July’s Changing Seasons ~ To Shropshire’s Mysterious Stiperstones

It is a wild and brooding place, one of the strangest in South Shropshire’s hill country. For one thing the Devil has his chair there, and when the mist comes down, this is where he sits – brimming with pent-up malevolence but unseen by us mortals.

We did not encounter mist on Saturday when we ventured there so we assumed the Devil was out. But there were lowering skies, a near absence of light and the threat of rain. Oh yes, and wind, that somehow caused a discontinuity of function between brain and feet, so making the trek over moorland paths strewn with quartzite cobbles somewhat hazardous.

The Stiperstones ridge extends 5 miles (8 km), and at its highest point on Manstone Rock is 1700 feet (536 metres) above sea level.  Standing on the top you can look west across the great expanse of Wales, and on clear days see Snowdon and Cader Idris mountains. Turn east, and you can scan across the Long Mynd to north east Shropshire and far, far beyond.

The ridge has ancient origins and half the world away, some 60 degrees south of the equator. It probably began existence as a quartz sand beach laid down by a shallow sea during the Ordovician, some 495-443 million years ago. Thereafter the landmass moved one inch a year for the next 450 million years to reach its present location 50 degrees north of the equator. A slow, slow journey, then, of 7,500 miles.

You might think, as you look at succeeding images, that it doesn’t look much like a beach these days. In fact it has suffered much folding, sending the beach skywards, and tilting it at angles of 80 degrees in places. Along its length are a series of  quartzite tors described by the eminent Victorian geologist, Murchison, as ‘rugged Cyclopean ruins’ (The Silurian System 1854). Besides the Devil’s Chair and Manstone Rocks there are also Diamond Rock, Cranberry Rock, Nipstone Rock and several other eye-catching outcrops.

The place is also described as ‘relict landscape’, one that is undergoing continuous weathering. What we see today was mostly shaped during the last Ice Age when the quartzite was locked in permafrost. Moisture seeped into the cracks, and as it froze, expanded, causing the rock to fissure and fragment.

The moors below the ridge-top are rich in whinberries and cowberries, and so provided food and grazing for human populations from at least the Bronze Age. These people from prehistory left us their burial monuments – stone cairns along the hill’s spine. Then around 100 CE the Romans arrived, avidly searching of silver, but mostly mining lead, and smelting it in hillside boles to provide material to line their plunge pools, make water pipes, cover roofs, construct their coffins, and for the craftsmen of Wroxeter Roman City to use in the production of pewter.

Down succeeding centuries lead mining expanded dramatically. The flanks of the Stiperstones are littered with adits and the mine shafts that featured so dramatically in Mary Webb’s Gone To Earth.  One of the biggest concerns, Snailbeach Mine, started at the foot of the hill in 1783, employed 500 workers at its height. For a century and more, then, the wild countryside was also a filthy industrial zone of delving, massive spoil heaps, steam-pumping engines and hard-worked men and boys.

Yet somehow this phase too has somehow welded itself into the mythic fabric of the landscape, an impression heightened by the strange visual effect of Stiperstones quartzite – that it somehow looks black against the light, when in fact it is grey and speckled with ice white crystals.

And on that note I’ll leave you with the words of Much Wenlock’s Mary Webb, whose writerly landscape this very much was – and in all senses. This quote is from The Golden Arrow:

The whole countryside was acquiring in his eyes something portentous, apocalyptic. For the personality of a man reacting upon the spirit of a place produces something which is neither the man nor the  place, but fiercer or more beautiful than either. This third entity, born of the union,  becomes a  power and a haunting presence – non-human, non-material.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Changing Seasons – Please visit Max for this month’s jaw-dropping vistas from his trekking trip to the Romsdalseggen: not for the faint-hearted.

Wenlock: “A Rip Van Winkle Kind Of Place”

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A Rip Van Winkle kind of place – that’s how Shropshire writer Mary Webb described Much Wenlock around a century ago. It was the home town of her teenage years, and the place where I now live and indeed have known for much of my life. Even when we lived in Africa we would visit Wenlock whenever we were on ‘home leave’. We had friends who drew us, and finally led us to settle here on our return to England.

And once we had arrived, we soon found that many of our neighbours, pitched up from far-flung places themselves, had also lived and worked all over Africa. I was therefore only briefly surprised to find that Henry Morton Stanley had once been in Wenlock, staying as a house guest of the Milnes Gaskells, the local gentry who once lived in the old Prior’s House and owned the ruins of Wenlock Priory from which the town had grown up throughout the Middle Ages.

Stanley is not a man I admire, although his brute tenacity is certainly impressive. We also have him to thank for selling the idea of the Congo to another brute of a man, King Leopold II of Belgium, a circumstance from which that Central African state has probably yet to recover.

Still, I won’t go into that now, but I do have a mind’s eye image of Stanley sitting up on Wenlock Edge (the Milnes Gaskells took all their guests there), and picture him scanning the Shropshire plains below as he contemplated the writing of In Darkest Africa.

The landscape that spread before him, with its distant ranges of Welsh hills, could well have reminded  him of that continent. I have seen such vistas in East Africa. But he was a man who ever took his darkness with him. And this makes me wonder. What might our grim legacy have been, in PR terms that is, if he had written of ‘darkest Shropshire’; would the tainted words still be sticking to us today?

It’s a rhetorical question obviously. And I mention all these dark tones and undercurrents only as counterpoint to the  quaint, quiet images above. Much Wenlock definitely has ‘chocolate box image’ tendencies in its now gentrified, ancient streets. I find it good to remember, once in a while, that all is not necessarily what it seems.

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This post was inspired by Paula’s Black & White Sunday Challenge: ‘surreptitious photography’. It is a fascinating theme. The role of surreptitious photographer is something I rather relish, but rarely put into practice. I have a feeling that in this Rip Van Winkle place it risks becoming an obsessive pursuit and, as a writer, I already have enough of those.

But please visit Paula at the link above and be inspired by her photographs. There’s still time to take part. Also check in HERE to see her gallery of  slide shows of all participating photographers’ work. It’s a real treat.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Sundown in the Maasai Mara

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Night comes swiftly at the equator, usually at 6 to 6.30 pm. But around 5 pm there is that perfect moment when the light is like molten honey.  This shot was only a quick snap, taken after a game drive, and as we were heading back to camp on the Mara River. Our driver-guide was intent on one last go at spotting a leopard. For our part, we were simply entranced by this scene. Even at the time it seemed as if we had stepped into an oil painting. Besides, this was the most game we’d seen in one place all afternoon. Because that is something that wild life films tend not to show you: that you can drive for hours across the African bush and not see a single animal.

 

There is also more going on in this scene than is immediately obvious. Behind the zebra are some wildebeest; then the giraffe between the thorns. I’m not sure what the pale animal is on the top left horizon, but from its size I’d say  it is probably an eland. Then if you look carefully  just below the right hand bough of the right hand thorn tree, you might make out a brown dog-like shape. Hyena. There will doubtless be others in the grass. Once it was thought they were only scavengers, moving in on big cats’ kills. But now they are known to be hunters too. They prey on gazelles and larger antelope. Even a lone hyena can bring down a full-grown wildebeest, and pack away 15 kilos of meat at one sitting. They have jaws like industrial meat grinders, and believe me, to come upon one at close quarters, is not recommended.

 

Sunday Stills: Crowd Work

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

Gazing into Hell’s Mouth at Plas yn Rhiw

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Surely Plas yn Rhiw is too lovely a place for visions of Hell? The ancient Welsh domain  on the road to Aberdaron has a benign and slumbering air; here are  gentle and delicate spirits.And it is not simply in the subtle shapes of the garden’s planting or the soft hues and scents of fading flowers;

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or in the  cobbled paths and woodland walks where wild strawberries and ferns grow alongside fuchsias and hydrangeas;

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or in the fabric of this old, old house whose stones reflect the end-of-summer sky and the steely blue-greys of the sea below.

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Even the air around the house feels strangely soft. It is the kind of late September softness that makes you want to lie down in the grass and dream for days and years, listening only to insect hum and the chatter of sparrows.  The setting anyway is blissful; all enclosed by woodland at the foot of Mynyth Rhiw Mountain, and embraced by the seeming sheltering curve of Hell’s Mouth Bay (Porth Neigwl). So now you have it, an inkling that the tranquil surface overlays some deeper, darker currents.

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Hell’s Mouth lies on the southerly tip of Llyn Peninsula, overlooking the broader sweep of Cardigan Bay. The calm view from Plas yn Rhiw  is transfixing. How can it have such a name? Yet watch this space and see a different scene. For when the south westerly gales come roaring in, this bay becomes a death trap. Over the years it is said that some thirty ships have been run aground, their holdfast anchors dragging before the driving storm. Wrecks include the Transit that foundered with a cargo of cotton in 1839. In 1840 it was the Arfestone carrying gold. An Australian ship was lost there in 1865, and in 1909 the sailing ship Laura Griffith was wrecked. And there is more.

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Reel back to the 8-900s AD and Llyn was the scene of bloody raids. At this time the Vikings occupied coastal Ireland across the bay. Llyn was then part of the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd and  Powys and its prominent position made it seem an easy target from  over the Irish Sea.  The Welsh, under Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great 844-878 AD)  fought valiantly to keep the raiders at bay, although accounts of the time attest to their terrifying attacks. But whatever the truth, the sight of a raiding party,  sixty five ships strong, and coming  fast into  the bay must have truly chilled the blood. By the 10th century Llyn was still holding its own against Viking incursion, but only through constant vigilance. And this is where Plas yn Rhiw comes in. Local history  has it that Meirion Goch, great-grandson of Rhodri Mawr, was instructed to build a fortified house at Rhiw and  hold the coast against invasion. It is also thought that this stronghold occupied the site of the present house, although no provable traces have been yet been found. The descendants from this royal dynasty appear then to have occupied Plas yn Rhiw for the next thousand years, eventually adopting, in  the English fashion, the surname Lewis. IrishSeaReliefmap[1] (2) The Llyn Peninsula is the finger of land above Cardigan Bay. Hell’s Mouth is due north of the ‘d’ in Cardigan. The port of Dublin in Ireland was founded by the Vikings, along with other coastal towns that they used as raiding bases. (Map: Creative Commons).

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The house we see today, then, has its own stories – cycles of re-building, abandonment, decay, renewal. Now , as a National Trust property, it is frozen in time; as if its last elderly inhabitants, the Keating sisters, have simply popped out to the shops and left you to gaze upon their hats and gloves, and recently received letters. But more of these sisters in moment. First a quick history of the house. The lintel over the French window is carved with the date 1634, which probably marks the re-modelling of an existing medieval house by the then owner John Lewis. In 1820 the house was further extended and the grand Georgian facade and a further storey added. But in 1874 the long connection with the Lewis family ended and the house was sold for the first time in its existence. The new owner then let it to a succession of tenants, and it was possibly one of these, Lady Strickland, who created the gardens. She apparently also introduced the first bath tub to the district. And there is a tale of a ghostly visitation during her tenancy – a drunken squire roaming the house in search of a drink (lost spirits perhaps?). But by 1938, when the house was once more for sale, it was in a sad state of repair. The nearby millstream had left its bed and was running through the hall, rotting the staircase, brambles blocked the front door and the garden was a jungle. Enter the saviours,  Welsh conservationist  and architect, Clough Williams-Ellis (creator of Portmeirion ) and his friends the Keating sisters.

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In this newspaper photo of 1960 (www.rhiw.com/) we see Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating at Plas yn Rhiw. It is down to them that Llyn does not have a nuclear power station. They bought up coastal land to prevent it, and than gave the land to the National Trust. They also opposed overhead power lines and caravan parks, and in 1939 Honora received an OBE for her work for the National Council for Maternity and Child Welfare. They were the daughters of a Nottingham architect who was killed in a traffic accident when they were small. Their 32-year old mother Constance was left to bring them up, and she ensured, among other things, that they received a good education. Every year  from 1904 the family spent their summers in Rhiw. In 1919 they bought a cottage above Hell’s Mouth, and it was from here that they first saw Plas yn Rhiw. In 1934, after Constance became an invalid, the sisters settled permanently with her in Rhiw. There are tales of them shunting mother around the locality in a wheeled bed.  By this time Plas yn Rhiw was abandoned, and although there were hopes of saving it, the owner could not be found. Then in 1938 a FOR SALE notice went up. Six hundred pounds was the asking price, and it was Clough Williams-Ellis who alerted Honora. He sent her a telegram: “Will you invest savings Plas”. She replied: “Yes, but haven’t got much.”

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The sisters bought the house, along with 58 acres of land that were all that remained of the original estate. With Clough Williams-Ellis to help and advise, the restoration began, and the following year the Keatings moved into the house. They then set about buying back the estate’s former land, which they gave to the National Trust in 1946 in memory of their parents. The house was donated in 1952, although the sisters lived there for the rest of their lives, the last and youngest sister, Honora, dying in 1981. Inside, the house has no pretensions to grandeur, although it is filled with personal treasures – everything from fine Meissen figures to the cottage vernacular of a Welsh spinning wheel.  Along with the family portraits and antique furniture are paintings by Honora who studied at the Slade, and  also works by M E Eldridge, the often overlooked artist wife of the poet R S Thomas. (When Thomas retired from being parish priest at nearby Aberdaron, the Keatings leased to him Sarn Rhiw, a stone cottage in the grounds below the house).

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The Yellow Bedroom

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Honora’s room – alongside the Victoriana there is in the fireplace a c.1916 Royal Ediswan electric fire which operated by means of 250-watt bulbs. Beside the bed is an early Pifco Teasmaid.

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Today the National Trust is continuing to restore the house while staying true to the Keating sisters’ aesthetic sensibilities and conservation principles. The garden has its striking seasons: carpets of wild snowdrops along the woodland walks in winter, a magnificently flowering Magnolia mollicomata in spring, the early summer azaleas, the September cascades of crimson magnolia fruits and fuchsias. So perhaps the final words should be left to Clough Williams-Ellis. In a letter  that now hangs framed in the hall, he writes to the sisters: “In these serene spring days your little kingdom must be heavenly indeed.”

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Related: Arch Wizard of Wales: Clough Williams-Ellis Bright Fields on Llyn Warrior Wind-Singer of Llyn   Post inspired by Sue Llewellyn’s A Word A Week: Delicate  

Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe

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Inside the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe. These magnificent walls have survived for nearly seven centuries, and not a lick of mortar to keep them standing.

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No one knows exactly why this great African city  was abandoned. For some 350 years, until  around 1450 AD,  Great Zimbabwe had been a flourishing merchant centre that drew in from the surrounding country supplies of gold, copper, ivory, animal skins and cotton. The city’s entrepreneurs  then traded these goods on to the Swahili city states of Sofala and Kilwa on the East African coast. (You can read more about the Swahili HERE). In return, the traders brought back luxury goods –  jewellery, decorative pieces such as 13th and 14th century Chinese celadon dishes and Persian ceramics.

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The city’s ruins cover 80 hectares, its many stone enclosures commanding the southern slopes of Zimbabwe’s High Plateau watershed between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. The site is well watered with good grazing throughout the year. It is above the zone of the deadly tsetse fly that can infect both cattle and humans with sleeping sickness; and the plateau’s granite scarps provide plentiful building stone and other raw materials. Even so, these favourable circumstances do not explain why this particular settlement rose to such prominence.

For Great Zimbabwe was not a singular phenomenon. Contemporary with it,  and across the High Plateau region, are the remains of at least a hundred other mazimbabwe (houses of stone). Several were large enough to have been the capitals of rival states. Others may have been satellite communities occupied by members of Great Zimbabwe’s ruling lineage.

So who were the city’s builders?

During Zimbabwe’s colonial times, and until independence, the  Rhodesian government actively supressed  evidence that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans.  Many of the other stone ruins were destroyed or re-purposed by European settler farmers. The official view claimed that the city was Phoenician, and that the Queen of Sheba’s fabled kingdom of Ophir had been discovered. Archaeologists, however, have long demonstrated  that it was the cattle-owning Karanga Shona who built Great Zimbabwe. The first phase of stone building began around 1100 AD. Thereafter, the city’s rising fortunes and successive building phases suggest its increasing control of the ancient High Plateau trade routes to the Swahili cities of Sofala and Kilwa.

Gold was the key commodity, and it is likely that it was Great Zimbabwe’s successful cattle production that provided it with the trading power to secure gold supplies from mines some 40 kilometres away. The more prosperous the city became, the more sophisticated its demonstrations of prestige. In around 1350 AD  the Great Enclosure of finely dressed stone was built. This huge elliptical structure with its mysterious platform and conical tower is thought to be the royal court. There is no indication that the walls were defensive. This was  a regime confident in its power and authority.

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Peter Garlake’s reconstruction of the Great Enclosure Platform from Life at Great Zimbabwe,  Mambo Press 1982

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Then why did the city decline?

There are various explanations: the people had let their herds overgraze the land; they had cut down all the trees; there was a prolonged period of drought as may happen in southern Africa. But somehow none of these theories quite explain why, after 350  flourishing years, a community of perhaps 20,000-plus people should simply pack up and leave. Did all these farmers, herders, miners, craftspeople, soldiers, traders, accountants, court personnel and the city’s rulers  leave on a single day, or did the city die slowly?  The archaeological evidence does not say.

But we do know there were disruptive external forces at work. In the 15th century the Portuguese invaded the Swahili coastal city of Sofala. They were on the hunt for gold and so pressed inland with Swahili guides. Their interfering presence drove the trading routes north, giving rise to the Mutapa state. This new state may well have been founded by people from Great Zimbabwe. Certainly by this time the Swahili traders were coming up the Zambezi to trade with the Shona directly, the old trade route through Great Zimbabwe no longer used. At this time, too, we see the beginning of another Shona city state  with the building of the stone city at Khami near Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe. In the following centuries this became the centre of the Torwa-Rozvi state whose other major cities during the 16th and 17th centuries included Naletale and Danangombe.

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The Great Enclosure entrance at Great Zimbabwe built c.1350 AD

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And so into history…

Of course with the Portuguese incursions comes the first documentary evidence. From the early 1500s Zimbabwe’s royal courts enter the historic record in the accounts of the Portuguese conquistadores. In 1506 Diogo de Alcacova writes to his king, describing a city  of the Mutapa state

“called Zimbany…which is big and where the king always lives.”  His houses are “of stone and clay and very large and on one level.” Within the kingdom there are “many very large towns and many other villages.” 

The Portuguese historian Faria y Sousa also describes the King of Mutapa’s great retinue which included the governor of the client kingdoms, the commander-general of the army, the court steward, the magician and the apothecary, the head musician “who had many under him and who was a great lord”. Also noted were the vast territories over which the king ruled, the revenues and subject kingdoms of the king’s several queens.

And suddenly we have a true glimpse of what this land called Zimbabwe might have looked like in the past, a bustling, mercantile, metropolitan culture, supported by gold miners, farmers, cattle herders and craftspeople. And so it remained until well into the 18th century, albeit with a shift of Shona power to the southwest and the Torwa-Ruzvi state as the Portuguese presence caused increasing instability. Then in the 19th century came new invaders – the Nguni, the Ndebele and the British.

This centuries old heritage of royal courts is not a picture that the likes of Cecil Rhodes or, the later Rhodesian government of Ian Smith ever wanted anyone to see. And so in the end this is not so much a story of a city abandoned by its people, but of a people wilfully excluded from their past.  In 1980 when Zimbabwe became an independent state, some of this past was reclaimed: the new state took its name from the first great Shona city, and  adopted for its flag and coat of arms, an image of one of the city’s ceremonial soapstone birds. These are small steps forward, but there is still a long way to go before the world sees the indigenous histories of the Africa continent in their true perspective, and acknowledges their intrinsic cultural worth.

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There is more about Great Zimbabwe in an earlier post HERE.

References: The classic work on the excavations of the city is Peter Garlake’s Great Zimbabwe 1973. For an overview of the mazimbabwe culture see Innocent Pikirayi’s The Zimbabwe Culture AltaMira Press 2001. For a wider historical perspective Randall L. Pouwels The African and Middle Eastern World, 600-1500 Oxford University Press.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

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For more ‘ancient’ or ‘abandoned’ posts:

Ailsa’s travel theme: ancient

Weekly Photo Challenge: abandoned

And some particular posts that caught my eye:

Serendipity

Ambitious Drifter

Stephano Scheda

Northumbrian : Light

The Syllabub Sea

K2inCanada’s blog

…of knowing your place

Or how to start creating good settings in fiction – read other people’s.

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So far I’ve not included writing advice in my blog, but since the posts are about writing and a sense of place, perhaps it’s time to look at the ‘where and when’ of story, otherwise known as ‘setting’. In fact, when I think about it, setting is not an inspiring term when it comes to story making; to me it suggests the rigid immobility of hardened concrete, or the strict placement of cutlery for formal dining. It conveys the kind of feeling you get when a writer (possibly me) churns out paragraphs of leaden description in the hopes that ‘more’ equals ‘more believable’. It doesn’t of course. In fact somewhat oddly too much detail obscures rather than illuminates.

Perhaps ‘world building’ is a more creative way of thinking about scene setting. This term is most commonly applied to the mechanics of science fiction and fantasy writing wherein the writers create speculative worlds that operate in ways outside our common experience. I’m thinking now of Tolkein’s Hobbiton in The Hobbit or Le Guin’s planet of perpetual winter, Gethen, In the Left Hand of Darkness. These are extraordinary places, intrinsically and comprehensively imagined. And to give such worlds existence, the breath of authenticity, the writer must journey there endlessly – in mind and spirit. Much like a pioneer in uncharted territory, they must map, document, and experience all they find there through every sense, compile their own Rough Guide if you like. Only then can they begin to bring their world to life in narrative form.

Of course the great advantage of speculative fiction is that writers can put what they like in their worlds so long as they can make it seem true in some sense. By contrast, and somewhat paradoxically, the created worlds of realistic fiction can be far trickier to construct; readers may well have knowledge of, or at least an opinion on what would or would not be present in, for example, Thomas Cromwell’s bedchamber (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall), Jack London’s Arctic (White Fang) or Ian McEwan’s Venice (The Comfort of Strangers). Here the writer must rely on personal, concentrated experience and/or on scrupulous research in order to construct their story’s setting with acceptable faithfulness.

Having just re-read Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife in the Dark Materials Trilogy I am struck by the obvious analogy between writers creating believable fictional worlds (whether of fantasy, realism or something in between), and Pullman’s mystical knife that can open windows from one parallel universe to another. Creating your story’s world is much like this. It is like finding a door to a room in your mind that wasn’t there before. Once you open that door you begin to furnish and populate the space you find behind it. If you happen to open the door on a shipwrecked boy drifting at sea with a Bengal tiger in tow (Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi), you will have to do some pretty nifty conjuring (as Martel indeed does) to take the reader with you every wave tossed mile and on so perilous a voyage.

But in the end, having said all this, setting is perhaps rather less about physical qualities – the obsidian tower on the hilltop or the crimson flock wallpaper in the Chinese take-away, and more about the sensation, mood and resonance that these details can evoke. The best stories aim for an intricate interplay between place, characters and action. The knack of successful world building, then, is to know everything you need to know to make the story fly, but reveal only those details that will whisk the reader away with it, all their senses firing. It’s a hard skill to learn: not to overload the kite. It takes a million words of practice.

Here are some examples of story beginnings that I think work well, luring you straight into the character’s landscape, and making you want to know more. The first is from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”

So it is, with the mounting gloom of these few sentences, that Poe starts building suspense, the repeated ‘d’ consonant like a hammer blow or a tolling bell, foreshadowing the horror to come.

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Photo: kT LindSay flikr Creative Commons

By contrast, the start of Neil M Gunn’s Morning Tide has quite a different mood:

“The boy’s eyes opened in wonder at the quantity of sea-tangle, at the breadth of the swath which curved with the curving beach on either hand. The tide was at a low ebb and the sea quiet except for a restless seeking among the dark boulders.”

Here we are instantly transported to the sea shore, the ‘breadth of the swath’ and the ‘curved with the curving beach’ sweeping our gaze out along the bay, while the ‘restless seeking’ of the sea among the rocks invites us to seek too. It makes us want to know: what is this place we have come to and who is this child whose wide eyes we are now looking through?

In both these openings, description of place is used to set the tone and introduce the characters. We know nothing about these people, but their circumstances are fascinating enough to make us want to find out more.

But setting can do more than this. In the following extract from Going Down River Road, Meja Mwangi uses description of place to tell us more about his protagonist. This is how he describes the Nairobi building site where Ben Wachira is working as a casual labourer:

“Work was just underway. Dark cement dust rose from the giant concrete mixer accompanied by loud squeaking and rattling and the old truck’s incessant whining. A ragged, dusty figure wrestled with the mixer’s monstrous wheel. Another scarecrow dangled in a bucket on the fourth floor and nailed wooden planks to the concrete wall. The sound of the hammer carried pathetically weak through the din below.

Ben looked up at the craggy building and shook his head. They had raised the building by four floors in eight months. They still had another sixteen to build. And the damned thing was already too high for comfort.”

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Photo: Felix Masi     http://felixmasi.wordpress.com/

At first sight, this passage is only about the hazards of working on a construction site. But something else is suggested by Ben’s detached view of the one scarecrow fighting with the cement mixer, and the other dangling in a bucket from the fourth floor, and then his reaction to the prospect of a further sixteen floors. There is resignation here, the lot of poor men who have no choice but work in this place. But as the passage proceeds, this situation is amplified, and we soon see that Ben is not so pliant as his work mates. He might be anxious about working four floors up, but he is furious when he goes to the site clerk and finds he is again assigned ground duties. Through his angry response we learn more about the building site, only this time it’s personal.

“‘Bullshit…’
Ground duties included manning the antique concrete mixer and eating half the dust on the site. One’s eyes and nose got plugged with the dust while the noisy looping machine slowly drove him uncomfortably close to insanity. Besides, one was always in sight of Yussuf, the drug-crazed foreman, and in this July smog the man could be bad tempered.
‘I am not doing ground again,’ Ben said.”

And now, for the sake of a complete contrast and another change of continent, let’s look at Colette’s Ripening Seed, first published in 1923. This short novel is set in Brittany where Vinca’s and Philippe’s families have long spent their summer vacations together. The two young people are on the brink of adult love, and their formerly easy childhood relationship has become fraught with unexpected moods and misunderstanding. Then suddenly into their self-absorbed midst that sees all adults as Shades, comes the mysterious Mme. Dalleray. She is beautiful, and she asks Philippe to visit her at her villa, and he finds he cannot resist. In the following scene Colette briefly evokes the scent and juiciness of carefully prepared fruit to show precisely what the older woman intends.

“Mme. Dalleray was not expecting him, or so it seemed, for he found her reading. He felt assured of his welcome, however, when he saw the studied half-light in the salon and noticed the almost invisible table from which rose a pervasive aroma of slow-ripening peaches, of red cantaloupe melon cut in slices the shape of crescent moons, and of black coffee poured over crushed ice.”

Who else but Colette could write such a scene of calculated seduction? Elsewhere in the book she is not always so economical. Ever the sensualist, she conjures her intimate knowledge of the wild Breton coast to echo Vinca’s and Phil’s turbulent feelings. It is often overblown, just as the emotions of adolescence are often overblown.

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Paul Gaugin Rocks on the Breton Coast

As summer heads towards autumn when the couple must separate, so the pain, regret, jealousy and disillusionment of growing self-knowledge creeps in with the mists and the chillier nights. In this next extract Phil, despite his betrayal of her, seeks out Vinca, the sudden spell of bad weather reflecting his guilt and acute awareness:

“A fine impalpable sea-mist drifted through the air and clung to his skin without wetting it. A yellow aspen-leaf detached from its branch, hovered for an instant with intentional grace in front of Philippe’s eyes…He cocked one ear and listened to the winter sound of coal being shovelled into the kitchen furnace. From another room rose a shrill protest from little Lisette that ended in a whimper.
‘Lisette,’ he called. ‘Lisette, where’s your sister?’
‘I don’t know,’ wailed a small voice blurred with tears.
A gust of blustery wind whipped a slate off the roof and hurled it crashing at his feet, where Philippe stared at it in stupefaction, as if before his very eyes fate had smashed to smithereens the mirror that brings seven years bad luck.”

And finally, and fittingly for this writer on the Edge, I come home and finish this piece by turning to a writer who once lived in my town, and indeed in a house on Wenlock Edge. People have mixed feelings about Mary Webb and often dismiss her as a writer of romantic fiction. But there is far more to her work than this, although it is true that her prose is often overwrought for current tastes. Her settings, however, always have the ring of truth, and passionately too. Here are the opening paragraphs from her short story of elder love, Caer Cariad:

“In the Red Valley were only two houses – that of Zedekiah Tudor, ferociously scarlet, and that of his God, coldly grey. The valley, bird-scorned since Zedekiah had lopped the trees and pleached the hedges, would have been mute but for the dark music of the weir, lamenting.

It was a bitter night when Zedekiah stood with Dinah, his wife, in the graveyard. They were hidden, except for the greenish moonlight, in inky gloom. When the moon tore suddenly through the driving wrack, the shadows of the graves seemed to Dinah to spring at her like creatures out of an ambush. The wind drove down the valley, howling, and Zedekiah spoke even more loudly than usual.
‘Woman, confess yer sin, by the chyild’s gave!’”

And do not tell me that you don’t want to know what happens next.

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Mary Webb territory, The Stiperstones Photo: Gizmo Bunny flikr Creative Commons

Now it’s your turn. Here’s a writing work-out.

World building: where to start

Consider the images on this page and choose one or more that particularly strike you. Take time to explore them, then for ten minutes scribble down your first thoughts about the place/situation. Review what you have written, and if a character, or narrative thread is starting to emerge, then brainstorm each of these in the same way. You now have the raw materials for world building. Next come musing, dreaming and constant interrogation of all you have gathered. This can take time. Lots of time. For now you need to fathom all the nooks, crannies and potential layers of this provisional setting, and work out how circumstance and character will interact with it. If, however, you find that a character has emerged far more strongly than either setting or circumstance, then start interrogating them. Do this in a situation where you are relaxed, like a meditation. Ask the character what they are looking at and how they feel about it, and what they are about to do, and where they are going, and what kind of place it is, and who else will be there – on and on – till your story-scape starts coming into sharper focus. Then it’s up to your creation what happens next.

Happy journeying.

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text©Tish Farrell 2013

…of wolf farts, windmills and the Wenlock Olympics

It has to be said that wolf farts are pretty hard to find, even with expert guidance. And yet I had been led to believe (and by the Guardian no less) that if I visited a certain, well-known location near me, I would most surely discover them. And so, on a sunny winter’s day last week, when I set out on the curious quest, I was not anticipating difficulty. Far from it. The ground was dry underfoot and visibility good and I had been well primed by Paul Evans’ Wenlock Edge column (Guardian 10 January 2012) which not only gave me full details of said quarry, but also included a very good photo for accurate identification. The piece seemed unequivocal too. Wolf farts were to be found on Windmill Hill, and in January too. What prospect could be more beguiling for the writer-prevaricator, and especially in the after-Christmas lull when not much is happening in the natural history line? So I pulled on boots and woollies and set out in search of them. It’s amazing how many ways there are to avoid writing the novel.

Finding Windmill Hill is the easy part of the enterprise. The old stone tower on its summit makes it a striking local landmark, though something of a mystery since there is no record of how this tower looked when complete and few clues as to what kind of windmill it once was. The limestone ridge on which it stands, with the disused Shadwell Quarry at its back, is a five-minute walk from my house. You can reach it either by striding across the Linden Field beside the new William Penny Brookes School, or you can follow the path beneath the towering limes of the Linden Walk. The trees form a cool sweet-scented arch of greenery in summer and Doctor Brookes, a trained herbalist and therefore well versed in the calming properties of lime flowers, planted them there over one hundred years ago. According to tree experts the limes could last another hundred and fifty years, although they wag their fingers at local cricket enthusiasts who, in season, drive over the roots while parking their cars for a good view of Sunday cricket on the Linden Field. The case of trees versus cars is guaranteed to raise tempers in the town.

The Linden Field once belonged to the Gaskell family, the town’s local worthies who lived in the Abbey beside the ruined Wenlock Priory, but in 1935 it was bequeathed to the people of Much Wenlock for their enjoyment and recreation. That the townspeople have problems hanging on to their rights as beneficiaries is another source of local irritation. But then the most important fact about the field is that it is the site of the Wenlock Olympian Games. These were begun in 1850 by the town’s doctor, William Penny Brookes, in a bid to improve everyone’s health and wellbeing, and later provided Baron Pierre de Coubertin with the model for the modern Olympic Movement. People argue about this too, but at the top of the field is the oak tree planted in 1890 to commemorate the Baron’s reconnaissance visit to the town to see the games for himself. Today, visitors who come to the field say there is nothing to see in the Linden Field. But then that’s history for you; invisible for the most part. However, should the see-nothings feel like returning between 12-15 July 2012 they will find the 126th Wenlock Olympian Games in full swing, with a wide range of serious athletic contests to be watched and enjoyed.

The old Penny Brookes games also included all the familiar events – pentathlon, archery, football, hurdles and long jump (called the running long leap), but there were also bicycle races on penny farthings and tilting at the ring, a mediaeval jousting sport wherein a galloping horseman speared a ring with his lance. Prizes were lavish with olive wreaths to crown the victors and Dr. Brookes himself designed and paid for the gold and silver medals. Then there were also the fun events – blindfold wheelbarrow racing, climbing the greasy pole and chasing the piglet. Something for everyone in fact and not a hint of a risk assessment. As might be expected, the games were hugely popular and spectators and competitors came from far afield, many arriving by train, since the line ran conveniently beside the field. And for those who wanted the best possible view of the games, then Windmill Hill provided the perfect spectator vantage point.

Which brings me back to the wolf farts. Not forgotten, but by the time I’ve hiked up the steep hill to the windmill, I’m a little out of breath and thinking I need to get into training, perhaps with some piglet chasing?  I begin to comb the limestone meadow that was cropped in autumn by a fleet of russet-coated Shetland ponies. This is where the wolf farts are supposed to be. Somewhere. It’s not a very big hill after all, and I can walk across the top in less than two minutes. I scour the northerly slope first, rooting among the weathered pony droppings and coarse vegetation from which, in late spring, will sprout spotted purple orchids, and later, agrimony, harebells and knapweed.

I decide that Paul Evans has been pulling my leg, but anyway work my way back in a southerly direction. And this is what I’m looking for:

the common puffball, Lycoperdon (from the Greek lycos wolf and perdomai to break wind). It has other names too, including the devil’s snuffbox. And finally I get my eye in. I had been seeking something altogether too substantial, imagining the white, marshmallow-like fruiting bodies of autumn. In fact the first one I find is quite tiny, paper-thin and bone coloured, the size of my fingernail. Then there are others – cigar coloured, a couple of centimetres across and yes, very like Shetland pony droppings. They are empty husks now, barely clinging to the thin soil, their spores spent, leaving tiny orifices like shocked little mouths. Then I find one still containing some spores and squeeze the sides. Out puffs the brown-black dust, as fine as photocopier ink. Later I read that inhaling too many spores can lead to lycoperdonosis, a life-threatening respiratory condition caused by the spores lodging in the lungs.  Won’t do that then. Won’t breathe them in. And that seems all there is to be said and done concerning wolf farts. Quest done, I lose interest, stand up and survey the old quarry behind the windmill. There’s a deep pool of unearthly blue water, apparently some seventy feet deep, and the surrounding land is going to be developed with holiday chalets and a dive centre. It’s then, as I’m looking for signs of building work, that I see large segments of the quarry have been staked out with low green plastic fencing. Later I discover this is newt fencing. Why it is there is another story, one that I don’t entirely believe – something to do with separating opposing amphibian gangs and newt fights. Oh come on! At this rate I’ll never get back to the novel. It’s far too exciting outside.

Copyright 2012 Tish Farrell

Paul Evans @ www.guardian.co.uk/environment/thenortherner/2012/jan/10/country-diary-wenlock-edge/

Wenlock Olympian Society @ http://www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk/

…of Maasailand

I wrote this piece around 2000 after several visits to the Maasai Mara. It was long-listed in the Brandt Travel Guide travel writing competition.

Cheetah

Dances with warriors

Night on the Mara River – darkness wraps round, close as a Maasai’s blanket.  It is cold, too, on the river’s bend. We press closer the campfire, our white faces soon roasting red. No one speaks. There’s too much to listen for. A hyena whoops across the water?  It sounds close. It sounds unearthly, sending shock waves through vulnerable bones – mine, conjuring packs of predators, out there, circling our ring of light. And even as I think it the Maasai are on us.  Six warriors, spears in hand and naked to the waist.  Their leader tosses his ostrich-feather head-dress that looks like a lion’s mane.  He is fearless.  He is lion.

Then the singing starts, a nasal falsetto that resonates through time and space – the winds’ whine through Mara grasses.  The Maasai girls trip lightly into the firelight, their wraps like flames – yellow, red; close-cropped heads hung with beads; chins jutting forward as the crescent necklets – tiny beads so patiently strung – rise and fall on skinny chests.  The moran start to leap – higher, faster.

Their dance fires the blood as it was once meant to in the days when the young morani proved their courage by killing a lion; but we see the collecting box left discreetly in the grass.  These kids are from the nearby settlements, but before I unravel the question of exploitation – theirs or ours – the dancers pounce, dragging us into a conga, pastoralist-style.  I let the Maasai girl take my hand.  She’s about fourteen years old and she is boss. After all, this is her land – the big skies and the rippling oat grass, and our small camp in the outer reserve remains there only on her clansmen’s say-so.  The hand that grips mine is small and hard.

So I follow her, graceless in the rhythms I cannot fathom, wend with the snake of dancers on and round the camp. The dancers know we’re squeamish and should not be put at risk, so we stray no further than the firelight’s edge, never crossing the bounds of the vast out there.

And of course, being on safari, and staying at a luxury, tented camp, we have been taken to visit the vast out there. We went earlier that day and naturally, being tender wazungu, we ventured only in daylight, with the rising sun at our back, and we went, not on foot, but in the Land Rover whose solid sides we were sure would protect us from too much closeness with the wilderness.

Mara country

Our driver-guide, Sammy, had decided to take us to the famous river crossing where, over several days, tens of thousands of migrating wildebeest had been piling up, snorting and stamping on the dusty bank. For days they had been steeling themselves to make the seasonal Russian roulette dash that would take them over the river to much needed grazing.

Waiting for the wildebeest to cross the Mara River

“Perhaps they will cross today,” Sammy said as he found a good vantage point and stopped the Land Rover. At first, infected with the drama of the thing, we scrambled up through the viewing hatch with binoculars and cameras. The beasts unlucky enough to find themselves pushed to the head of the queue, teetered nervously on the brink. Eventually the sheer weight of numbers behind would force the vanguard to cross. It was a case of stand your ground and starve, or risk the gaping reptilian jaws of the massive crocodiles that were watching and waiting in the water.  Even leopard, we were told, would dare some daylight hunting and crouch in the brush across the river and wait for lunch to arrive. We did not see one.

But we did see the remnant corpses of earlier wildebeest meals snagged on riverside branches and we did see the flocks of ever-watchful vultures. We also realised that a dozen tourist trucks from other safari camps had now joined ours, their occupants craning with camcorders primed, willing the show to start. In the end we could not look. It was time to leave.

As we drove off our mood was swiftly lightened by a close encounter with the famous wildlife photographer, Jonathan Scott. We could add him instead to the morning’s, ‘seen’ list. He pulled alongside in his jeep to talk Marsh Pride movements with Sammy. After that we headed back to camp for our own feeding time, a large lunch that promised outrageous gluttony compared with the Maasai’s simple milk-based diet.

Maasai boys mind the clan's herds on the Olololo Escarpment

As we jolted back across the Mara grasslands we marked the pastoralists’ bleak brushwood corrals with their dung-plastered hump-backed huts; saw the distant red dots of herds boys’ shukas; heard the tinkling bells of shifting herds; watched the shaven-headed, much beaded women setting off on their long daily trek for water. And all of them seemingly at ease in the vast out there, walking each day where lion and leopard walk, fetching water, doing washing amongst crocodiles and hippos, sharing the grassland with elephants, buffalo and wildebeest. And all we could wonder was, how? How can they live here, so unchanging, while our world presses round and people like us come in droves on our own seasonal migrations?

But then, when we look more carefully, we can see changes. There’s a big thatched house that is not at all traditional and with an old jeep parked outside. There is talk of the womenfolk settling in one place (while their husbands move the cattle herds) so the children can go to the schools and clinics that tourist dollars fund. Near our camp is a new stone-built trading centre where the Maasai sell chickens and beer.

For a people so long resistant to change even these small innovations seem remarkable. Ever since1883 when Scottish explorer, Joseph Thomson, introduced red blankets and coloured glass beads to the Maasai, in return for safe conduct across their territory, outsiders have tried to “develop” the Maasai.  Now, it seems, they are doing it for themselves and in their own way. And so it is fitting that, before we leave Maasailand, we visit the Mara curio shop and, in a bid to hang on to the spirit of place we are drawn to buy red ‘Maasai’ blankets (polyester, made in China) and locally beaded jewellery. As I hug the tacky blanket and put on the beaded bracelet, I begin to smile deep down. The absurdity of my transactions is pleasing: somehow the dance has come full circle.

Maasai moran

© Tish Farrell 2011

…of Mombasa Beach

In 1992 I ran away to Africa. I meant to stay only three months, but it was eight years before I came back to live again in England. When I first arrived in Nairobi on a hot February morning, stepping off an Air France jumbo jet that had taken far too long to park, I felt as if some unseen hand were striking matches on my cerebral cortex – the sky, the bush, colours, smells, so many beautiful faces: it was as if I’d woken up for the first time.

But if Nairobi was the place I woke up, Mombasa beach was always the place of waking dreams. It does not matter how well focused your eyes or how alert the brain, in the tropic light your perceptions turn to molten honey. Is this place real? I still don’t know.

sea and sky on the reef at Tiwi

During the 1990s we often stayed at Swahili-style beach cottages that were owned by German or British expatriates. These little villages, strung out along Tiwi’s headlands, were low-key in every sense, and their bohemian, beach-combing ambience made them popular places to stay with long-term aid workers and mixed race families. Tanzanians came across the border to stay there too. Although at any one time, there never seemed to be many people staying there and the nearby beaches were often empty but for the local fishermen.

Capricho our house in Feb '92 b

The beach village owners were at pains to be part of the local community, encouraging Digo fishermen and vegetable sellers to call round the cottages with the day’s produce, and employing locals as cooks and gardeners. At night, though, there were often concerns about security. (The 90s were unsettled times in Kenya).  And this is where the village dogs came in. From dusk to dawn they patrolled with armed guards. But in broad daylight, their time was their own, and they generally spent it, unsupervised, down on the beach.

I wrote the following piece for Quartos Magazine in 1995. It won first prize in their article writing contest and was published in January 1996. 

                               Going to the dogs on Mombasa’s southern shores

It’s a dog’s life on Tiwi Beach, the white strand where ocean roars on coral, and trade winds risp the palms along the headland; and where best of all, as far as the dogs are concerned, there are quiet coves sparse in holidaymakers. It means they may do as they please. For after all, it is their own resort.

But the dogs are not churlish. They can take or leave the odd pale human wrestling to right his windsurfer on the still lagoon; ignore the sentinel heron that marks the reef edge beyond; pay no heed to the etched black figures of the Digo fishermen who stalk the shallows for prawns, parrot fish, or perhaps a mottled lobster or two.

But in this last respect at least, the dogs are smug. For the fishermen come down to the beach only to make a living. And when they are done hunting, they must toil along the headland from beach village to beach village, then haggle over the price of their catch with the rich wazungu who come there to lotus eat.  Hard work in the dogs’ opinion.

The dogs know better of course; know it in every hair and pore. And each morning after breakfast, when they take the sandy track down to the beach, they begin with a toss of the head, a sniff of the salt air, a gentle ruffling of the ear feathers in soft finger breezes. Only then do they begin the day’s immersion, the sybaritic sea savouring: first the leather pads, sandpaper dry from pounding coral beaches, then the hot underbelly. Bliss. The water is warm. Still. Azure. And there can be nothing better in the world than to wade here, hour on hour, alongside a like-minded fellow.

There’s not much to it; sometimes a gentle prancing. But more likely the long absorbing watch, nose just above the water, ears pricked, gaze fixed on the dazzling glass. And if you should come by and ask what they think they’re at, they will scan you blankly, the earlier joy drained away like swell off a pitching dhow. And, after a moment’s condescending consideration, they will return again to the sea search, every fibre assuming once more that sense of delighted expectation which you so crassly interrupted. You are dismissed.

For what else should they be doing but dog dreaming, ocean gazing, coursing the ripples of sunlight across the lagoon and more than these, glimpsing the electric blue of a darting minnow? And do they try to catch it?  Of course they don’t. And when the day’s watch is done, there is the happy retreat to shore – the roll roll roll in hot sand, working the grains into every hair root.

And if as a stranger you think these beach dogs a disreputable looking crew, the undesirable issue of lax couplings between colonial thoroughbreds gone native: dobermanns and rough-haired pointers, vizslas and ridge-backs, labradors and terriers, then think again. For just because they have no time for idle chit-chat, this doesn’t make them bad fellows: it’s merely that when they are on the beach, they’re on their own time. But later, after sunset, well that’s a different matter. Then they have responsibilities: they become guardians of the your designer swimwear, keepers of your M & S beach towel, enticing items that you have carelessly left out on your cottage veranda.

For by night they patrol the ill-lit byways of your beach village, dogging the heels of a human guard who has his bow and arrow always at the ready. And when in the black hours the banshee cry of a bush baby all but stops your heart, you may be forgiven for supposing that this bristling team has got its man, impaled a hapless thief to the compound baobab. It is an unnerving thought. You keep your head down. Try to go with the flow, as all good travellers should.

But with the day the disturbing image fades. There is no bloody corpse to sully paradise, only the bulbuls calling from a flame tree, the heady scent of frangipani, delicious with its sifting of brine. You cannot help yourself now. It’s time to take a leaf out of the dogs’ book, go for a day of all-embracing sensation – cast off in an azure pool.

And in the late afternoon when the sun slips red behind the tall palms and the tide comes boiling up the beach, the dogs take to the gathering shade of the hinterland and lie about in companionable couples. Now and then they cast a benign eye on you humankind, for at last you are utterly abandoned, surrendering with whoops and yells to the sun-baked spume. They seem to register the smallest flicker of approval: you seem to be getting the hang of things round here.

Maweni beach at dawn

© Tish Farrell 2011