The wheat field behind the house has been harvested leaving us with a yellow stubble carpet to look at. At least for now. Doubtless it will soon be ploughed and re-sown. This morning I watched the early morning sun spread down the hill. Liquid amber. The garden was still in deep shadow, but even so, the rudbeckia were not to be outdone, making their own sunshine.
I said in my last post that we seem only to go to the seaside at Christmas. It was a habit begun when we lived in Kenya through the 1990s: December is the high holiday season, and heading for some Indian Ocean beach cottage was what all Aid-industry wazungu did. Coral beaches glistened. The sea was warm, and fresh fish, mangos, papaya, eggs and sun-baked tomatoes arrived daily at your cottage door courtesy of the local Digo traders.
We have of course been repatriated for many years, but somehow we still have not re-shaped ourselves for northern latitudes. Perhaps being blown inside out on a midwinter Welsh or Cornish beach only serves to burnish memories filled with clattering leaves of coconut palms, the roar of surf on reef, and the ‘ding-ding’ of the vegetable seller’s bicycle bell. Oh yes, and of a Christmas Dinner that only involves a barbecued lobster, salad, and a glass or two of Tusker beer.
Mostly we spent Christmas at Maweni, on the south Mombasa coast, joined there by UK friends and family, who still remember these as the best Christmases ever. One year, however, when we had no visitors, we took the Christmas Eve flight out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, and made for Lamu. We were booked in for four nights at the Island Hotel in the heart of Shela village.
Our Air Kenya plane was small, a couple of dozen passengers aboard, and our journey just over an hour. We took off over the city’s sprawling tin towns, banked over the grasslands of Nairobi National Park, then turned towards the sun, or would have done if it had been at all visible through the lowering cloud. Beneath us the bush country of Eastern Kenya looked comfortingly or uncomfortably close, depending on your inclination, though either way the unending view of brown scrub soon grew monotonous. Also the flight’s chosen altitude, which seemed neither quite up nor down, played havoc with my Eustachian tubes; I tried to spot elephants to distract myself from the accompanying earache, though had no luck on either front.
We touched down on Manda Island airfield in gathering storm clouds – inky black -and were ushered into dhow taxis at the airport jetty, quickly sorted by the Swahili boatmen according to destination: Shela village or Lamu town. Our baggage followed on our heels, piled up on push carts, and was just as swiftly stowed – all highly efficient.
By now the storm meant business. It was starting to rain. Our dhow rocked unsteadily at its moorings. The crew hoisted an awning to give us some shelter, and it was at this point it occurred to me – as I sat, unexpectedly shivering in the tropics, with the sky shut down to the sea, and rain like knives – that all the swift efficiency I was witnessing might also be seen as a general urgency. We had to cross the Strait before the storm grew any worse, a voyage of around twenty minutes. I remember thinking, as the engine sparked into life, it sounded all too puny for our purposes.
Finding ourselves crammed under the awning with several other travellers we could not see much, which was probably as well. When the sea is choppy, Lamu dhows sit alarmingly low in the water. This brought on another interlude of would-be distraction as I attempted to take a few photos. This shot of our boat captain is one of my favourite Lamu photographs. I’ve posted cropped versions of it in other posts. I like the way his kikoi sarong mimics a dhow sail.
In the end there was no real cause for anxiety (if one overlooked the lack of life belts), and we weren’t afloat long enough to feel too queasy. The storm came to nothing and by the time we put in at Shela harbour the rain had stopped. Within the sheltering arm of the bay there was no wind either. Now as we were handed ashore we began to melt in the sudden humidity. All seemed airless, sticky, sultry, otherworldly in the kind of vaguely luminous gloom that conjures the tropics’ tristesse of Somerset Maugham. It was hard to get one’s bearings. I felt myself slither into sheep-mode: please someone take me to where I need to go.
And being Kenya, where hospitality is always top of the list, someone did.
Our guide led us up winding pathways – past overgrown gardens and abandoned houses where the coral rag walls steamed darkly. The air was spiked with salt and jasmine. My ears were still troubling me and my footfalls echoed strangely on the sand covered alleyways. I was hearing the world as if through a long drain pipe. It did not help.
My heart sank too as we were led further into the maze of dark streets and tall village houses where the air became thicker and hotter. I had visions of four stifling, mosquito ridden nights. And then we were there – shown into a dark vestibule straight off the street. It could have been a merchant’s house in a Sinbad tale. And finally when we were shown to our room, four floors up, I knew I’d been given the best Christmas present possible.
They called it the penthouse suite. And roof-top it was – with a high makuti thatch, woven from palm leaves. But here any expectation of luxury ended, at least in western eyes. The room was certainly huge, but it housed only a bed – an antique Lamu contrivance that was too short for a tall man and too narrow for two people to sleep comfortably side by side. Sleeping in shifts would be called for then.
The Penthouse Suite
Leading off the main room was a little sitting area with deck chairs, and next door, a concrete cubicle wherein a cold-shower shower could be had. In fact there was only one complete wall that went from floor to ceiling, and seemingly made so in order to provide a place to hang the door. Otherwise the walls were mostly windows, or rather, they were large spaces open to the elements.
And here was the luxury. The breeze. It blew through the room, bringing not only coolness, but also seeing off the mosquitoes. It was like being at sea. Or having one’s own look-out post, for in three of the four quarters we could survey the intimacies of Shela village life.
One of our views took in a neighbour’s rooftop bedroom one floor down. Sometimes the bed would be occupied. At other times only a bright kikoi lay abandoned on the simple rope-strung frame. Under the eaves there was a store of big yellow pumpkins. It felt like a privilege to have one’s stranger-closeness deemed so acceptable by Shela folk. And indeed, over those four days we received nothing but smiling kindness from the people we met there.
You can read more on this at: Christmas on Lamu: Views of Swahili Community
For now here’s a rear window view – first as I took it, framed by the thatch and wall, and then cropped to within an inch of its life, using the house walls and roof as the frame. My camera was a little Olympus trip, and the time: before digital was invented.
For some reason we mostly go to the seaside at Christmas, and not at all in high summer. Of course a beach can be a dramatic place any time of the year – changing and unchanging all at once, figuratively and physically. How we treat with it reflects our current mood or emotion – heightening or lowering it, depending on our inclinations.
This photo was taken on Ynys Mon, the island of Anglesey in North Wales. It was Boxing Day. The wind was perishing yet spirit-filling too, but then I always find ‘going to the beach’ exciting, in much the same way as I did when I was four. You just never know what you will find there in the margins between land and sea.
So here we have a tumble of razor shells embedded in a beach stream that was running off the marshy hinterland. I think there’s a viscid quality about the stream in the winter’s light, as if the shells have fixed there by the water rather than by the shift of sand. I like the slashes of greyish-white across medley of ochre shades. An intriguing state of disorder, then: the beach endlessly creating its own artwork.
Who wouldn’t be tempted by such a perfect apple? I came upon it yesterday as I was leaving the allotment. It’s growing on an very old and lovely tree that every year puts on its own magnificent Garden of Eden of show. We allotmenteers share the apples. They are crisp, juicy, sharp and sweet all at once. I don’t know the variety.
It’s important to keep tabs on the crop though. The window of opportunity for gobbling is brief since the apples don’t keep very well. I’m already thinking that they might be good in Tarte Tatin that most delicious of French classic deserts. I usually use Coxes Pippins later in the year, but since this August feels so autumnal, it’s an excellent excuse to make it sooner. I have a deep cast iron frying pan, which works a treat, both for the initial caramelizing of the apples on top of the cooker, and the final cooking with added the pastry lid inside the oven.
I should also say these apples have the most delicious fragrance too – lemon crisp. They anyway sum up August for me: the garden’s rich harvest.
Changing Seasons: August Every month around the 20th Cardinal Guzman posts a Changing Seasons challenge. There are two variations to choose from, so follow the link for further instructions. They are easy-peasy.
The Talyllyn Railway in mid Wales is the oldest preserved steam railway in Britain. Over the past half century it has inspired many other such ventures and there are now some 500 miles of restored lines across the country.
That they are there at all and can offer us steamingly enjoyable train rides is mostly down to armies of enthusiastic volunteers like these chaps in the photo. It’s an enterprise fraught with responsibilities too; the health and safety implications are momentous: track, rolling stock and passengers all to be kept in good order.
And in case you missed it back in June, you can read more about Tish and Graham’s big train day out at:
This week at Black & White Sunday Paula’s challenge is COMPOSITION. Please visit to see her own very fine composition, and the other entries it inspired.
My own photo was composed in Dynamic Monochrome.
I am always fascinated by silhouettes. I also seem to do a lot of sky watching these days. This shot of a farm hedge in one of the fields behind the house was taken late one winter’s afternoon using the Dynamic Monochrome setting on my Lumix compact camera. There was just enough light left. I added the blue-ish tint in Microsoft Picture Gallery.
This week for Black & White Sunday Paula asks us to post a favourite b & w photo, so this is one of mine. You have the rest of the week if you want to join in, but please visit Paula’s blog where you will find more ‘favourites’.
Up at the allotment the globe artichokes we did not eat earlier in the summer are flowering, and the Red-tailed Bumblebees think all their breakfasts have come at once. In fact they’re trying to scoff them all at once too. The flower, after all, is a VERY BIG thistle. This makes me wonder if the huge expanse of ultra-violet attractant doesn’t over-stimulate the foraging impulse, thus explaining the manic bee rootling that has them scrabbling, bottoms up, through the petal forest to reach the sweet stuff beneath.
Those with longer legs seem to cope best, but I’ve already had to rescue two. They seem to become mired in the petals. Either that or they’re simply spaced out on the sugar rush.
When we came home after eight years in Africa we lived for a time in Rochester, Kent, on the shores of the River Medway. It is an ancient town with cathedral, castle and cobbled streets. It’s also a place that goes in for plenty of fun activities.
For a start there’s a strong Charles Dickens connection. The writer lived in the area and in particular based some of the locations of his novel Great Expectations in and around the town. Every year, and to mark this important literary association, there is a Dickens Festival. This mostly involves people dressing up in appropriate costumes and parading about the streets. For some reason we have no photos so you’ll just have to imagine the fun of bumping into multiple versions of Miss Haversham out on the High Street.
Instead here we have the Rochester Sweeps Festival, an annual gathering that mostly involves Morris groups from across the land, but with a scattering of chimney sweeps plus a few Green Men thrown in. This particular event has been going for nearly forty years, but it harks back to centuries’ old festivities.
I attempted to unravel the history in an earlier post. So if you wish to know more about arcane English pursuits go here: Unexpected with bells, sticks and hankies at the Sweeps Festival
For now, here are a few more of Graham’s photos that did not feature in the original post. You can draw your own conclusions about the multiple cultural references, some more eccentric than others. The young women in black ‘Miss Whiplash’ ensembles hailed from the US:
Never mind the Olympics, it’s all gold in and out of the garden on Sheinton Street. Over in the field the wheat is ready to harvest, and inside the hedge the Rudbeckia is towering up a good six feet tall. This morning it is rather windswept, but the yellow flowers look good against the blue.
Its parent plant once grew in my Aunt Miriam’s much loved Devon garden. That’s her fork in the first photo. The tines are twisted, making it unfit for gardening, but we keep it permanently planted as a keepsake and also as a perch for the local robin.
Beneath the Rudbeckia the feathery plumes of Golden Rod have just started to flower, and below them the red hot flowers of Helenium are making their own carnival parade. All the stems (below and above) belong to a single plant. They pretty much have the red end of the spectrum covered. The bees love them too.
Happy weekend everyone!