Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Change of venue

I have radically revised and updated my website, at

This now contains a blog so I trust you will pop over and take a look of what I've put up. That's where - from now on - any new material will appear.

Thanks to the 8000 + people who have been reading my bather on this site.

Enjoy the fresh new look at

Signing off here with a happy new year,


Jane Wilson-Howarth.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Lest we forget

Irish Guardsman Terry Flanagan, was in the same platoon as Joe Wilson, my Dad, during the Second World War. Joe’s platoon was in Normandy being shelled and they were pinned down in shallow trenches.

This is part of a transcript of an interview with Terry:

"I had just got 200 Gallaher Blues from my mother [in Belfast] in the post the day before. I opened them up and I was going to have a smoke but I had no matches. A few shells went over, a couple landed a way down a bit.
"Hey Joe, have you got any matches?" Joe was a helluva nice bloke, didn't curse, didn't smoke and a lovely boxer.
And Joe shouts back, "Yes I've got a box."
"Could you bring them over?  I've cigarettes and no matches."  
Joe says, "Well that's tough luck! If you have no matches you can come over here for them."
"Ach Joe, we're gettin' shelled!"
"I know, that's why I'm not going over there to your trench. Bring your smokes over here."
I says, "Well you don't smoke."
He said, "I never did, but I feel like one today with these shells!”
The Germans were shelling, oh aye and the odd one was thumping into the front bank.
So I needed a smoke badly. So I said “Alright.” And I got out, crawled over to Joe’s trench; I got into it. I’d a 20 packet with me, opened it up got a cigarette out and I gave him one and he says, “How do you smoke it?”
So we got the box of matches and we lit up. We’d smoked maybe half a cigarette and then we heard this thing coming. The sound of it, the scream of it. We hit the deck. There was an awful explosion right near us. It must have been a 120mm shell. And we looked up and looked out then and there was a big pall of smoke covering my trench.
And [stammering in disbelief] I said, "Joe … it went into my trench ... thank goodness I came over…"

"YES, and I didn’t go over there, or the two of us would have been mincemeat!!”

This must be a rare occasion when smoking proved good for the health.

The Irish Guards were often in the thick of it and only a handful of the original Normandy men survived the war. 
1920 - 2011

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Explorers and Risk-takers

I was in a good mood, having one of those English conversations, with a stranger, over a counter. I was enthusing about the mildness of the day and the gorgeousness of the autumn colours. She responded by complaining of the short days and the misery of getting up for work in the dark, and going home in the dark.
‘Yeh, it’s tough. Not sure I could live in the north.’ We were waiting for her colleague to arrive and help me with something, so, unusually, we had time for conversation. I spoke a little about our trip last winter to Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle, where from the end of November the sun doesn’t rise at all. Our visit was in late December. S & I didn’t know what to expect. We woke bewildered at 9am to complete and absolute night-time. We breakfasted and went out to explore. How could people cope with utter blackness for weeks on end? Yet although the sun doesn’t rise at all in December, there is a suggestion of daylight. The skies lighten to a beautiful twilight from about 10am. That fades to darkest night again by 2pm. (There are graphs at showing the level of light at

That darkness wasn’t at all gloomy. Light blasted out wherever there were houses, and shops of course. Norwegians aren’t private curtain-closers like us English. They are generous with their illuminations. Light streams from big windows even of remote homes. The countryside feels friendly, fresh and alive. And social life seems to ignore conventional timetables so there are midnight concerns and plenty going on.
Note the sculpture in celebration of whaling that has made Tromsø rich 

the lit up Arctic Cathedral

Tromsø with, on the left, the fine Rica Ishvashotel where S & I stayed

The long weekend in Tromsø introduced me – at the museum of Arctic explorers there – to the astonishing Fridtjof Nansen (1861 – 1930). He was attracted to the idea (!) of using the flow of polar ice to carry a boat right across the Arctic, and thus reach the North Pole. The theory was that a boat might leave Siberia and traverse the Arctic to emerge from the ice at Greenland. So Nansen deliberately set out to wedge his especially strong boat, the Fram, in pack ice. The plan didn’t quite work, progress was slow and Nansen calculated that the boat would take five years to cross to land again. They decided to split the party and strike out on foot for the Pole. The 14-month long expedition was treacherous, involved two of the team overwintering on the ice in a tent and spending a month on an ice floe. By the time the ice started to melt some of their navigational equipment had failed but they still managed to reach safety despite their home-made kayaks being trashed by walruses. These explorers were immensely resourceful and I couldn’t help feeling it was no wonder that the Norwegian Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole. Scott by contrast was an amateur.

What is it that makes people set off on expeditions? I think it is the minority who go in search of glory. I guess for most it is the call of adventure, to step outside of the humdrum. To challenge oneself. To see how you’ll cope. To take a risk and see what happens. To see what fate flings at you. That attitude was one that prevailed amongst the expatriates we lived amongst in Nepal. Most were risk-takers. We were an odd unconventional bunch of kindred spirits, even if we weren’t all heroic explorers.
One such risk taker returned to Cambridge last weekend, having achieved a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Anton Wright (with Mark de Rond) managed to row the entirety of the River Amazon, a terrific achievement rowing 16-hours a day in a boat that leaked. They navigated 2000 miles over 31 days. The self-effacing Anton, who returned 18kg lighter, said that the flow of the river helped a lot and sometimes they’d make 100km in a day.,
Then earlier this explorer-themed week A & I went along to the Arts Picturehouse to see original footage of the 1924 film featuring Mallory and his The Epic of Everest. Again this was an astonishing tale of determination and true grit. The film had been remastered and was, of course, silent, but the shots of grinning locals and the desperate aridity of that part of Tibet helped me see again the riches of my life in England. Travel – even vicariously – does that for you.

Returning, after the film, to our tiny but luxuriant and wild little garden, I felt myself moved by the wonderful autumn colours, and it was with delight I was welcomed home by the low croak of a resident frog. An aeroplane had just flown over, and I do believe he was calling to it. Maybe he was in love.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

In the Forest

... in the forest
I often go there, to those quiet places,
To rid myself of the ugly urgent things
That torture men.

Green turf amid silent trees and soft light airs
And a spring of running water in the grass,
They freshen a jaded mind, they give me back to myself
They make me abide in myself

For is there any man can live in town,
Harried and always at white heat with some fresh disturbance and racket,
And not be dragged outside himself,
Not waste his time on emptiness
No longer privy to his own thoughts?

Marbod de Rennes, 1035-1123
(Translated by Helen Waddell, 1927)

The weather forecast was fair when I tumbled out of bed on Sunday morning, and then as I sank my ivories into a slice of wholemeal and home-made marm, the sun broke though and the autumn colours in our little garden glowed. I felt strangely liberated as I set out on my little solo adventure with my bins and cheese sarnies a quest to catch some Red Deer Rutting Action. East Anglia is known for its landscapes and cloudscapes and the tumbling cumulus looked very fine as the sun continued to spotlight trees and fields and hedgerows dotted with hawthorn and rosehip red. I was heading east congratulating myself on the early start when the thunderclouds closed in and driving conditions deteriorated to fast-windscreen-wiper-mode.
I passed a sign ordering me to Diss Norwich, which seemed harsh and unnecessary.
I contemplated turning back then argued that the East doesn’t have a high rainfall even if it is known for the intensity of its rain. And anyway the forecast had suggested that the coast would be rain free at least until lunchtime.
 By the time I’d left the billowing chimneys of the Bury St Edmonds sugar beet factory behind me, turned off the A14 and joined the tourist route at Stowmarket, patches of blue sky were showing again. The rain-washed countryside looked lovelier than ever. Ploughed fields were sprouting rich green and black silhouettes showed where crows patrolled. I found myself noting that some of my patients shared surnames with village names I passed, and here too was a surfeit of place names with ing in the middle or end, meaning the people or family of an Anglo-Saxon chieftain: Dennington, Badingham and Framlingham.

Saxtead Green and a brooding sky

I paused at the fine loo-with-a-view at Saxtead Green with its impressive windmill, and photographed it. My idea is to find interesting loos to add to a collection I’m posting on the How to Shit Around the World facebook page. I don’t care if people find my enthusiasms odd.
Yoxford - 93 miles from London
Then it was on along the Roman Road past an assortment of pink cottages (traditionally the colour came from ox’s blood) through Yoxford and on along mysterious winding lanes with hedgerows so high that they formed green tunnels to drive through.
I’d imagined that the RSPB reserve at Minsmere would be open and watery but there are also areas of mature silver birch forest. It wasn’t easy to see far and I rapidly decided I’d be unlikely to see any of the testosterone-fired battles of the Red Deer Rut. Deer in most places are extraordinarily shy so I satisfied myself with enjoying the antics of various birds including a nuthatch. They’re so attractive with admirable athleticism.
Then, on a slight rise, I spotted the russet rump of a large deer. She was head-down, grazing and appeared to be alone. A dog barked. The hind’s head came up and she was gone. I tuned into gunfire too, and wondered who was shooting what. No wonder the wildlife was nervous.

I continued. Only a few metres further on I registered movement and realised I was close to a herd. One of the hinds raised her head to show an elegant profile. She turned ears then head towards me and I could see her nostrils working. I was downwind and my profile was mostly hidden behind a conifer. The herd was females and youngsters, moving purposefully at right angles to where I was standing. Might they be looking for the stags? I heard a characteristic bellow. They moved on towards the sound. I tried to keep track of where the hinds were moving to hoping they’d lead me to a battling pair of stags. I kept them in sight with my bins for a while. But they curved around and crossed into a part of the reserve protected by fierce Keep Out notices. There was another tantalising bellow
The ground was squelchy. I found a broken down ‘pill box’ – remnant of the war and one of our line of defences against German invasion – and sat to soak up the tranquillity. Birds twittered all around me. I luxuriated in the isolation and peace, and my cheese sarnies.

By the time I’d left the reserve, I’d got good views of herds of hinds six times and had seen tens of these magnificent animals. The last herd even had an attendant stag. Perhaps he’s already won his battles. I felt smug. I’d walked by lots of folk on brisk walks with friends having loud conversations or with yappy dogs and I felt sure most were unaware of the beauty I’d seen.
It is just a pity that I only caught the fungi on film. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Errors and typos

Everyone messes up on occasion and it always heartens me when I notice deficiencies in works of great writers – despite all their learning and editorial backup. Who’d have guessed that the well-travelled Conrad (in the Heart of Darkness) would suggest that Africa is populated by alligators? Or that porcupines are found in Madagascar – as Geraldine McCaughrean suggests in her otherwise wonderful Plundering Paradise?

Those are errors of fact but how easy it is for mistakes to creep in. I was horrified to find two howlers in the first edition of my first book – my pride and joy – Lemurs of the Lost World.

I’d gone to some trouble to describe exactly the markings of my beloved lemurs, right down to their lovely soft white chest and belly fur. I wrote:

female Crowned Lemur with white underparts checking before entering a cave water-hole
“Most often we saw attractive small agile animals with thick grey fur marked subtly with white underparts and brown on the head. These were adult female Crowned Lemurs.”

Problem was that the publisher's editor (who clearly wasn't into wildlife writing) thought that I’d made a silly mistake or typo and changed white underparts to white underpants. Now there’s an image that still makes me smile.

The other embarrassing typo was:

“The door of the concrete bathroom had disintegrated long ago and had been replaced by some flattened oil drums in a wobbly wooden frame. It would not stay shut. Inside was a rustling oil drum which had been filled from the well. Floating on the water was a plastic mug which gave a clue to the local bathing technique: splashing the water all over me felt the height of luxury.”

Oops. Since when do oil drums rustle?

Those mistakes were corrected in the second edition and I also took the opportunity to update the text and especially the appendices which contain a lot of scientific detail. That edition, surprisingly, continues to sell steadily in book form though Amazon, and - a new departure - through my author website.

The 25th anniversary of the main expedition to Madagascar happened and was a stimulus for another update. I wanted to produce an electronic edition. I’d been contemplating the concept for some years but my problem was that I wrote the book on an old Amstrad – the kind with three-and-a-quarter inch discs. Yes 3¼, not 3½. I found a techie who said he could convert anything and everything – until he saw my discs. So we settled on scanning the book and converting it into a Word document.

I wasn’t too surprised when the system was discombobulated by odd Malagasy words like tsingy – that came out mostly as ts&gy, but accents also confused it. I was surprised too at how the odd mis-transliterated word can make something so unintelligible. Then there was a problem with the somewhat curly font reading Bs for Hs so 'had' became 'bad'. The most interesting error was a sentence that read:

Primates, the order of mammals which includes lemurs, bushbabies and lorises, apes, monkeys and Brian, are subdivided according to the shape of the nostrils.

Brian? Where did he come from? How did the system read Brian for Man? That’s almost Pythonesque.

Now I wonder how many more mistakes I have left to uncover.... actually there was one deliberate one in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows.  No-one’s written to point it out yet! Clue: it is hidden among bird names. Let me know if you notice anything.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Bumps

July came and went and only now have I had enough of a pause to record the wonderful week of The Cambridge Rowing Association annual Bumping Races. Most people call them the Bumps. It is a mad annual summer event that must have evolved to cope with the fact that the River Cam is too narrow at Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) to allow side-by-side racing in something as long, wide and unmanoeuvrable as a rowing eight. They measure about seven metres wide blade-tip to blade-tip.

At the start, up to 17 eighteen-metre long boats are lined up along the bank with a boat-length-and-a-half between them. There’s a countdown of a four-minute canon and a one minute 'gun' when a coach on the bank will start to push the boat out into the river with a long pole. The cox holds onto a chain to prevent the boat getting an unfair advantage.

Then when the starting canon fires, the cox drops the chain and the crews row as hard and as fast as they can. The start is frenetic, splashy and can be full of panic. The idea is to try to ‘bump’ the boat ahead before the boat behind bumps them. You’re rowing as hard as you can, not knowing how well you are gaining on the boat ahead. (Sometimes coxes lie). Meanwhile, you can see the boat behind and think, are they gaining on us?

The challenge our crew had is that we are what my youngest son, Ʃ, would call a ‘seasoned’ crew and worked out we were about 250 years older than the boat that chased us on the first night. They were lithe sixth-formers (dressed in white) from the local girls’ public school. Predictably they got us, but the event goes on for four evenings. Any boat that ‘bumps’ is promoted further up the start order, while ‘bumped’ boats move down. The aim is to end up ‘Head of the River’. We were full of hope on the second night but again, a younger crew got us. Their start was faster, though we had plenty of comments on how neatly we rowed.

Third and fourth nights were going to be ours, we felt. Setting off rowing as hard as you can is all right, but the difficulty with this race is that you start as if you are running 100m, but have to keep going for over 1000. We kept away from our rivals the third night but by the time we reached the Plough at Fen Ditton, we wanted it to stop. ‘Stoke’ was beginning to whimper. I felt I couldn’t go on. But then I registered that the chasing boat had fallen apart. They had died completely. Suddenly the energy returned and we powered over the finishing line, and an honourable ‘row-over’. Fourth night too we rowed long and strong and again managed to maintain our place. It felt as if we’d done all right, AND we avoided serious collisions with other boats and even the bank.

And it is a great feeling working in metronomic harmony with women you know you can rely on, pushing through beyond fatigue, until finally there is the satisfaction of the end of the race – even if the whole event is mad and pretty pointless.

(With thanks to A and Ʃ for photography)
(I'm rowing at the 7 position)

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Lawrence's Travels

Meanwhile, Lawrence is out exploring again. This time he made his escape down into the bowels of the sofa, did a bit of improvement of its structure, relocated some nice soft bedding material and has returned to camp out in his favourite spot under the oven. The adventure is sure to continue.

(And if you'd like to meet Lawrence see my Gap Yah post from mid March)

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Land of my Fathers

At ground level England can seem very urban and concreted but flying from Stansted to Belfast earlier this month it is easy to see what a 'green and pleasant land' it is. The impression from the air is a patchwork of green and bright yellow with the occasional splodge of woodland or a wiggly deep green line showing the path of a stream or river. And - mercifully - the roads don't show up that much. So although most of our country is tamed and manicured, there is room for wildlife. I just wished I could have heard the birdsong from up there.

It was odd returning to the place my Dad called "over at home", and it was odder still that it felt both comfortable but unfamiliar, especially with my uncertainly about how much my English accent would make me seem like the enemy. The "religious" divide still feels alive and well.

The taxi driver who took us to our hotel, chatted as taxi-drivers do. He was quick to comment on our accents, joking that we might have difficulties with his. I presented our credentials saying that his lilt felt friendly and homely.

The taxi-driver responded 'That's what some say - others tell the truth.'

The jokes - apparently - hadn't evolved in the decades I'd been away.

My cousin talked about the Falls Road black taxis during the height of The Troubles. The Falls is very much a Catholic area. My grandfather was an Orangeman, which speaks of his affiliations. We're an athletic clan, and my cousin's daughter started to excel at trampolining. The best club in Ulster meant a journey up the Falls Road, where black taxis act like buses, picking up fares and charging little more than a bus.  But my cousin was told, 'Don't let your daughter use the black taxis. With her accent, everyone'll know she's protestant.'

Last time I was "over at home" I determined I would avoid sectarian labelling and when asked my religion, I replied. Buddhist.

'But are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?'

City Hall, Belfast

Life is much calmer these days. The black taxis offer tours of the Republican and Loyalist murals. Bridges have been built between communities, and money has been spent on regenerating the city. Mum and I took a tranquil riverside walk along the Lagan and were serenaded by gulls and robins.

We wandered along to Victoria Square and up into the glass dome and the panorama of the city: all the stately architecture of the capital, Napoleon's nose on Cave Hill, and the massive cranes of Harland and Wolff (where Titanic was born).

In our hotel, I overheard a conversation that made me smile. A group of Ulstermen - probably in Belfast for a wedding - were complaining about their wives' aspirations while staying in the Big City.

'All they want to do is shop - and they'll end up in Marks and Spencers.'

I recalled a very similar conversation of decades ago. My aunt and uncle were visiting from Northern Ireland and staying with my parents in suburban Surrey. My aunt and uncle were keen to explore London. My uncle aimed to soak up the history while my aunt wanted to shop. 'And would you believe it?' My uncle complained, 'We ended up in M&S!'
Well at least Belfast's M&S is in a listed building.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Next the Sea

East Anglian countryside is wonderfully varied as a drive north from Cambridge shows. Yes, Cambridgeshire is green and beautiful, but it is Fen-flat so only rarely are you treated to a good view. There are other things to bring a smile to the face though. The first was driving past the village of Fakenham which sounds like an ancient Saxon curse, and on north through sumptuous poppy-fields of the Brecks and vistas of gnarled Scots Pines with their backs bent against the prevailing winds. On again through Little Snoring – there really is a village called Little Snoring, as well as Great Snoring, and sleepy places they do seem to be.
Scanning the map en route, there are a great number of Norfolk and Suffolk villages with an ing in the name, often in the middle: like Sandringham. Ing means “son of” so that when a Saxon chieftain’s son set up his own settlement (a ham), his father’s village might be called Wallsham and his son’s – usually within five miles – would be Wallsingham, but often the father’s settlement will have disappeared over time.

The roads of North Norfolk are a delight to drive. There are plenty of surprises too. We paused at the 12th century castle that gives Castle Acre its name. The crumbling walls are now decorated by Dog Roses and many of the rest of the fortifications are now covered with lush grass, forming banks that are still challengingly steep to ascend. It is an atmospheric place.

Often the roads cut through woodland so lush that the trees form a tunnel. Journey times aren’t fast but being behind the wheel is so much more enjoyable than motorway driving. Our target on this trip was the windmill that is a cosy hotel at Cley Next the Sea – a fine spot to savour the squalls and brooding clouds coming off the ocean. Here too there are fine sea-marshes which made me recall the excellent atmospheric novel by Jeremy Page – Salt – that had me wanting to go out and find some samphire to nibble. Instead we ‘made do’ with some delicious piquant lavender bread from the Cley deli.

looking out from the old quay to the sea defences and the sea itself - about a mile away

Yellow horned poppies and looking back towards Cley across the salt-marshes

the windmill that is a hotel

Cley hasn't actually been "next the sea" since the 17th century; it is about a mile away these days. Striding through the salt-marshes towards the sea though we were treated to views of avocet, hilariously hyperactive plovers and even a Marsh Harrier getting mobbed by 30 or 40 wading birds as it flew off with one of them – probably a shelduck. The high point though was a boat trip from Blakeney to the colony of Grey and Common Seals. It was cold and windy but the occasional faceful of seawater only added to the adventure.

The two species of seals co-exist contentedly. The much larger 'roman-nosed' Grey Seals produce their pups around Christmas time so their youngsters were already huge. Some of the bulls are truly massive: they weigh up to 250kg. The smaller Common Seals have more attractive faces and are due to give birth around about now. The adult males reach a maximum weight of about 120kg. Both species have the most endearing undulating-fat-rippling means of moving on land.


How can lying like a banana possibly be restful?

Seal life seems to be about eating and sleeping

Some of the youngsters were a bit nervous as the boat approached but not for long

This seal seemed really interested in close up views of us

Monday, 13 May 2013

Gap Yah

When I came down for breakfast, the door was open and I realised his bed hadn’t been slept in. He’d gone. Off to explore the world, no doubt. But he was so very young: young and so, so anxious. What had he taken with him? Did he have enough food – and water.

We had to find him.

There was some evidence of which way he’d gone. He’d clearly wandered about the house for a bit, but his most likely destination was a dark corner under the oven. He’d dropped bits of sawdust nearby.

We left out food and water, thinking he’d come out and we’d bring him home, and to safety, but he’d tasted freedom and he didn’t want to come back. This was his gap year.

We heard various scratching and gnawing and scuttling, and sometimes glimpse a small twitching nose, but he liked freedom. He did some Grand Designs-style home improvements, and shifted half a cubic foot of builders rubbish from a rat-run between an understairs cupboard and the oven by way of some pipework supplying a tiny loo.

I set a trail of small cubes of cheese from beneath the u-bend and soon saw him emerge pouching the cheese as he scuttled forward. But on coming to end then of the trail in the corridor, he rapidly turned and fled back to sanctuary beyond the u-bend.

A had the inspired idea of manoeuvring his i-phone towards where we thought Lawrence had made his home and filmed him. He was dazzled by the light of the phone but came forward to see if any more treats were on offer. They weren’t. He fled, and that night he relocated.

That was his big mistake. He settled for a comfy carpeted corner behind a small, easily moved cupboard. When we finally caught him, he’d clearly ferried many pouchfulls of food between the loo and the new location. It seemed so harsh to put him back in his cage again.

Click here for an exciting 17 sec clip of the traveller...

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Our early ancestors explained away impressive features in their landscape as the work of almighty gods, and later mediaeval peoples blamed the devil for scars in the countryside. The impressive Devil’s Dyke in Cambridgeshire has caused a lot of head-scratching over the eons and has been at the centre of several interesting traditional stories. One legend says Hrothgar chief of a race of Fen giants built it to protect the virtue of his beautiful daughter Hayenna from a fire demon. There was a terrific battle but Hayenna was saved by a water god, who wanted the rampart maintained forever after.

It is easy to believe that the ancient rampart is the work of a race of giants. At its greatest height, the Devil’s Dyke is 10.5 metres high, and it is steeper than would seem possible without concrete and JCBs. And with the ditch along the south-western edge it is a formidable barrier, although it is difficult to capture the steepness in a photograph.

Pasque flowers in the most exposed parts of the dyke, in April and May
Another legend about the Dyke, is that it was carved by the devil’s fiery tail when he left in fury after failing to gate-crash a wedding in the village of Reach.

Even until a few decades ago, scholars were uncertain when or why the Devil’s Dyke had been built and by whom. Some assumed it was a defence against invading Danes, but the steeper side of the rampart faced away from the North Sea. What was clear was that it was a barrier defending or controlling an obvious corridor between dense forests to its east, and boggy Fenland to the north-west.

The land at the north-western end of the Dyke is now drained by a system of quidditches, but 1400 years ago this would have been a malarious swamp. These days, the village of Reach marks the furthest extent of the Dyke. From there it runs in an almost perfect straight line seven and a half miles to the south-east as far as Woodditton.

it is tough to capture the steepness of the dyke on camera

the forested Woodditton end of the Dyke
There may have been a barrier at this site during the Roman era, but archaeologists have now dated the latest building on the site to the 5th or 6th century AD. It is the last, best preserved and most northerly of a series of defensive linear earthworks – the others being Fleam Dyke, Brent Ditch and Bran Ditch.

In May evidence of another traditional tale can be seen on the Dyke. One of England’s rarest but most sumptuous wild flowers blooms out of the closely cropped grasslands. These have been said to spring out of drops of blood of slain Romans or Danes since they are often found on old boundaries or even barrows. An explanation of this though is that such places stay undisturbed for hundreds of years, and this favours the Anemone of Passiontide. The fact that the Dyke has remained safe from ploughing for 1400 years also encourages other fine rarities, and in the summer lizard orchids blossom there, as well as plenty of cowslips, violets, and within the wooded parts of the Dyke, bluebells and wood anemones.


wood anemone
Wandering the length of the Dyke is a pleasure because it traverses several very different habitats; an information board mentioned snow berries and I wondered how I'd recognise them, until we arrived in a part of the woodlands where - if it hadn't been for the spring warmth - we could have believed there had been a fall of snow. The tranquillity was perfect so that while listening to birdsong and looking out for rare butterflies, I found myself trying to imagine who might have fought and died here on this ancient barrier.

Archaeologists have solved some of the mysteries surrounding this place. The Dyke, considered the finest Anglo-Saxon earthwork of its kind, was probably reinforced to defend the Kingdom of the East Angles from the expansive Kingdom of Mercia.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Wimpole and paparazzi

See what I mean about the paparazzi, kids? Can’t get away from them.....
Feels like the first day of real summer at last - and we had breakfast in the garden for the first time this year - oh the luxury!

Had to stretch our legs and take proper notice of the sunshine, by taking a trip to the very fine National Trust property Wimpole Hall, where we even found a cowslip. If you see my post on Hayley Wood you'll see they are totally different to oxlips - not.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Put them in a Tree Museum

Last month I found myself driving out east from Cambridge, and I looked out for signs that winter was on the run. Circling buzzards broke off from spiralling lazily to play and tease each other. Reproduction was on their minds. I drove out by Six Mile Bottom, Dullingham and through the mysterious Devil's Ditch, then past Snailwell and the rude-sounding Frekenham.

East Anglian landscape is dramatic for the intense feeling of freedom and space. Big horizons were especially impressive against skeletal trees. Only the stately Scots Pines wore any green.

But then my reverie was interrupted with a jolt.

First I saw magisterial Scots Pines wearing yellow bands, at waist-level. They'd been sentenced and awaited execution. Further on yellow machines assaulted the landscape, tearing up the rich black soil to make way for a wider highway to make it easier for us to rush from one end of the country to the other in endless pointless journeys.

England is crowded and I often find myself wondering what it was like in those days when our population numbered thousands, not millions, when the land could breathe and wasn't waterproofed by swathes of concrete and tarmac.

All we seem to have left now are tiny scraps of green, and even these are unnatural. They have been cleared and ploughed and ravaged, then in a few places have been allowed (or rather neglected enough) to struggle back to life again.

It's showing my age but I found Joni Mitchell's song going around in my head...

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got
'Til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Hey farmer, farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But LEAVE me the birds and the bees
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Sussex Forests and Skeletons in Cupboards

Dipping into my Dad’s library, I was surprised to find a book “Closing Ranks” by Dirk Bogarde. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The man was a film star during my Pa’s formative years and they’d both seen action during the Second World War. My immediate reaction was that it would be celeb eye-wash. Intriguingly though the dust jacket told me Bogarde had three honorary literary doctorates including one from France. Perhaps he could write as well as look glamorous on the big screen.

I started to read a tale set in the familiar and fine Sussex countryside. The story caught me up. It centres around a gentrified family with skeletons in their cupboards who gather to see off a dying nanny. There is reference to some under-reported messy British history: when Cossacks were forcibly repatriated into Russia at the end of the war.

Yet there were lovely descriptions of rural England...

“A dragonfly looped around her head, dipped low, soared up, a whispering crackle of papery wings..”


“every shadow of a thought or doubt.. crossed his face with the clarity of cloud shadows racing across the fields..”


“A moorhen hurried though the rushes on the stream bank and launched itself into the water, flicking its tail with fussy anxiety.”


“The first crack of true dawn split the greyness, and as the sun rose above the brim of the silent earth, the first birds started, calling and scolding, the light grew stronger, drenching the still-damp fields. A golden haze grew in brilliance.... the valley was all at once glowing with sunlight, rang to the sound of the birds in copse and wood.”

Describing the dog as draggled made me smile and reminded me of all those words we use without thinking - like dishevelled - that we wouldn't normally shorten to their original root. The book was a thoroughly enjoyable, well-crafted, skilfully observed read, made all the more fun for me for being sited in beautiful Sussex woodlands.

Is it my perception or is there a dearth of novels set in southern England??

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Hayley Wood

The bitterly cold weather has been getting us all down but finally there are glimpses of spring.

This was enough for S and I to take ourselves to Hayley Wood on Sunday. It's a reserve in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire:52 hectares of ancient woodland managed by the local wildlife trust. It is also a site of Special Scientific Interest renowned for its oxlips.

We've pretty much consistently missed them over the last several years and were determined that this year we'd get there early enough in the season while the trees were still skeletal. When nothing much was showing any signs of being alive. The wood can seem a bit desolate in winter but we were determined to catch it at its best. We wanted to see and marvel at these rarities.

We searched for green sprouts. There weren't many. Just some hints of Dog's Mercury

and a few Bluebell leaves. We were sure we must be too early.

But then there were few likely leaves, and then some plants in bud, and finally.....

 The birds were in fine spring voice and there was a total absence of traffic noise. The unaccustomed sensation of sunshine on my face and forearms felt like unadulterated luxury.


there were even a few shy wood anemones


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Talking dirty

A loo with a view near Helambu in Nepal

The very charming and enthusiastic Justin Jones Deitchman got in touch just recently and offered to interview me about things lavatorial on Radical Radio. How could I refuse? The resulting broadcast is up on the web at

Enjoy it.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Anil's Ghost

When we were first married in 1987, S's work took us to the new town of Embilipitiya in southern Sri Lanka. It wasn't the prettiest of towns, indeed it reminded me a bit of Swindon, for it was full of people who were a long way from their families, posted there for work. But it was exciting to be in the tropics and our lush tropical garden was full of delights and interest. A huge monitor lizard visited from time to time.

I'd left the life and death work and 100-hour shifts of a junior hospital doctor for the life of a memsahib in the steamy Indian Ocean. I wanted to do something useful and thought it would be easy to set up clinics for local children and mothers. I found a relaxed male nurse to organise and translate for me and felt I could make a difference. S's project funded the medicines, and I looked forward to setting up a team of volunteers who could deliver health education and improve the lot of the poor.

People were - of course - interested. Some days I'd struggle to see nearly 200 patients. Other days though only three or four hopefuls would come to see us, and when I asked why more hadn't come, people would say that they were told to have nothing to do with us. The local Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna / Peoples' Liberation Front had said we were linked to the government and should therefore be boycotted. People we frightened. People disappeared. In the northo f the island there was a different war going on involving the Tamil Tigers. One of S's Tamil colleagues went home to Jafna on leave to see friends and family and was shot - by Indian 'peacekeepers' because he had arranged a 'political' meeting.

Driving to clinics sometimes, there'd be a group of people gathered around a house and when I asked about it, Mr D'd simply say 'Someone has been killed.'

Michael Ondaatje's powerful novel Anil's Ghost is set in these terrible times, and I see further sobering evidence of the attrocities is coming to light...

Reading reports like this reminds me... We really don't know how lucky we are to live in such untroubled times here in the West. The NHS is struggling but patients are still getting looked after - and no-one has death-threats for attending the GP surgery.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Miracle Drug

Alexander on his way to Kanchenjunga
I was asked to do a live radio interview a while back. It was a Sunday morning programme where the guest picks a few pieces of music to discuss, and the chat starts with the reasons each are important and wanders on to the memories they evoke.  I found it surprisingly hard to come up with three songs that define my life. I thought of Brick in the Wall, as a comment on my struggle at school because of my dyslexia, and it is of course by a local Cambridge band.

Bridge over Troubled Water was another classic that got me thinking of the stilling influences of the quiet people who are most important to me, but also it had me recalling some of the scary bridges we navigated in Nepal. Some were so rotten or flimsy, we were never confident we’d all get across safely.

I was also thought of using U2’s

“I want a trip inside your head
Spend the day there...
To hear the things you haven't said
And see what you might see

I wanna hear you when you call
Do you feel anything at all?
I wanna see your thoughts take shape
And walk right out....”

This seemed to say so much and was so very poignant to me, because of my experiences in trying to contact my baby. But before I settled on this choice, I thought I’d better check on the lyrics. I was surprised to discover that the song I’d heard as Miracle Child, was actually Miracle Drug. So this wasn’t an innocent song about a parent’s love and contacting a troubled child, but a description of someone tripping on illegal substances.
David trekking in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows

THEN I strayed across a YouTube clip of Bono talking about the song and its inspiration. He explained that all the band members attended the same comprehensive school and a child called Christopher Nolan joined their class. Christopher’s body and his brilliant brain was locked in by severe cerebral palsy; he could hardly move. But then he was given a drug that relaxed just a little of the tension in his muscles. This enabled him to start typing by way of a 'unicorn' stick attached to his forehead. And so he wrote The Dam-burst of Dreams – his first book – at the age of 15.
“The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile...”

Nolan's book is a miraculous outpouring of all the creativity that was bottled up inside his wonderful mind for his entire childhood.

So there it was: the song that had spoken to me so powerfully was indeed about a mother’s love for a difficult-to-contact child. I didn’t discover this until after the interview though. Instead of Miracle Drug, so ended up choosing something ‘safer’: a piece of Nepali folk music, and I was probably the only person to enjoy its unusual chords and unpredictable rhythms that Sunday morning.