Beautiful things

Within the last week or so I discovered the Nebra Sky Disk. Well, I didn’t personally ‘discover’ it – if only – but I’m happy to report that it was found in 1999 by a couple of metal detectorists. Eat you heart out Lance! Interpreted as showing the sun, a crescent moon, the Milky Way and a star cluster identified as Pleiades, it’s the oldest tangible depiction of the cosmos known being dated to 1600BC. How beautiful it is. I want to see it in ‘real life’. Unfortunately, it’s in a museum in Leipzig. Try finding an easy way there with the interstellar help of Google.

Instead, I decide to go to Devizes where another beautiful artefact is waiting. This isn’t it. This is Westbury White Horse, the dating of which is somewhat indecisive but around the 1740’s; thus making it the oldest of eight of its kind in Wiltshire. On a November morning, when the crows are flying low over wind-torn hedgerows, I escape the Dorset downpours and head to sunnier climes.

This is what I’ve come to see: my favourite exhibit in the Wiltshire Museum at Devizes. It’s a stained glass depiction of the county as seen and created by John Piper, he of the old Shell Guides. Being given to the museum in 1982, it has nothing of the age of Nebra but, in its own right, all of the informative beauty of its subject. This morning, it hangs above another memorial, for today marks 100 years since the Armistice.

 

We know the numbers but there are too many to make sense of it all. We’re of the ‘what did you learn’ generation. There’s an installation next to Piper’s window wherein the names of the dead are being called out alongside their photographs. They are the dead members of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society. So many from one tiny group of people in one tiny corner of England.

It’s suddenly all a bit overpowering but, from nowhere, an elderly gentleman appears to show me his grandfather’s Military Cross. ‘Did he talk about the war’, I ask (for he was a survivor)? I expect him to say ‘no’, but quite the opposite because ‘grandfather’ had horses shot from underneath him twice and everything my new friend learned was about the animals. And we have quite the second-hand conversation: he from familial memories and I because I’ve read John Lewis-Stempel’s account of the beasts on the Western Front. Between us, we know an extraordinary amount about lice.

After, I decide to search for beautiful things in the fresh air which involves passing through these gates onto Quakers’ Walk. The track leads onto what’s now referred to as ‘the extended Ridgeway’. It’s a nonsense as England’s thoroughfares once comprised an interlocking system of pathways along ridges. There’s an interesting history to these grade two listed gates which depict a sacred dolphin that allegedly saved one of Edward Colston’s ships and crew from destruction when a magnanimous dolphin blocked a hole in the side of the boat.

No-one seems to know why the path is called Quakers’ Walk and trust me, I asked a lot of people. More interestingly, the path was established in 1157 and I’m traversing it towards the Devizes White Horse which, not only have I never seen before, I didn’t even know of its existence.

I make it to the top, somehow, and have a look around. And the view is another beautiful thing. If they died for king and country, the best you can do is make sure you’ve witnessed an ancient landscape.

 

 

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He’s back!

It’s 8.30 on a cold and crispy October morning. Anyone with an ounce of sense would be in bed. I’m hiding in between newly painted beach huts waiting to jump out and surprise Harrison. Being only two years old, he thinks being scared is hilarious. His mother, a person of whom I’m in great awe, is terrified.

 

We’re here to see the sunrise on the water. Harrison understands ‘the water’. He doesn’t live by the sea but it makes little difference. He’s a clever type so knows everything. Like this is where you get shells. And where we see a crab. Or a seagull enjoying a fishy breakfast. Or a big boat with all its lights on. See the world through the eyes of a two year old and you see a different world

We look for anything to point out – like an unexpected rainbow patch of colours in the sky. A stark, lonely cormorant flying past. A jellyfish painted on a wall.

 

 

Back home, he demands a croissant with Marmite for breakfast and I discover children’s TV exists on my rarely watched television. It’s taken two evenings for his exhausted mother to watch one film. Harrison watches Paw Patrol before I find Sooty. Matthew Corbett looks like a man who’s lost a battle with a bottle of Scotch. Harrison informs me that it’s very funny.

Being two seems an easy place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A night out

 Living in the Twilight Zone, I don’t get out a lot in the evenings so a Friday night out on the quay with my son and his partner isn’t an invitation to be readily turned down. I walk to their gaff. About a mile and a half. I’d already walked up and around Europe’s largest hill-fort earlier in the day but as everyone I know is already dead, or on their way out, I felt it prudent. After this, we walk into town so I’ve worked up quite a thirst.

In the King Charles, I order a healthy pint of Guinness. Mmm. That went down well but I might go for something less filling at the next joint. We wander past the still working ships and end up in the Lord Nelson where they have a live band playing old rock classics. It’s a bit of a spit and sawdust joint and seats are sparse in order to accommodate all the old salts that might fall in.

The band, All Funked Up, are pretty good even with such a shocking name. They have an excellent repertoire which improves considerably with each glass of red wine. Here’s a funny thing: in this not very salubrious enclave, when one asks for a glass of red wine, you get the choice of a Montepulciano Abruzzo or a very nice Sicilian. And they’re not being precocious. They’re just not selling rubbish.

A sleek grey cat appears on the bar. It’s wearing a diamond encrusted necklace. This is the sort of joint one might expect a Rhodesian Ridgeback but the cat does the job: everyone backs away.

The female lead singer has bright red hair and sports an impressive number of tattoos. She’s got a shouty voice that doesn’t quite reach the depths but she has all the actions and is having an intimate conversation with one of the old sea dogs round the corner. You have to go ‘round the corner’ if you want to use the facilities. A very short woman from Windsor (I know because I interrogated her) tries to climb up on the stool beside me. It’s tricky. However, her husband has bought her a coke. It’s a funny colour. I think it has about ten Bacardis concealed within. Anyway, with each sip, the ascent seems easier.

Once she’s settled, I begin my journey to the loo. The guitarist has left the stage, still strumming. We can hear him but I think he’s ventured outside for a fag. By the time I get to the musicians, he’s reappeared without missing a note. I journey into the domain of old salts. Dangerous territory. In amongst the pirates, I spot a sea dog with ‘guide’ embroidered on his hat. Only the brave or foolhardy would ask the destination.

I forgot to say that, this being an occasion, I’m wearing a sparkly grey full length skirt. Some hours ago, I thought I was the bees’ knees. Now, as I resume my place at the bar to order more drinks, my son’s partner arrives behind me. She puts a kindly arm around my shoulders and whispers: ‘it’s not dreadful news but you do have your skirt tucked in your knickers’.

 

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.

 

 

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.