in my new book of Dorset walks. So far, I’ve stuck to the plan but it all goes a bit pear-shaped from now on as I move into Bramble Bush Bay.

 

 

 

 

For a start, the tide is ridiculously low which means I can access places I’ve never seen before on foot. Further, there are far more birds here so it takes me ages to progress as I keep stopping to enjoy these parts of Poole Harbour that have previously been out of bounds.

I assume this very low-flying plane is about to drop a bunch of SBS types into the sea. But I’ve got more interesting things to look at.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s all too wonderful and there’s no-one else here except me. I disregard the book which tells me I should’ve moved inland some time ago. The opportunity to walk around all these headlands is too tempting: what luck to have such a tide on such a glorious day. Had it been overcast, I might’ve felt a little threatened by the solitude but today, all these inlets remind me of the reconstruction of Poole Harbour in the Bronze Age which one can see in the local museum. Nothing much can have changed in all these lonely eons.

Eventually, I run out of beach and accessible ways so I find a path back through Godlingston Heath. It feels old. Hardy’s Egdon Heath is a composite according to some theorists. Conversely, Studland or Godlingston Heath is THE place. It feels a tiny bit desolate and I can’t find an easy way back. When you’re a little bit lost, the best thing to do is to think about the wine you’re going to drink later and the food you’re going to cook: Spaghetti Bolognaise.

And while this is happening, you can look back at where you’ve been and look at The Agglestone which you didn’t mean to go to. And I know I keep harping on but you can also think how lucky you are to be alive and mobile.

 

 

When I finally got off that wretched heath, and stumbled down a path unfit for human transportation, I met a very nice dog. Then I met his owners. Having finally lost the grasp of the new map book, I enquired as to whether this was the path to Studland. ‘Yes’, said Tom, ‘but don’t go to the Bankes Arms: just had the worse food ever’. ‘Oh’, says I, for no apparent reason; ‘I was married from there in 1975’. ‘Well’, he replied. ‘I think they’ve just served the last of your wedding breakfast’.

 

 

 

 

Cowgrove and back

The beginning of September and the promise of an Indian summer. It’s a gloriously warm and sunny morning over at Eye Bridge in the hidden world of Cowgrove. The lack of depth to the water in the River Stour attests to the wonderful weather of the last few months and on this, the last day of the holidays for small people, the selected few are making the most of it all before the classroom entraps them once more.

 

 The hedgerows, however, warn of another impending season. For the last two years, it’s been difficult to find a potential harvest of sloes. Conversely, blackberries have been early and plentiful and have already been harvested for the Christmas brandy and gin which is filling my cupboards. Folk keep quiet as to the whereabouts of sloes. Some even forage now in the belief that freezing them will replicate the first frost. I don’t think it works like that: they’re promising but not yet ripe.

And yet more signs of autumn as I progress along the river path. Those flowers are the offspring of water mint. Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that this is the first walk since my birthday for which, amongst many other thoughtful gifts, I was thrilled to receive an i-spy wild flowers book. This bloom doesn’t quite equate with the picture in the book but the leaves were clearly scented with mint. Plus, I get fifteen points for spotting it.

It’s odd – I’ve had many subsequent conversations about i-spy books with friends, some of whom know what I’m talking about but many regarding me as if senility has set in. Way back in time, there used to be a newspaper called The News Chronicle in which one could locate Big Chief I-Spy (with, in those days, a capital I). He lived in a wigwam amongst the printed pages and would send you a certificate proclaiming you a redskin if you managed to complete one of his books. Can’t imagine why it died out.

Anyway, along with the i-spy book, someone else gave me a book of walks in Dorset, and this is the first I’m undertaking. Whilst I’m not in the least ungrateful, my walk seems to involve a lot of multi-tasking. I’ve left the binoculars behind but I’m still juggling with the camera, notebook and pen, i-spy book and the  book of walks and maps. All of this means I can’t take my new birthday handbag for an outing as it’s insufficiently spacious to contain the usual contents, plus all this new paraphernalia. For that, I would need the type of bag that Ernest was left in at Victoria Station. And speaking of the so-called ‘new walks’, well, sadly, the book’s already a bit out of date. I’m supposed to pass through the allotments at the point illustrated in this photo. I stop to demand information from Richard and Helen who would’ve been quite content with a passing ‘hello’. Apparently, the allotments were purchased two years ago with a view to constructing 210 new homes and a restaurant on this des res. You can see how far they’ve got. A new plot of allotments has been provided ‘over there’ they say vaguely. They don’t care about the affordable homes but they’re cross about the waste of land.

 

 

 

 

The next thing I know, I’ve hit blooming Wimborne. The town won the national prize six years ago. They must have some pretty stiff competition because it’s looking absolutely lovely. I venture into a local hostelry and demand a tuna mayo sandwich (without butter) to take away and carry along the given route for about ten yards. The problem is that my book of walks insists I visit the Minster. Well, I don’t want to as I inform the woman in the Tourist Information joint who, viewing me as some eccentric and confused old person,  sets me back on track.

I wander through this lovely town and catch a glimpse of the river before walking up this street and down another only to arrive at the main bridge. I don’t do bridges so I hover around for a while in the hope that someone will come along who I can attach myself to. No-one arrives and eventually, seeing someone crossing in the opposite direction, I bravely cross, all the while clinging to the handrail and talking to myself.

After this, according to the book, I have to look for a cut that’s named Lake Gates. There’s no sign but I find my way and stroll through an estate of bungalows; all of which are immaculately kept and totally soulless to the point of dispiriting. Nonetheless, despite the missing way markers that the book promised, I eventually find myself above the Stour which is full of autumnal berries, grown-up lambs and a view of the habitude of the rich and famous.

I stop here to wander down the hill and look at the fish and the solitary water lily. You might have to click on the pictures to get a better view. By now, it’s even hotter and all is well with the world with a tuna mayo sandwich (no butter) as I sit on the river bank enjoying a solitary picnic. Chloe, one of those indiscriminate black floppy dogs, arrives to investigate, Then Chloe’s mum follows and we pass some time congratulating ourselves on the weather, general well-being and the unspoken smugness of living in Dorset. I could sit here forever quite happily but I don’t seem to be near anywhere so, with some sense of irritation, I press on.

 

Down this lane.

 

 

 

 

Through this underpass

 

 

And eventually I arrive on the road to Merley where, unexpectedly, and totally without context, I come across this beautiful effigy of St Christopher. Well, he’s the patron saint of travellers and I must continue this increasingly tiresome path to the spirituality of the A31, according to the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like to say that I completed the walk as given in the book. Truth be told, I didn’t. I couldn’t locate the final way marker. However, on my alternative route back to the car, I spotted hops growing up a telegraph pole, a little egret sunning itself in the Stour and the replacement allotments. Wonderful. This is England.