Puno to Cuzco on the Andean Explorer.

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We were meant to be flying from Peru to Bolivia to visit projects supporting people in need but the border was closed. People were protesting against a new gas pipeline. I never did find out why they felt the need to do that but it gave me the best day of my life and it meant that I returned from my time in Peru without missing one of the great railway journeys of the world- a whole day on the Andean Explorer travelling from Puno to Cusco right across the Andes. It was an unexpected touch of luxury and a long lingering ride across the interior of Peru as we looked forward to two nights in Aguas Calientes and visiting Maccu Picchu.
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We left Puno at six o’clock in the morning. It was a strange back and forth beginning as we climbed up out of the town slowly via a series of switchbacks. By the trackside there were a series of small shacks, each one had a street dog waiting patiently by the door for it’s chosen people to wake up. Peruvians love dogs and I had already been offered a puppy to bring home in Chancharia, one of the shanty towns that we visited on the outskirts of Lima. Dogs were everywhere and none of them that I saw ever looked in need. Many of them had to duck and dive, yes, stealing offal from underneath street stalls and grabbing what they could find, but since a lot of the people who I met also had to get by on a similar basis I had decided that the dogs were doing all right. Certainly these particular dogs knew exactly where they were and who they could rely on and it made a solemn farewell honour guard for the train as it crept out of the town in the early light. They probably watched the train leave every morning, knowing that the sight and sound of it signaled the start of a new day.

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I settled myself out in the open air on the platform at the very back of the train, behind the viewing carriage. I would be there for the rest of the day, watching the Peruvian landscape unfold in front of me, reluctant to leave my post even for meals or Pisco sours. Puno began to recede into the distance as the train rattled along the shore of Lake Titicaca, a vibrant green expanse of water where we had visited the reed islands by boat the previous day. Quite quickly we were out on our own, heading across a great plain. Among the ruined farmsteads and dark rubble strewn ground there were farmers working alone, stopping to wave as the train passed. They were using tools that my grandfather would have recognised. Llamas raised their heads to watch us go by. It all looked harsh and unforgiving, the kind of place where people had tried and failed, but never given up making the attempt. Just a single stretch of track led the train out across the seemingly endless open ground towards the distant mountains. When we passed through the small towns, Juliaca, Pucara, Chucqibabilla, bicycles were halted and market stalls with coloured awnings were cleared away from the track for a moment to allow us to clatter our way slowly through the heart of the town’s life. We rode roughshod over paperback books laid out between the sleepers for sale, causing a moments chaos until the market closed in again behind us, covering our tracks. People, smiled, waved, stared, until the dogs ran the train out of town and sent us on our way back into the wilderness. It was magical.

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The climb up across the La Raya pass is astonishingly beautiful. Just a single fragile track leads you upwards into spectacular snow capped mountains. When the train stopped to allow us to get out, breathe the mountain air and look around people appeared from nowhere with crafts to sell. The fact that we were so high up and so isolated made them seem unreal. I wondered how long they had walked to get to the train stop. They held out knitted finger puppets, gloves, hand made water bottle holders, colourful hats, towards the faces on the train. Their expressions were serious. We clearly had money or we would not be on the train and they needed it. This was their one chance. Deals were done through the train windows or beside the tracks. When I got off the train to stretch my legs I found a whole craft market waiting for me. All because a train stopped in the middle of nowhere. A very beautiful nowhere but still nowhere. Peruvian craft markets are a joyous burst of colour and imagination. You can buy carved gourds, tiny exuberant animal finger puppets, paintings, knitted cardigans, jumpers, hats, gloves, ceramics, Peruvians are a talented and creative people. They love to dance, make, sing, parade and dress up. I had met people who were ready to do all those things in the most difficult of circumstances and my admiration for them has never faded. Life without a safety net demands a lot of the human spirit but sometimes it also shows us at our best.

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When the train set off again we descended steadily into a very different landscape, the rich, green fertile land of the sacred valley. It was easy to see why the Incas had seen it as special. The farmers here had a much more promising soil to work with- there was life and growth everywhere around the Huatanay river. A different world. This was the Peru that I had wanted to see. Flocks of parrots in sub tropical rain forest by a rushing river backed by mountains, a riot of green abundance, a world of natural plenty and luxury. When I had first been deposited in the smog of Lima after a long hard journey I had wondered whether the Peru that I had been hoping for really existed. Now I knew. It had been laid out before me like a film set for the whole day, a constantly changing vista that seemed to be there just for me. As the train swept down the main street of Aguas Calientes at the end of our journey I stared up at the side of the forest covered mountain above the town. Somewhere up there was Machu Piccu, and after my first night in Gringo Bill’s hostel I would walk in the sacred city of the Incas.

Shandy Hall.

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True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro’ its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round.

Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne (1713- 1768) is a writer whose influence far exceeds his output. He had a busy life as a Yorkshire vicar and his health was not good and both of these things limited the time that he was able to give to writing fiction but he had great enthusiasm and a flair for self publicity and they certainly didn’t stop him. His great work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. It’s a hard novel to describe and it’s a fair bet, if you haven’t read it, that you have never read anything else remotely like it. It was an oddity in its time, both wildly popular and criticised as a flash in the pan by Samuel Johnson, and it still reads like a breath of fresh air blowing in from several hundred years ago. You are carried along by the voice of the author who is having a remarkably unsuccessful but very entertaining attempt at telling you his life story, speaking directly in the first person. The full title is important, since you get to hear as much about Tristram Shandy’s opinions as you do about his life. It wanders about all over the place with no regard for plot, relying on sheer audacity. Tristram isn’t even born until volume three so you have no hope of ever hearing the whole story- it is as digressive and frustrating as real life and there is no point complaining about this because the author shares your feelings and explains that there is nothing that he can do about it. Yes you will have to read a whole paragraph about the fact that when Tristram Shandy uses the word nose that is exactly what he means- enjoy it! Skip a chapter if you want- he has already skipped one for you by tearing it out- and anything might happen along the way from bespoke marbled pages, cyphers, black pages, to sermons, love affairs and much else about noses, gynaecology, classical learning and military fortifications. This is a writer who has a serious and stressful working life as a vicar, serving his flock and writing worthy sermons. He is expected to toe the line and be at the beck and call of others day after day and now he is taking time off to have fun and do exactly as he likes. There are elements of satire, riffs that remind you of a modern day stand up routine and more post modernism than you can shake a stick at. It is the product of a sharp, learned mind at play and it is exhilarating. Rules? What rules?

Sterne’s home, Shandy Hall in the village of Coxwold in North Yorkshire, is a delightful place to visit. It’s the kind of house that you can explore, one which has grown over the centuries and there is a rambling garden which is good for wandering, reading and thinking. It is also fairly quiet so you are unlikely to meet crowds of visitors. The rooms are not as Laurence Sterne left them but they are full of Sterne memorabilia and contain some wonderful books and prints and a beautiful portrait bust of Sterne. In the small book lined study where Sterne wrote the live in curator Patrick Wildgust, a very knowledgeable man and a gifted communicator, invited us to breathe in deeply and perhaps become better writers. I would love to have that room for my own. I am glad that the Laurence Sterne Trust helps to keep alive the memory of a writer who is remembered, but perhaps not as well as he should be, and not taught as often as someone who has been such a strong influence on the writers and artists who came after him deserves to be.

A Tin Tabernacle on the Yorkshire Wolds.

There was something about the corrugated iron hut which marked it out from the other buildings around the small, remote farmhouse which stood alone up on the Yorkshire Wolds. It was set slightly apart. It had presence. It stopped you in your tracks and made you stand back and look at it. The door felt like an invitation. It was a little bit too ornate, too special, firmly closed with wild greenery surrounding it. It looked as if nobody had been inside for a very long time. It looked as if it was waiting for something. There were no front windows but when I poked my camera lens under the hole at the bottom of the door I saw something which astonished me when I looked at the screen, something that I had not expected. This is what I saw.

It wasn’t a farm outbuilding at all. It was a little chapel. A tiny tin tabernacle, probably built along with the many others which appeared across the country back in the second half of the nineteenth century when employers believed that their workers had souls and it was part of their duty as an employer to nourish them. Corrugated iron was readily available and cheap to erect as a prefabricated building and it meant that a place of worship was on hand at a time when there was little leisure to allow your workers off site to go and find a church. When we tried the door again it opened and we were able to step back in time and go inside. The fittings were still there, intact, abandoned under a pall of dust and even a list of hymns was posted, hymns which had been silent for decades, waiting for the promised service. The pulpit had also waited patiently for a preacher who would never arrive. It was a place to wonder about, a place for questions. When had those last few services been held? Who came and why? Did they come willingly? Did they believe? Was it faith, duty, coercion or fear which motivated those who worshipped there? Had it been built by the farmer out of religious fervour or a simple desire to do right by those who worked for him? Had he been persuaded by those who told him of the possibility of bringing godliness to his workers along with an accompaying ethos of hard work and servility that would prove useful? The reasons for the building’s existence, reasons which would once have been well known and thought of with pride and satisfaction, are now lost in time. It has been left to speak for itself, a fleeting time capsule from an unfamiliar world.
As I stood there in the half light there were no answers. Only the building itself could have told me but it remained true to the deep silence which it had kept for so long. Something of the quiet contemplation of its past remained in its battered solemnity. It continued to speak of God, even though it was alone and uncared for, even though people were no longer listening. It had kept its dignity. Perhaps that is why it was still there.

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.  

From Church Going. Philip Larkin.

Filey Bay.

This is my bay, and my beach. I say my bay, but of course I don’t really own it. Only in the sense that I owned Vermeer’s The Milkmaid when I stood there in the Royal Academy looking at it for so long that I began to see the milk that she was pouring move. It is mine because I have been spending time on it for almost all of my life. For the past twelve years that has meant about eight hours a week with my dogs. My house is close by so I am rarely far away even when I am not standing on it.

I first saw the bay when I was about eight years old. You could hire and ride horses along it then and my early holidays were spent saddling up and taking other visiting children up and down the beach on a leading rein all day after two hour rides cantering through the surf. It was magical- although my heart sinks now at the thought that I did it all without even a riding hat. When I wasn’t on horseback I was walking around with my head down looking for stones, shells and fossils. I would find tiny jellyfish and watch them glow and vibrate as they swam their way around my bucket. If it was a very low tide I would search out my dad when he was digging for bait and steal a razor clam to set free. They would put out their white foot to dig, slowly tip up, and shoot downwards into the soft sand like a sinking ship. I spent hours reading in a deckchair next to my mother, huddled up against the wind and never got bored down there once. These family holidays continued to be part of my summer right up until the time that I eventually came to live here and I never wanted them to stop, no matter how many other places I saw and loved.

This beach is a fine place for sorting your head out, especially when it is big and empty at low tide. I have gone down there, upset, angry, grieving, rejoicing, uncertain, excited or in love and I have always found myself working my feelings out along the waters edge. There is something very soothing about the calm straight line of the horizon and the restless, repetitive movement of the sea. One of my favourite poems by e e cummings sums it up perfectly. “Whatever we lose, like a you or a me, it’s always ourselves that we find in the sea.

I’ve seen the bay in all weathers during the years that I have lived by it. When there is a thick fog at low tide I can’t even see the cliffs if I walk out to the surf. There is only sand and sea, the world fades to grey in every direction around me. To be out there alone on a sharp bright winter day under a huge expanse of sky with cloud formations rushing over your head at different speeds is breathtaking. On a wet blustery day I can see that I am going to get soaked long before the approaching storm cloud reaches me as I watch it circle round out at sea with a soft shadow of rain under it.

The light changes through the day too. In the early morning, if I am lucky, the sun sparkles on the water and lights the clouds from behind as if they were a stage set for the seagulls. All day the light constantly changes and shifts on the sand and the water to give endless variety. The cliffs glow pink at sunset and after dark I can watch the flashing of Flamborough Light and Brigg End Buoy and admire a pale trail of moonlight on the water. The sea responds to the weather and the sky. It can be still and welcoming, or full of breakers rushing in at speed with white horses out in the deep water catching the light, dark and grey or a light shimmering blue. Even the sand has its moods, soft and friendly making a perfect summer playground or vicious and wilful, stirred up by a winter wind, whipping round my legs and stinging my face.

In autumn, winter and most of Spring I am usually down there alone, free to amble around looking at the flotsam and jetsam, turning round slowly or staring into space. Sometimes if the beach is dry and clear I run with my arms out and my eyes shut, just because I can. On busy summer weekends when the sun gets out I have to behave myself and fight my way through several hundred people who park themselves on the sand with tents, windbreaks, digging equipment, inflatable dolphins, endless amounts of food in polystyrene containers and hunker down while their children forget how sophisticated they think they are and lose themselves in digging, paddling and running. There are ice creams, chips, strange dogs who can’t believe their luck, balls, bats, random shouts, even whole conversations carried away on the air, rugs, kites and towels. All this is swept away come October and the wading birds are safe to march up and down again, reclaiming their territory. The dogs and I do the same. It is my beach after all.

The Harbour Bar. Sandside, Scarborough.

The Harbour Bar on Scarborough’s Sandside has survived almost unaltered since it opened in 1945. It is still thriving, run by the Alonzi family whose ancestors arrived in Scarborough in 1896. The outside is plain and not that impressive but when you get through the door you will realise why people have cared enough about it to keep it spotless and unchanged. You can enjoy a Knickerbocker Glory ( unless you’d prefer a Strawberry or Pineapple Glory, a Fruit Cocktail, a Pear Melba, or a Banana, Chocolate and Jelly Delight) and watch yourself reflected in its mirrored walls surrounded by a confection of ice cream colours which makes it look as if you are sitting inside a giant banana split while you eat it. Everything sparkles, from the chrome to the lighted advertisements around the wall which advise you to try a fresh farm egg milk shake and eat ice cream every day in order to stay fit and get your vitamins the easy way You can almost hear generations of children quoting that in an attempt to get a second helping out of their parents but given the size of some of the ice cream sundaes on offer one might just about be enough! The bar has been cherished and looked after with care for all of its sixty five years and looks ready to march on towards one hundred years of serving ice cream by the harbour with no trouble whatsoever.

My own earliest memory of the Harbour Bar was when I was taken in there on a family trip to Scarborough. My cousin ordered a Knickerbocker Glory and I can still remember the awe I felt when she sat there and ate the lot. I was a faddy little thing at the time and probably asked for a bottle of lucozade. My loss. From then on I always insisted that we go and sit down at the counter in there each time that we were in Scarborough- ignoring the fact that I didn’t like ice cream. Even at eight years old I liked its style.

There are very few ice cream parlours left from the 1940’s era which still have their original fittings and the Harbour Bar is one of Scarborough’s real treasures. I still don’t like ice cream much but they serve a great milky coffee and you can sit there and dream yourself back in time. The nineteen forties may not have been a time which you would want to have lived through in reality, for obvious reasons, but people will always need to relax even in the hardest of circumstances and it had a sparkle and glamour all its own. To recapture that aspect of the 1940’s you can always watch an MGM musical, but better still you can visit the Harbour Bar, a place where the harsh realities of life (both then and now) have been removed. Sit down at one of the red topped stools around the long curving yellow counter, order yourself a treat and enjoy some real life glamour from the past.

The Guggenheim Bilbao. 27-03-10

I was dropped off outside the Guggenheim Bilbao alone in the early morning under a blue sky with the remains of a sunrise which was still turning the silver titanium tiles on the building to gold. A few early morning joggers and dog walkers were crossing the open spaces around the building but they had all seen the building before. I was the only one looking. It felt like it was waiting there for me, sitting patiently amongst the small shops and flats next to large dual carriageway, sinous and alive. It is a building full of confidence and bravura, a drag queen of a building, but a drag queen who just happened to be born with perfect taste.

It is an amazing creation, a great silver mass of curving surfaces covered in silver, changing in an almost organic way as you walk around it seeing new shapes, patterns and arrangements. At first sight it seems to have no connection with anything around it, its shapes and colours and sheer scale belong only to itself, but it sits perfectly in its place, giving life and meaning to everything around it, looking as if it has always been there. In fact Frank Gehry’s masterpiece was completed, on time and on budget, only in 1997, and as you look at it you begin to notice echoes of the sea. Bilbao is a port city and the silver reflective surfaces and sleek curves of a building made to reflect the light are those of a giant fish in movement. They are also the imposing sides of a huge ship, perhaps a magnificent luxury liner from the great days of ocean cruising.

It is a odd mixture of seemingly random curves and angles which hang together in perfect balance and make the building live, playful and satisfying to look at. For me though the most impressive thing about it is not the scale or the construction, it is the way that the building responds to light.  As the sun moves round and the quality of the light hitting the surfaces changes different areas and planes of the building are thrown into shadow or blaze with light. This is a building having a conversation with the sun.

It was commissioned to help the regeneration of the local area,  immediately acclaimed as one of the world’s great buildings, and it has been drawing visitors from all over the world ever since. Inside the tall windows let light flood in and the gallery spaces are simple and uncluttered.  It does its job well, showcasing the modern art that it was built to hold, understated and smart.

Right next to the building are two sculptures, Jeff Koon‘s giant puppy covered in real flowers and a magnificent giant spider by Louise Bourgeois. It takes a great piece of work to stand up next to a building like this and seem to threaten it but the spider has the raw power to do that,strong and elemental. Look at it long enough and it might start to march on the building, destroying all in its path………. The puppy is such a giant piece of coloured kitsch that it actually works, turned away from the building and surveying the street as if to say look it isn’t that scary, it’s fun, come on in.

Sometimes for a few hours everything comes together and life works out just right.

The most romantic thing that ever happened to me. 14-02-10

It had been a wonderful holiday. I had always longed to visit Egypt and it had been everything that I had hoped. I had wandered round bazaars in Cairo, seen Tutankhamun’s treasure, crawled into  pyramids carrying an oil lamp, walked in the valley of the kings and cruised down the nile to marvel at temples and wonder at a strange horizontal landscape made from straight lines. Barren desert gave way to the most fertile land I had ever seen with nothing in between. Perfect. I was on my own but it was so exciting that I had needed little company and when I did want to talk I had found a small group of middle aged ladies who were happy to chat to me. I suppose they may have thought it strange that a young woman in her early twenties had come on holiday alone but it hadn’t bothered me.

The final night of the tour was a gala dinner at the Mena House Oberoi, a venerable palace hotel in the shadow of the pyramids which has played host to kings and emperors. A stunning venue full of romance and history. Somebody who should have known better had placed me on a table with three couples, all young, wrapped up in each other and eager to share their memories of their past few weeks of holiday. Jewellery bought in the bazaars as a special gift was shown off and each of the young women was admired and spoiled. They all looked lovely, especially the one with long dark hair, who was wearing a new dramatic silver necklace and a pale floaty dress. By the time I had sat through several hours of this love in, accompanied by delicious food and belly dancers, I was getting just a little fed up. Not that I was ignored, they were friendly and polite, the point was made without anyone needing to rub it in. I was on my own.  I had enjoyed my own company for three weeks, but somehow it didn’t seem the same any more. I had never had what they had and as I listened to them I convinced myself that I was never going to. It had been the best holiday that I had ever had, a dream come true, and it was only as I watched them that I realised how much better it would have been if there had been someone for me to share it with.

At the end of the dinner we all got up to leave the table. Each of the young men picked a red rose from the table display and gave it to their partner. I watched them with gritted teeth. Then the thin sandy haired man who had been sitting next to me turned back. He picked out another rose from the display and held it out to me.

“I think it’s about time you had one of those.”

He won’t even remember doing that now, wherever he is, but the young girl whose night he saved still remembers his gesture thirty years later.