Explorations into the Known World
Thursday 1 September 2011
4 am last Saturday and I was filling a water bottle in the dark at a standpipe by some beach huts in Studland, staring absently at a child's forgotten bucket and spade, when I remembered this conversation and in my dazed, half-woken state had a sudden realisation that the sea, for the English, and the mountains, for the Swiss, must have very much in common. The last truly wild places left and we surround their margins with remarkably similar resorts, restaurants, cafes and shops, allowing people to splash about in the shallows or ski around on some safe groomed pistes, while in the background, unexplored by the mass of people who go there to enjoy and admire from afar, lies an undiscovered region. Sea or mountain, untamed places, indifferent to the continued existence of the individual, both the last chance civilised humanity has to truly feel alive, places which yield to those who care to look for it a chance to experience the sublime, to be of the planet and to exist in it.
My bottle must have been full by this point, time for reflection over, forced down some breakfast, packed boats, watched the moon rise as a crescent of pure fire edging the grey sphere, visible in its entirety, above the chalk cliffs and stacks of the Dorset coastline, then the beginnings of daylight bluing the horizon and we set out, past Old Harry and along our planned bearing, heading for the needles at the extremity of the Isle of Wight. The wind was light, the water pleasantly bouncy, the sun emerging over the horizon, wind picking up and giving us waves to surf on, our destination slowly emerging on the edge of vision, next to storm clouds which slowly dissipated and moved off out to sea.
And as the sky slowly brightened and our target became firmer on the horizon, I realized I was completely happy, happy in my sleek little boat and my familiarity with the way it handles, happy with the shifting contours of the sea, constantly forming and reforming, with the freshness of the sea air, the circling sea birds and the pure simplicity of the view.
We made steady progress, surfing a following sea and going through the Needles to land at Alum bay with its rockslides, coloured sand and incongruous chairlift, waves dumping on the steep shingle, for a brief rest, then the long slog up the Solent back to Lymington, first enjoying fresh green water and sunlight, passing yachts, then battering against the turning tide till we crawled out onto a concrete beach on the other side and flopped in a heap. Then a final push up the Lymington river, landed on a slipway virtually inside the station and began a complex series of train, taxi and chain ferry rides back to recover vehicles and rescue our friends and boats, several hours later, from the ferry terminal car park.
Final verdict: Worth getting up at 3.45 for. (and not many things are)
Day two: Kimmeridge up the coast to Durdle Door and back again. Spectacular as ever and some interesting water too.
Pictures to follow, and maybe even a GPS trace…
Tuesday 30 August 2011
The Isle of Thanet, at the eastern extremity of Kent, used once to be a definite island, divided by a broad navigable channel, the Wantsum,.until the 16th century when it silted up so as to become un-navigable. Theoretically it could perhaps be passable by kayak under favourable circumstance, but I have yet to work out if this is indeed the case.
We set out, not too early, not too late, little bit of waves to surf on, past chalk cliffs, Margate with the new art gallery looking like a sardine cannery (not meant to be viewed from the sea?), round the corner, Joss Bay and the surf school, beach huts, into Broadstairs, stop for coffee and cake and ridiculously cheap huss, kids on the beach making the best of a none-too-warm August day, then out again, round to Ramsgate, nice bouncy water by the harbour, lunch stop at the mouth of the Stour, watched a gigantic rally of jetskis, then headed on into the river mouth and – SEALS! In kent! Loads of 'em! And even a “safari boat” watching them. Then on up the Stour, past the now defunct Pfizer factory (probably the only significant employer in the area) and landed in Sandwich at which point the sun came out and it was a proper August day again.
Part II: the Wantsum ditch, to follow...
Wednesday 13 July 2011
warm summer's afternoon, swans and reeds, valerian in cracked walls, old brick buildings, use long-forgotten, hidden behind banks of pink Himalayan balsam, water becomes sluggish, our way barred by the lock at the entrance to the Olympic site.
No traffic, no canal boats, no sign of anyone, we paddle right up to it, peer over and no-one shouts at us to keep off. Watery wasteland. Legacy?
Chioggia, “it's like Venice but dirtier”, where the Marina di Chioggia big knobbly green squashes come from – so there must be vegetable gardens, the intended site of a freshly rejected (by referendum) nuclear power plant, “it's like Venice but without the tourists” and “you can't get lost there because there are only three canals and one of them is shut”.
Armed with a few preconceptions, directions to a launching spot at Chioggia canoe club and a couple of boats, we arrived in a place that instantly charmed us with its scruffy welcome. Everywhere were cyclists pottering about their daily business, friendly guys with flat water racing boats on their shoulders who explained where to put in, tiny but curious kids hanging on the bars of their school fence like monkeys and older kids racing round a miniature velodrome. Topped off by a municipal cafe and trees, a vision of urban contentment.
Even the water was different; despite launching our boats a tidal creek in the enclosed section of the lagoon at the southern end of the town we were astounded to see that it was clear enough to see things on the bottom, quite unlike Venice.
Crossing the lagoon quickly to the sounds of some public event or other ending over loudspeakers we entered the first canal and discovered an active working fishing port, big rusty boats, boat yards, everything functional, cars and vans on the canalside making us look round confused for a motorboat that never materialised. Out under a Venetian style brick bridge and across the lagoon, drag of tide to the lagoon inlet, rows of mussel beds with hanging tangles of rope, ramshackle platforms out in the water with fishing nets and benign but curious guard dogs, other platforms abandoned and collapsing gradually into the mud, heavy thunder clouds threatening rain, which fell in dark masses on the land but never came.
We stopped for lunch in a quiet local cafe which was suddenly taken over by a couple of holidaying German families, the afternoon heat was intense and outside the cafe, eager to close, no shade to be found. The island only a few metres wide at this point we looked at the Adriatic beach but this was somehow less appealing than lagoon where the local kids were playing and jumping into the water. We jumped in too. Chatted to the kids for while about our boats and headed back pushed by wind and tide, over the lagoon, down the other Chioggia canal, under the causeway bridges, creeping beneath low brick arches, between structures for fishing, stained and weathered wood, back to Chioggia canoe club and a warm welcome, offers to help us wash down our boats, delight at my Nordkapp - - “Ah, I used to have one of those, best boat there is”, tour round an immaculate boat store, invitations to come back one day....
End of another trip to Venice, this time putting on a small fringe show at the Biennale, after a couple of weeks spent in the confines of Venice itself, Chioggia came as welcome change, easing back to the normal world outside, drawing me back to northern Italy again. Poor relation of Venice? No, different and not to be compared. A little down-at-heel like everywhere in this late capitalist world of ours but getting along in its own way. And it's the only place I've ever seen a monument to a “propugnatore della qualita della vita per una citta felice” (a certain prof Felice Federico Casson) on a road named after a leader of the Communist party.
Thursday 10 March 2011
Today I had no work and decided to start the day with a trip to the local open prison to buy wood for the stove, idled back through Thusis, went shopping, idled back and on a whim turned right instead of left and headed up towards Mutten, on the flank of the hill. The first village, Solis, was charming, Mutten larger and even more so, unafflicted by progress, old wooden houses jostling for space on the folds of the hillside, blackened by winters of snow and hot summers, cow barns still cow barns and the tarmac road the only outward concession to modernity. I headed up towards the ski slope, but after the road swung precipitously right and changed its surface to slippery mud abandoned my vehicle and continued on foot. A logging tractor was following me so I flagged it down and asked about the ski lift. Unexpectedly the occupants told me it was working; I hadn't believed that a lift could be working up the end of a road which seemed impassable to all but four-wheel drives, so there and then I decided to go back down, and come back with my skis. Having first confirmed that the lift really was open with a pleasant woman walking a child and two Sennenhunds which tried to lick my arm off and climb in the car window.
An hour or so later the car was again parked by the church and I was again walking up the road (which I had been assured would only take half an hour from that point onwards), this time with skis on my shoulder. Not many vehicles travel this way. Within 30 metres, however, I had managed to flag down the only passing car and got a lift, from a charming woman who was going up to spend a couple of days up there with her kids. Given the amount of traffic, this seemed remarkably lucky, perhaps less so when she started telling me her snow tyres were worn out. To my great relief she then stopped to put chains on – which miraculously took less than a couple of minutes and from then on I relaxed and enjoyed the ride, including the wait for the woodcutters to move a large trunk from the road, an suddenly we were there, among the buildings you can see from our window, which turned out to be a beautifully weathered set of cow and goat sheds mixed with old houses and wooden holiday cottages, all nicely spaced, new cottages and old barns indistinguishable the one from the other.
There too was my mountain, rising out of the trees to present an unfamiliar face and showing a long winding flank which I had only guessed at from the map, all equally smooth, rounded and pristine.
I was deposited at the top of the lift, skied down, rode back up again and found the kasse to have been at the top all along, so produced my Graubünden pass and ascertained that I was indeed, to the liftie's knowledge, the only English person ever to have set foot in Obermutten. I asked him about the trail up the Muttnerhorn and he told me the first part was a road, after that just mountain but he hadn't been higher than the road part himself, though a lot of people do like to go up there.
Then I started doing laps round the ski slope. Somehow it should have been boring. Somehow it was not. There were a half dozen other skiers there, including a group of wobbly kids who their teacher was forcing to pop over a small kicker off-piste. All of them leaned reluctantly backwards with their skis in a skittery snowplough. All of them sat down on landing, slid a bit, scrambled to their feet and wobbled onwards. Later they were launching themselves with much greater enthusiasm down a slalom course made out of ski poles.
The piste itself was rolling with ill defined margins, large rocks and trees across its width (I can see them from here, looking up, in the fading light), and bare sections of earth where the piste basher had removed the remaining inches of snow. But the top of the slope was wide and empty, allowing for carved turns over its whole extent, and to the right a patch of largely untracked snow steep enough to throw a few turns in. I tracked it entirely. Then turned my attentions to the piste again. I still couldn't work out why I wasn't getting bored. Something in the rolling form of the slope? The larch trees where you have to go left to keep off the earth patch, then swing right to get in just a few more turns before choosing between a bouncy narrow track running left or the wider sweep down to the bottom of the lift? The fact that the few people there were friendly individuals rather than an aggressive moving slalom course with an apparent death-wish? That no-one had any attitude?
Eventually, though the afternoon was heading on so I did one last perfect run down the little piste, came back up the lift and pottered over to the impeccable Gasthaus Post where I was served coffee and Linzertorte by the owner, a friendly gent with a fine set of whiskers. Then put my skis on again, cruised down the run, sat in the sunshine on somebody's bench at the bottom to take my boots off and sort out my skis, before strolling back down the road. This was punctuated by the woodcutters, with perfect timing, felling a huge fir just as I arrived to watch.
I had many views across the valley through breaks in the forest. The sun was starting to go down, the shadow of the mountain creeping out with visible speed, and greying the warm russet brown of the winter grass on the slopes opposite: Lain, Muldain and Zorten, the latter with its impressively prominent church where the post bus turns and I wait on frosty mornings; along the valley side via Nivagl,only two houses really, where the track to Alvaschein rises from the vehicle road to Thusis; Alvaschein itself where I walk occasionally on the pretext of buying cheese from a rusty old fridge with an honesty box; up the hill slightly to the edge of Lantsch where a German friend lived last year. On my side of the valley I could look down on Solis, the first of the villages on the meadow above the cliff, its off-white church still warmed by the sun just beyond the relentlessly advancing edge of the shadow.
There is something about the sense of space and three dimensionality of this valley which really makes you feel that you are alive, truly appreciate the fact, feel rooted in external space and feel at one with everything. I've had this feeling before, looking out, in the opposite direction from the post bus on the way to work, and it's hard to describe, but walking down the road back to Mutten allowed me to savour the sensation longer, even stopping for minutes to gaze down over the wide sweep of the valley, far away objects, unusually clear and purposeful, each with its own identity: the patch of dark ground where the snow was gone under a little tree, a distant pile of snowy logs, Solis church on the edge of the ravine, the two houses of Nivagl. There is some kind of spacial perfection about this place which gives you a feeling of being of the world and at one with it, an understanding of scale and of space and of the position of every object within it. Life is of the present moment only when you look out over this valley; past and future have no purchase.
I was almost disappointed to see the chapel with my car next to it; had someone offered me a lift I would have declined, to look just a little longer. But there I was, back at the car, saying hello to a woman with a friendly labrador, driving off and pausing only briefly on the way back, to have a closer look at the church I had seen from above, 17th or 18th century, I would say, with a large portico painted to look like marble by someone who had not looked at real marble, but which effect somehow gave it a rustic charm anyway. The dome of the bell tower was covered in ancient wooden shingles, as was a lovely old building – some sort of vicarage perhaps, but my knowledge of Swiss churches is greatly deficient – abutting on to it, with a vegetable garden and flower pots waiting for spring and a sign offering honey for sale.
Not wanting to disturb anyone, I headed back to the car, then back here, sat down at the kitchen table, got out my computer and looked out of the window at the view which will never be the same again because now I have actually been inside it and it is no longer a stranger to me. It is almost dark now but I will leave the curtains open until it fades completely from sight.
Tuesday 30 November 2010
Warm, sunny autumn day, launch into the Rother at Rye at high water avoiding the mud, out through the river mouth and along a coast featureless from the water until the cliffs rose up before Hastings, luxury houses and secluded beaches. We stopped at Fairlight Cove, a cottage teetering on the brink of the soft rock above us and snacked on coffee and sandwiches amongst elegantly patterned boulders, headed back out through minimal swell and came into Hastings just as dusk was falling, only the old town visible from the water, looking no doubt just as it had 100 years ago, just in time for a sprint through the newer part of town to the station, flopping dripping and gasping into the only train for an hour, just in time to get back and retrieve cars at the other end.
Hastings pier not quite smouldering any more, deposits of charcoal on the sand.
I went back another day to try to find the beach from the land and see the context of the cliff top buildings but was unable to find it.