In Which The Farrells Go To Ratlinghope To Visit Shropshire’s Last Sin Eater

Okay. Hands up those of you who know about sin eaters. I certainly had not registered their existence despite having read Mary Webb’s Shropshire novel Precious Bane (1924) which includes a sin-eating scene. It was coming across an article by  environmental scientist, Harriet Carty, (also Shropshire based) that alerted me. She was describing the work of the non-religious charity Caring For God’s Acre which has set itself the task of recording Britain’s churchyard flora. I read it back in March when we were in Pembrokeshire and it prompted me to do a post featuring the fine show of lichen in St. Bride’s graveyard. Helen Carty’s article also mentioned the grave of the last sin eater, one Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 and is buried in St. Margaret’s churchyard, Ratlinghope (pronounced Ratchup), up in the Shropshire hills between the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones.

What could be more curious and curiosity-inducing than the grave of a sin eater. Clearly an expedition was called for. Ratlinghope is only twenty miles or so from Wenlock, and so last Thursday, after doing the shopping in Church Stretton and with the weather set fair, we headed for the hills.

That Ratlinghope is an out-of-the-way place is an understatement. The lane from the busy Shrewsbury-Ludlow highway at Leebotwood is mostly single track, and wends up and over the northerly spur of the Long Mynd. If you stop and look behind you, all of the Shropshire and Cheshire Plains spread out below you. On Thursday, though, it was rather hazy, but you’ll get the general idea.

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Now for sin eaters. The first thing to know is that the sin-eating custom that once featured at funerals appears to be both ancient and confined mostly to the Shropshire, Hereford and Welsh Marches region. In the extract below, Mary Webb, suggests the sin eaters could be wise men, exorcists, or poor people somehow outcast by misfortune. At a burial, the last meal of the corpse – usually bread and ale – would be passed over the coffin for the sin eater to eat. Through this act, he took on the sins of the deceased thereby ensuring that the departing spirit went in peace. In latter times, it is said, the poor took on the role willingly in order to have a decent meal.

But this was not the case for Richard Munslow of Ratlinghope. He came from generations of respectable farming folk and had his own farm at nearby Upper Darnford where he employed at least two labourers. He also enjoyed the sheep grazing rights on the Long Mynd. The style of his memorial certainly indicates a man of substance.  He in fact revived the sin eating custom of his own volition. It is thought that he was inspired to do this through personal loss and an elevated sense of compassion. The gravestone also provides the clue. In 1862 Richard and Ann Munslow lost their first child George aged 11 weeks. Then in the first week of May 1870 they lost all three of their children to scarlet fever. Later, though, there were two daughters who did outlive them. Richard died in 1906 aged 73. Ann lived on until 1913.

The little church itself has its origins some time before 1209 when an Augustinian cell for a prior and seven brethren was established at Ratlinghope. It was an outpost of Wigmore Abbey in north Herefordshire. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued life as the parish church. There are few signs of the original building beyond the foundations, and the church you see to day is the product of successive rounds of renovation. The oak front door, though, has the date 1625 carved on it – a gift of the then church wardens. It is a peaceful place for the last sin eater to take his rest, even if there was no one to perform like offices on his behalf.

Next: sin-eating as described in Precious Bane.

Mary Webb was born at Leighton, near Much Wenlock in 1881, and spent her teen years in the town. She also knew the communities of the South Shropshire Hills and was well versed in their folklore and local vernaculars. It is probable she was familiar with the sin eating of Richard Munslow, hence the passage in Precious Bane, though she gives the performing of the rite her own narrative twist.

I’m posting the whole extract here, not only because it paints a picture of past Shropshire life, but because it includes some fine writing by this often under-valued author. The novel is set in the early 1800s and the narrator is young Prue Sarn, a sensitive and good-hearted farmer’s daughter, who believes no one will ever marry her because of her hare lip. Her older brother, Gideon, is a hard-nosed go-getter who thinks only of making money. At this point in the story Prue’s father has just died.

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It was a still, dewy summer night when we buried Father. In our time there was still a custom round about Sarn to bury people at night. In our family it had been done for hundreds of years. I was busy all day decking the waggon with yew and the white flowering laurel, that has such a heavy, sweet smell. I pulled all the white roses and a tuthree pinks that were in blow, and made up with daisies out of the hay grass. While I pulled them, I thought how angered Father would have been to see me there, trampling it, and I could scarcely help looking round now and again to see if he was coming.

After we’d milked, Gideon went for the beasts, and I put black streamers round their necks, and tied yew boughs to their horns. It had to be done carefully, for they were the Longhorn breed, and if you angered them, they’d hike you to death in a minute. The miller was one bearer, and Mister Callard, of Callard’s Dingle, who farmed all the land between Sarn and Plash, was another. Then there were our two uncles from beyond the mountains. Gideon, being chief mourner, had a tall hat with black streamers and black gloves and a twisted black stick with streamers on it.

They took a long while getting the coffin out, for the doors were very narrow and it was a big, heavy coffin. It had always been the same at all the Sarn funerals, yet nobody ever seemed to think of making the doors bigger. Sexton went first with his hat off and a great torch in his hand. Then came the cart, with Miller’s lad and another to lead the beasts. The waggon was mounded up with leaves and branches, and they all said it was a credit to me. But I could only mind how poor Father was used to tell me to take away all those nasty weeds out of the house. And now we were taking him away, jolting over the stones, from the place where he was maister.

I was all of a puzzle with it. It did seem so unkind, and disrespectful as well, leaving the poor soul all by his lonesome at the other end of the mere. I was glad it was sweet June weather, and not dark. We were bound to go the long way round, the other being only a foot road. When we were come out of the fold-yard, past the mixen, and were in the road, we took our places—Gideon behind the coffin by him- self, then Mother and me in our black poke bonnets and shawls, with Prayer Books and branches of rosemary in our hands. Uncles and Miller and Mister Callard came next, all with torches and boughs of rosemary.

It was a good road, and smoother than most—the road to Lullingford. Parson used to say it was made by folk who lived in the days when the Redeemer lived. Romans, the name was. They could make roads right well, whatever their name was. It went along above the water, close by the lake; and as we walked solemnly onwards, I looked into the water and saw us there. It was a dim picture, for the only light there was came from the waning, clouded moon, and from the torches. But you could see, in the dark water, something stirring, and gleams and flashes, and when the moon came clear we had our shapes, like the shadows of fish gliding in the deep. There was a great heap of black, that was the waggon, and the oxen were like clouds moving far down, and the torches were flung into the water as if we wanted to dout them.

All the time, as we went, we could hear the bells ringing the corpse home. They sounded very strange over the water in the waste of night, and the echoes sounded yet stranger. Once a white owl came by, like a blown feather for lightness and softness. Mother said it was Father’s spirit looking for its body. There was no sound but the bells and the creaking of the wheels, till Parson’s pony, grazing in the glebe, saw the dim shapes of the oxen a long way off, and whinnied, not knowing, I suppose, but what they were ponies too, and being glad to think, in the lonesome- ness of the night, of others like herself nearby.

At last the creaking stopped at the lych-gate. They took out the coffin, resting it on trestles, and in the midst of the heavy breathing of the bearers came the promising words— “I am the resurrection and the life.” They were like quiet rain after drought. Only I began to wonder, how should we come again in the resurrection? Should we come clear, or dim, like in the water? Would Father come in a fit of anger, as he’d died, or as a little boy running to Grandma with a bunch of primmyroses? Would Mother smile the same smile, or would she have found a light in the dark passage? Should I still be fast in a body I’d no mind for, or would they give us leave to weave ourselves bodies to our own liking out of the spinnings of our souls?

The coffin was moved to another trestle, by the graveside, and a white cloth put over it. Our best tablecloth, it was. On the cloth stood the big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine. It was the only thing Mother could provide, and it was by good fortune that she had plenty of it, enough for the funeral feast and all, since there had been such a power of elderberries the year afore. It looked strange in the doubtful moonlight, standing there on the coffin, when we were used to see it on the table, with the colour of the Christmas Brand reflected in it.

Parson came forrard and took it up, saying— “I drink to the peace of him that’s gone.” Then everybody came in turn, and drank good health to Father’s spirit. At the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them. Then Sexton stepped forrard and said— “Be there a Sin Eater?” And Mother cried out— “Alas no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.”

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying—I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the byways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place.

Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.

So Gideon said— “We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?” But Mother cried and moaned all night after. And when the Sexton said “Be there a Sin Eater?” she cried again very pitifully, because Father had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him, and besides, he had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good. So she thought he had great need of a Sin Eater, and she would not be comforted. Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said— “There is a Sin Eater.”

“Who then? I see none,” said Sexton.

“I ool be the Sin Eater.” He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

“Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?” he said.

“No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!”

“What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.”

“No, no! Leave un go free, Gideon! Let un rest, poor soul! You be in life and young, but he’m cold and helpless, in the power of Satan. He went with all his sins upon him, in his boots, poor soul! If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.”

“And you’ll give me the farm, Mother?” “

Yes, yes, my dear! What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.” Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up. Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said—

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud. But when Gideon said, “Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,” I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser. Now it was time to throw the rosemary into the grave. Then they lowered the coffin in, and all threw their burning torches down upon it, and douted them.

The full Hathi Trust novel text is HERE

 

 

How The Universe Began ~ The Dogon View

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The Dogon people of the Bandiagara Plateau in Mali, West Africa have an extraordinarily complex cosmology that informs every aspect of their socio-sacred lives. First communicated  by Dogon elders to French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, in the 1930s, it reveals, in particular, some astonishing conceptions relating to the star Sirius and of its smaller orbiting star now known to be a white dwarf and referred to by astronomers as Sirius B. The circumstances of how the Dogon may or may not have known about this invisible star companion have been hotly debated in recent years, and I’m not going into it here.  Instead, here is my very simplified version – or at least as far as I have grasped it – of how the universe began. Apologies to the Dogon for any error in my understanding:

Of the Cosmic Egg and Pale Fox 

In the beginning, so the Dogon people say, there was the giant egg, aduno tal. One day, for no reason that anyone knows, this egg began to pulse inside. Seven times it shook, and as it shook, it started to break open in a spiral until the shell expanded to the ends of the universe.

Thus was creation born and ever since, the Dog Star, Sirius has marked the place in the sky where it all began. The Dogon also say that it is the small star orbiting Sirius, the smallest, heaviest star that holds all the essence of the universe. Its movement on its own axis and around Sirius supports all of creation in space. They call it the fonio seed, which is their smallest grain, and in this way explain that the creative force of the universe exists in both the biggest thing, the giant egg aduno tal and in the smallest thing, kize-uzi, the fonio seed.

After the seven pulses of aduno tal, the Creator God, Amma, appeared and he made the sun and moon from discs of clay, and the stars from clay pellets thrown out in space. He also created spirit beings in the shape of two sets of male and female twins.

However, something went wrong in the making of the first pair of twins. The male was born before his due time and without his female twin, and as he broke from the egg, a piece of his birth-sac flew off into space and this became the Earth Mother.

This first son whose birth created the Earth was Yurugu, the Pale Fox. He was a rogue and trickster and he was also very jealous of Amma’s creation. He decided to take the Earth Mother for himself and make it even better than Heaven. So he fled there with kize-uzi, the fonio seed, which he meant to sow in the earth. But with all the bad beginnings, things did not go well for Pale Fox. The Earth remained in darkness and was dry as dust so nothing could flourish. At last Yurugu saw that the world would never be complete and good without the presence of his twin, the female soul.

So Pale Fox went back to Heaven to find his female twin and bring her back to Earth. But Amma, the Creator God, was angry at the way Pale Fox had interfered with his plans for making the universe and banished his first son back to Earth, where ever since he has roamed in darkness in the dry desert places, searching for his female twin.

The second set of twins that Amma made were the creator spirits called Nommo and these represented all the twinned things of the universe: male – female, right – left, order – disorder, high – low, odd – even, good – evil. Their upper bodies were human and their lower bodies like snakes. They had flowing green hair and were made of water, and glowing light, and all the essence of creation.

When these heavenly Nommo twins looked down from the sky they were sad to see the Earth Mother so disordered and naked. At once they collected many cosmic fibres that were full of life forces and went down and clothed the Earth in green just as if she were a woman. Also in these cosmic fibres were the first words ever to be known in the world.

Now the Earth Mother could speak, but not for long. For when Pale Fox learned of the Earth Mother’s new power, he wanted it for himself. One day he crept up on her and stole her skirt of heavenly fibres. In this way Pale Fox stole the word and ever afterwards has known the power of language and been able to reveal the plans of Amma his Creator father.

When Amma saw that his son, Pale Fox, still meant to spoil the Earth, he decided to create four more sets of male and female twins who would become the ancestor spirits of mankind and live on the Earth according to Amma’s plans. Most of all, Amma wanted to restore the imbalance in things that Pale Fox’s evil deeds had created. So although the ancestor spirits were born in an anthill inside the Earth Mother, they next had to travel up to Heaven to receive their father’s instructions for their future lives on Earth.

When the eight ancestors arrived in Heaven, Amma then gave each of them one of the eight grain-seeds that are grown by the Dogon people. He also gave each one some special knowledge such as agriculture, healing or divining, or a craft such as minstrelsy, iron-working, woodcarving or weaving. But to the first and oldest ancestor he also gave a granary made from a clay-lined basket that was shaped like the universe.

But just as Amma thought his plans were going well, the first ancestor who had received the granary stole a piece of Sun from the celestial smithy and hid the glowing coal inside some bellows. As he fled from heaven with the stolen fire, the Female Nommo tried to stop him with a lightning strike and the Male Nommo hurled a thunderbolt at him, but the thief saved himself by holding up the bellows. Then he escaped by sliding down a rainbow, and so brought the first fire to the Earth. Tumbling after him came Amma’s granary, which smashed on the ground, spilling out people, animals and vegetables across the world.

And so this is how the world began. But it then took Amma and the Nommo another twenty two years to order the universe so that everything was in balance. Meanwhile down on Earth, the Dogon people who descended from the four sets of twins have ever afterwards tried to order their lives according to Amma’s plan for the universe. This means that in building their homes and villages, or in the laying out of their fields, everything mirrors the spiral of the great cosmic egg as it began to pulse. But whenever they want to know what future Amma has in store for them, it is to Yurugu, the Pale Fox that they turn. For he stole the Word and can reveal Amma’s plans.

At sunset the Dogon men go out on the barren hillsides near their villages and draw a fortune slate in the sand. Then the following dawn they return and interpret their fate from the tracks that Pale Fox has left on their slate during the night. And though Yurugu still wanders the wilderness in darkness looking for his lost female twin, he also performs this important service for mankind. And for this at least, he is highly respected by the Dogon people.

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Apologies too for the poor quality of these photos. The original slides are sharp enough, but they have not stood up to the scanning replications. Graham was in Mali during the 1980s – one destination among many on an Africa overland trip.

Now here is Marcel Griaule’s description of a Dogon village from Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (OUP 1965). In 1946, Ogotemmeli, a Dogon elder who had been impressed by the seriousness with which Griaule had treated earlier revelations of Dogon belief, summoned him to his home in the village of Lower Ogol, and over 33 successive days set out to elucidate the Dogon world view.

Lower Ogol, like all Dogon villages, was a collection of houses and granaries all crowded together, flat roofs of clay alternating with cone-shaped roofs of straw. Picking one’s way along its narrow streets of light, between the truncated pyramids, prisms, cubes or cylinders of the granaries and houses, the rectangular porticoes, the red or white altars shaped like umbilical hernias, one felt like a dwarf lost in a maze. Everything was mottled by the rains and the heat; the mud-walls were fissured like the skins of pachyderms. Over the walls of the tiny courtyards might be seen, under the floors of granaries, fowls, yellow dogs, and sometimes great tortoises, symbols of the patriarchs.

David Attenborough series The Tribal Eye 1975  episode 1 Behind the Mask visits a Dogon village. Etnografia has posted the other episodes in this classic series – made in the days of serious attempts to understand other people’s beliefs and culture.

Portrait Of My Aunt

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Miriam Wilkinson nee Hickling:  21st February 1914 – 17th March 2003

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There was only one thing my aunt loved more than her Devon garden, and that was the Derbyshire Peak District – the lanes round Bradwell, Ashford and Hathersage, the byways of Fox and Bennett family forebears. To a child brought up in the suburbs of Manchester, the Peak District of spring and summer holidays seemed like heaven.

For most of her married life, Miriam was a nomad – living in 42 different rented flats. Each one she tried to make home, and always with much flair and limited funds, as she followed her engineer husband from one telephone exchange to another, whenever and wherever he was dispatched to oversee the upgrade of Britain’s telecommunications. They had married at the start of World War 2, and the header photo probably dates from around this time. After a makeshift marriage whither my grandmother had arrived wearing only her shopping clothes since she looked down on the whole affair, Miriam had been left married, but stranded with her unsympathetic parents while my uncle was posted off to West Africa.

Looking back, he must have been helping to provide British navel and military intelligence with radio surveillance capability since he had no service rank as far as I know. He apparently lived in some style out in Africa. But it was all change a year later when he was posted to Coventry during the Blitz, presumably to work on restoring bombed out telephone connections. And this is where married life actually began, in a dismal rent room smelling of boiled cabbage and with Luftwaffe bombs raining down.

My uncle did not cope well with either the bombing or the war-time privations. Miriam had to keep him together on all fronts, while she went to work in a munitions factory. I cannot imagine what it was really like for her. She had lived a life of quiet and modest gentility, though always within the orbit of rich relatives. She had endured her mother’s spirit-crushing jibes while doting on a father who, in her hearing, had once described her to a family friend as ‘a dud’. Neither her mother or father had the faintest idea about parenting or how to prepare their two daughters for adult life.

My grandmother had been mostly brought up by a housemaid and a slightly dotty aunt as her own twice widowed mother drifted around in black silk dresses, taking covert sips of gin, while presiding over a Cheshire Inn. Grandfather had been abandoned by his own mother, who apparently fled merchant-class respectability and ran off to be an actress. She deposited grandfather with his dour Victorian Hickling grandparents, though returned in later life from time to time, wafting in at the family firm for a cash injection from ‘master Georgie’.

You can well see how lives of ‘quiet desperation’ get handed on from generation to generation.

Miriam had a talent for drawing and writing but even this outlet was denied. She had poor eyesight and had terrible headaches, but my grandfather would not let her have spectacles. No visible signs of imperfection would be tolerated. She told me how once, when returning from a childhood trip to Derbyshire by train, she had developed a rash on her face. Her parents being highly alarmed, took themselves off to another carriage to complete the journey to Manchester leaving Miriam alone in a state of disgrace. By the time she was fourteen she had suffered four nervous breakdowns and had to be taken out of school. Both she and my mother, who was eight years younger, were sent to small private schools. My mother was not allowed take up a place at a prestigious girls’ high school despite gaining a scholarship. My grandfather would have no ‘blue stockings’ in his family. He had some notion that providential husbands would somehow materialise: both his daughters would ‘marry well’ and thus be taken care of.

They did not and they were not. But each in their own very different ways made the best of very bad jobs, though in my mother’s case her methods of choice were destructive and damaging to others. Miriam remained stalwart, loyal to a man whose nerves were fragile, and who, in extremis, once attempted to strangle her as she slept.

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My mother, Peggy, probably sixteen years old, Miriam around the time of her marriage circa 1939. Both stepping out with so much intention.

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Miriam did not have a home of her own until the mid-1960s. It was on top of the hill in Pinhoe, near Exeter. There she made a garden that was filled with wildflower reminders of girlhood Derbyshire holidays – dame’s violets, bloody cranesbill, saxifrage, cowslips, primroses, the wild yellow pansies of the limestone uplands.  In their latter years, she and my uncle took to having an annual spring holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District. It was a source of great joy to both of them. Sometime later I took her ashes there.

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Miriam around 4 years old c 1918. The first time she met her father was when he returned from France at the end of the Great War. He had been an ambulance driver, and came home with gas-damaged lungs, which left him an invalid for the rest of his life. It left him the poorer too with years of medical bills to meet.  He said wearing a gas mask got in the way when he was trying to pick up the wounded.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Daily Prompt: constant

Once When We Were In Africa At The Foot Of The Ngong Hills…

In December 1993 we returned to Kenya after nearly a year spent in Lusaka, Zambia (Graham had been overseeing the distribution of European Union food aid during a period of extreme drought in southern Africa). For much of the preceding year he had been in Kenya working with a team controlling Larger Grain Borer, a crop pest introduced to Africa in consignments of U.S. food aid. (Short-term emergency assistance can too often lead to unintended long-term chronic consequences). The reason for returning to Kenya was to wind down the LGB project. Predator beetles had been bred and released in affected areas; it was time to let them do their work and leave Kenyan scientists to monitor progress. We were thus not expecting to be in Kenya long, but somehow that ‘not long’ stretched to January 2000. For some of those years I kept a journal. Here is the first entry:

Sunday 19 December 1993

Our first trip out to the Nairobi National Park since our arrival back in Kenya. We had thought of it often while we were away. Of stately giraffes. Yellowing plains beneath the hazy blue of the Ngong Hills (the four peaks  said to be the knuckles of a giant’s clenched  fist). Groves of fever trees along the Athi River.

Now we have returned well prepared with map, camera, binoculars and a picnic. But as we pull into the main entrance on Langata Road we see that there have been changes since our last visit: the stand of  tall eucalyptus trees that lined the approach have been felled, and their ground carved up, exposing the red raw earth of a building site. It looks as if a new wildlife service administration block is nearing completion. We had heard about Richard Leakey’s large loans from the World Bank: this must be one of the newly funded enterprises. But at the entry gate little has changed ; there are still negotiations over the size of the Land Rover and its appropriate tariff and much accompanying paperwork. It is worth it though. As residents, a day’s pass costs us a mere two pounds thirty pence.

Once through the main gate we drive slowly through open woodland and dense shrubby undergrowth. Judder over the sleeping policemen meant to slow you down because it is quite likely that a giraffe will step into the roadway here. Even on to the asphalt. And the presence of a tarmacked road in a game park always takes me by surprise. But in this instance it was probably laid for the benefit of dignitaries going to the famous ivory burning ceremony in 1989. It took place just a kilometre or so within the park, a big show involving President Daniel arap Moi setting light to the retrieved tusks of nearly 2,000 poached elephants, an act intended to demonstrate Kenya’s commitment to conservation. There is a monument to mark the event and a picnic site where you may get out of your car and  feel the grasslands wind on your face. The Athi Plains stretch out below.

But it is not a wilderness view by any means; perhaps even challenges the sincerity of the grandiose ivory burning gesture. To the north, where a hundred years before there were only empty plains, city high-rises glint in the sun. Directly behind the wire fencing of park boundary there are more recent developments: grey-stone apartment blocks whose half-built elevations have all the charm of a post-war bomb site. Then as we turn towards the plains a large passenger jet takes off from nearby Jomo Kenyatta airport and soars into the blue above us. It seems an unlikely spot for game watching.

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But just as we are turning on to the dirt road, a blue Land Cruiser approaches and pulls up beside us. The driver is English. His accompanying family look red-faced and querulous. He, though, is excited.  “There’s a lion back there guarding its kill. Just follow the track. There’s a group of four trees. He’s under the one nearest the road.” He pauses. A wrinkle of doubt. He has clearly had a hard morning with cross children. “If you’re interested?” He adds, half query, half-throwaway remark.

We are. We drive off – full of hope. Will the lion still be there?

We drive slowly, scouring a landscape dotted with low bushes, hoping the four stunted thorns will make themselves obvious in this terrain of few landmarks. They do. A stone’s throw from the track lie the remains of a large antelope. But there is no sign of the lion. Any other time we would have driven on, but being forewarned we pause for a better look.

The antelope is lying in the shadow of the little tree. We scan the scene with binoculars. Nothing. But just then a mighty tail flicks up above the grass. Graham turns off the car engine, and in the next moment up comes a mighty head to go with the tail. He fixes us. Yellow eyes. Yellow mane. Then his head flops back into the grass and once more he is invisible. We wait and decide to eat our sandwiches – pastrami and horseradish. Perhaps the lion catches a scent of them for suddenly he is on his feet. He is massive. He is staring at us. He is heading our way. A frisson of fear, despite the sheltering Land Rover. But no. He has merely risen for a stretch. Then he returns to his tree and sits down with his back to us,  a posture that reminds me of the yellow labrador I once owned. The similarity is, of course, misleading. Then down he flops. An occasional tail twitch, a momentary fix of an eye, a large yellow lion stretched out in a clump of bright yellow daisies. We leave him in peace and drive on.

And it is hard to register such sightings. Are they real? Here we are out on a Sunday morning drive. We have just picked up the newspapers from the street vendor, driven past crowds of citizens on their way to church, are barely beyond the city limits. We are not at the zoo, nor in a contained English safari park. The animals that browse and hunt here are wild; they come of their own accord. For although the boundaries with the city are well fenced, there is still an open corridor to the south-west which allows the game access to and from the Maasai Mara. And as we push on along the dirt road we see Maasai giraffes with their lacy butterfly markings, strung out along a low gully, peacefully browsing the short-rains greenery of the acacias. And behind them, towering on the skyline, the garish blue and red construction of the Carnivore restaurant’s water splash.

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It puts you in a quandary. Part of you yearns to recreate the illusion of out-of-town wilderness,. Perhaps a planting of quick growing gum trees to screen the areas of urban spread. But then, despite their commonplaceness here, eucalyptus are not natives, and they might just suck the plains dry of their precious moisture. Some indigenous forest trees then. But they would take longer to establish. Would have to be fenced off from the foraging herbivores until they reached maturity. And anyway, how could you possibly blot out the airport and the cement works?

Leave it as it is then; an ungainly halfway house between the natural world and city living. As outsiders we would rather see the plains teeming with wildlife and no ugly signs of human enterprise and industrial development. But it is too late for that. And besides, who are we to complain? Our empire-building forebears had their chance to manage well and wisely this land of plenty. And for the most part they ignored both the needs of its wildlife and, more particularly, the needs of its indigenous peoples.

So no, we have no room to criticise.

All we can do today is be grateful that we can drive out to the Athi Plains in our car and see a lion, or watch the quiet grazing of wildebeest, gazelle, eland, kongoni, zebra and know too that there is always a chance that we may just spot a family of cheetahs out hunting, or come upon a reclusive rhinoceros browsing quietly. But that within an hour we can be back inside the well-tamed confines of our suburban Nairobi garden, drinking a cup of tea. But perhaps it seems too convenient, too small a challenge; almost as “easy” as the early white settlers had it, when they looked out of the newly installed drawing room windows to find a pride of lions stretched out on the veranda.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

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The Changing Seasons ~ Snow and Marigolds In January

Well, it’s hardly been gardening weather – far too wet; not at all like our good old winters where on fine, cold days you could pile on the gardening togs, balaclava and all, get out your trusty spade and dig the allotment, naturally always standing on a plank as you went so as not to compact the soil.

I actually like digging, though I’m trying to wean myself off the practice (as many of you who come here will know) opting instead for the no-dig approach which relies on raised beds and the annual autumn application of compost. Around 2 inches worth says no-dig guru, Charles Dowding, and only on the surface (he has lots of useful videos on You Tube and grows parsnips and carrots the size of cruise missiles).

The only problem with this approach is you need loads and loads of compost, and despite my having a dozen assorted piles, bins and bays of decomposing garden waste, I never seem to have enough garden-ready stuff at the right time. I also completely forgot about the autumn application as I had left my brain in the olive groves of Kalamata back in October. Drat! However, it did return briefly in December to remember to gather leaves for making leaf mould, and it’s probably not too late to go out and gather more if only it weren’t raining, and Wenlock’s likely byways a sea of slithery Silurian mud.

We also had more snow in January, but not the glistening, Snow-Queeny landscapes of December, but the dank and dreary sort followed by more rain, which soon washed it away. Except that when I went up to the allotment on Monday I was surprised to find heaps of it lurking along the sides of the polytunnels. Oh no! I remembered the old wives’ tale which says that when snow remains we can expect further falls to carry it away. Hmph. A curse on old wives for being so doomy. We’ve done snow. Now we want spring!

But then the odd thing about that is, along with our snow and frost we have also had spring, or at least if the pot marigolds are anything to go by. These are self-seeded annuals that grow hither and thither around my plot, and not even being buried for a week under December’s snow drifts stopped them flowering. When the snow receded they emerged full-on, like floral headlights, though their stems were somewhat misshapen from the burying. As anyone would be.

Anyway, here are some views of the allotment taken on Monday. I’m  including some of my compost heaps – not a pretty sight, I know, but they bring joy to this gardener’s heart. Also of my parsnips, which as you will see were exceedingly hard to extract from the mud. They are also nowhere near the size of Charles Dowding’s cruise missiles, nor as perfectly formed. But then as the shed-building man who lives in my house says, who needs parsnips that big?  A vaguely existentialist enquiry to which I find there is no answer…

 

The Changing Seasons

For those who haven’t caught up yet, Su Leslie is now our very excellent host for The Changing Seasons monthly challenge, having taken over from our former very excellent host Max at Cardinal Guzman  (btw fantastic ski-ing video at Max’s blog). We have thus shifted across the globe from Norway to New Zealand. Please pop over to Su’s place to see her and other bloggers’ monthly round up from their corners of the world. And please join in. The ‘rules’ are simple.

Yellowing Africa Memories And Shades Of Dark Safaris

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There are the experiences we had, and the ones we think we had: so many versions of the ‘truth’. And much like conscious memory, the Kodak negative from which this image comes, is much degraded; the colours distorted. I’ve had to do some de-saturating to reduce the negative’s livid cast. Not very successful, but the result, I think, is all my own  ‘Out-of-Africa-nostalgia’ effect.

Naturally my writer-self loves the romance of this and related yarns of the old safari era. And yet these are not the real story. They never were. That’s one of the problems with nostalgia, particularly the Anglo-African variety. It’s usually a longing for something that never was. It was the kind of longing that brought British settlers of the gentry class out to East Africa in the first place. Anything would grow there, they said. Fortunes would be made. And until the predicted riches rolled in – from ostrich feather farming, flax, wheat, coffee and tea –  the hunting potential for the sporting man (and sometimes woman) was limitless – herds of wild game from sky to sky, and a country full of cheap household servants and farm labourers. And all so handily available just when home supplies of both (animal and human) were on the wane.

Here’s a poster of the time, pre-1920, summing things up. The similarity to a Punch Magazine cartoon was apparently deliberate.

Uganda Railway and aristratic game resort

As railway advertisements go, this one truly takes the biscuit, and on so many fronts. Please note the very small print towards the bottom: ‘Arrival of the first Cook’s excursion and the result of carefully preserving the big game’. Also I’m not sure what the bipedal beast behind the train is meant to be. It looks like a bear to me. Perhaps he came with the aristocrats, captured on one of their North American shooting expeditions – also popular at the time.

So: elite settlerdom in East Africa seemed a fine idea. And as long as the European lower classes were kept out, the incomer Indian labourers and traders kept in their place (these mostly the survivors of the 18,000 ‘coolies’ imported  from India in 1896 to build the Mombasa-Uganda Railway), and the local Africans did the field work for minimal pay while their own traditional hunting practices were outlawed, then, by Jove and St. George, it would be paradise on earth. The British East Africa Protectorate (Kenya Colony after 1920) was, and forever would be, a dedicated White Man’s Country. A lordly sporting estate writ large. The happy hunting ground of new white landowners who believed that only they, gentlemen (and under certain circumstances, gentlewomen) had the god-given right to hunt. All the game was theirs.

Uganda railway poster

But hang on a minute. In this safari story the real protagonists are invisible, or overlooked, deliberately excluded; these, the many African hunters and expert trackers who facilitated the pursuits of their white overlords on the imperial safaris of the early 20th century; they who risked arrest for the crime of poaching if they dared to hunt for their own pot as their people had done for countless generations before the British invaded.

It is not for nothing that the settlers referred to their African workers as boys, reducing them to beings of little or no account. From such aristocratic notions of superiority and entitlement – a mind-set that persisted among many until Independence in 1963 – does the modern state of Kenya derive. In some ways little has changed. Ever since Uhuru, the post-colonial rulers (and with a similar sense of dynastic entitlement) have been intent on commandeering all resources for themselves, and ignoring the needs of those they rule.

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But back to the aging photo of magnificent beisa oryx. It  was taken nearly 20 years ago. The Farrells were, in the manner of Kenya’s  well-honed, post-colonial tourism model,  ‘on safari’; flown in a twenty-seater plane – out of Nairobi and into Lewa, winging left at Mount Kenya.  Touching down on the airstrip cut from bush you could spot elephant and the strangely foreshortened view of Mount Kenya’s summit.

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Our destination was a small tented camp in Laikipia, northern Kenya, a three night sojourn out in the wilds. I should say at once that when we stayed at the Lewa Downs safari camp it had not accrued the expensive, life-style look it has now, nor the uber-nouveau-colonial glamour of Lewa House and its secluded guest cottages. (Prince William apparently proposed to Kate Middleton while staying there as a family guest). In our day we had a big green tent, one of a dozen. There was a small shower room and WC attached, and the whole lot camouflaged by a thatched canopy. When the flaps were back we could lie in our bunks and gaze at miles and miles of Africa  and inhale the sweet aromatic scent of thorn brush. The accommodation was simple and functional although we naturally thought a tent with its own clean, running water and a flush loo was a great luxury. But then as many travellers in Africa before us, and in pursuit of our own pleasure, we chose to ignore any moral issue associated with this provision. The camp was otherwise low-key, mostly set up to attract birding photographers, and one of several similar small camps run by the East African Ornithological Society.

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The camp we stayed in occupied a small corner of the Lewa Downs estate, once a colonial cattle ranch staked out from former Maasai grazing territory in 1922 under the British government’s post-war Soldier Settlement Scheme. The colonial administration’s plan at that time was to double the colony’s European population. Meanwhile the Africans’ side of the story was as follows. All Kenya’s indigenous peoples had to live on their allotted tribal reserves unless they were working for Europeans. They could not acquire land outside the reserves. All men over the age of sixteen had to wear the kipande pass book containing their work record. All Africans paid poll and hut taxes, which had just then been increased to recoup costs from the European war effort. Taxation also had the aim of impelling Africans into the labour market. Africans who had served in the Great War were not eligible for the new settlement land (10,000 soldiers, 195,000 porters of whom 50,000 had perished).

For Europeans, however, that it is to say for ‘men of the officer class’, there was on offer by lottery or at cheap rates, large blocks of land in the fertile Central Highlands and the Laikipia Plateau below Mount Kenya. Officials apparently believed that such men, newly returned to civilian life and most with little or no practical farming experience, would in an untried African environment,  produce export quantities of cash crops. This trade in turn would fund the upkeep of 600 miles of now largely purposeless, but very expensive Mombasa-Uganda railway that the colonial administration had built between 1896 and 1901. (Also known as the Lunatic Line).

The railway’s original purpose was to provide access to land-locked Uganda, then believed to be the future source of vast natural resources. There were strategic reasons too. In the last decades of the 19th century, during the big European land grab of Africa, relations with Germany had become increasingly scratchy, and especially over possession of Uganda. British paranoia raised the spectre of the Germans sabotaging the source of the Nile at Jinja in Uganda, thereby scuppering Britain’s major shipping lanes in the faraway Suez Canal which relied on Nile water. Once thought of, only a railway would serve to bring troops swiftly to the scene to defend the vulnerable head waters.

Africa 1914 (St. Francis High School website)

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Twenty years later, these functions unrealised or redundant, only large-scale European settlement would make the best of a bad job. Along with this ‘House that Jack Built’ mode of thinking was the idea that veteran officers, used to handling men, would be well fixed to manage and ‘civilise’ (i.e. instil discipline in) African labourers, this despite knowing nothing of their employees’ traditions or way of life or their language. Also if things went wrong at some future time, an uprising for instance, the officer chaps would usefully know how to handle a gun and not be afraid to use it.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that it sounds like a very bad joke with a dollop of Wodehouse daftness thrown in. But this is how the British Empire did things in East Africa. They were not prepared to invest in indigenous Africans, but they were prepared to take a punt on the ‘right sort’ of Europeans of whose farming prowess they knew not one single thing.

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Roll forward 96 years…

Today Lewa Downs is still owned by descendants of the Craig/Douglas families who began the ranch. But now, and in cooperation with local indigenous communities, and the Kenya government, the owners use their 62,000 acres not for farming, but to protect threatened wildlife. Among their wards are populations of black and white rhinos whose territory is watched over around the clock by vigilant rangers, and whose horns are defended from poachers by armed Kenya Police Reservists.

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It is an award-winning, avowedly non-profit-making enterprise that has set out to demonstrate that up-scale tourism can serve both wild life conservation and local community development. Other funding comes from donation and sponsorship, and a big proportion of the total income is spent on community projects including clinics, education,  water management schemes, and low-interest loans to kick-start women’s small businesses.

Anyone who stays at Lewa Conservancy can be guaranteed unforgettable experiences – the full-on African wilderness, magnificent game viewing in breath-taking country, the chance to see how some of the tourist dollars are being spent. There are bush breakfasts, night game drives, camel riding, and star bathing. It would seem to be the 21st century eco-socio-sensitive take on the self-serving champagne safaris  of the 1920s and ‘30s when white hunters – John Hunter, Bror Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton et al – ran commercial shooting expeditions for the elite of Europe, India and America.

And while the trophies these days are photos and memories, and not elephants’ feet, tusks and antelope heads, and while the safari guests’ presence may help to fund laudable causes, and not the free-booting life-styles of maverick aristocrats and misfit adventurers, still the packaging of today’s safaridom evokes something of the old elitist romance. If we don’t watch out it clings like a parasitic infection and blinds us to the many ironies.

But have a look for yourself at what the Lewa Conservancy is doing for people and wildlife. The model is not without its critics. Other settler descendants have pointed out that big landowners who stayed on in Kenya after Independence have been increasingly under pressure to start sharing their acres if they were not seen to be doing something very useful with them. The Craigs and their management team seem to have come up with quite a solution. The safari story continues…

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

 

 

 

The Changing Seasons ~ Peroulia Dreaming 10

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October comes and we fly out of Kalamata International – one of the smallest airports I  have passed through outside upcountry Zambia.  It has been too brief a trip, and every day for seven days I have spent much time watching the mountains of the Mani peninsula across the Gulf. They are the southern spine of the Taygetos Massif, a range some 100 kilometres long that runs the length of the third, and easterly finger of the Peloponnese.

With all the looking, I have tried to  penetrate this fortress-land of faulted scarps and scattered habitation – at least in some sense. And in hopes of admission to the interior, the provision of a path that I might follow, I’ve been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1950s book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. It was written before the road was built down the peninsula, and much of the excursion involved hard hiking and catching boats from cape to cape.

But sad to say, despite high hopes, the book is not really helping. I am still ploughing through it a good three weeks later in windblown Shropshire, the leaves of ash trees dashing by the windows like fleets of unleashed arrows. Yet it is true the narrative sets off with an actual journey into the far-flung quarters of the Deep Mani. It is true, too, that  along the way Leigh Fermor conjures  scenes of ravishing detail. And conjures is the only word for it. But the problem is his accounts of meetings with the Maniates in remote  and rocky fastnesses – often preternatural in the beauty of their evocation – are too brief and too soon abandoned for lengthy meanders  into arcane matters relating to quite other parts of Greece and its history. There is too much mention of obscure tribes, too many catalogues of unfamiliar names detached from context in time or space.

The book, then, rather than admitting me, mostly keeps me at bay. I’m not in the mood for ponderings on how the pantheon of Greek deities, serially dealt with one by one, have been repackaged as Christian saints. This reconfiguration is not an especially Greek phenomenon anyway.  Tell me more of the journey through this iron-hard land, Leigh Fermor. Give me more of your magic.

To be fair, near the start of the book there is the extraordinary history of the Mani village blood feuds – a pathological phase wherein the breeding of sons, referred to as ‘guns’, to wield long-barrelled rifles against neighbour-enemies, was a community fixation; this along with the building of ever taller stone towers from which to lay siege across small village squares.  Settlements bristled with these structures many storeys high. Rocks and cannon balls were hurled from their parapets on to the roofs of opposing families’ homes, causing the usual activities of village life to be suspended during daylight hours for fear of being shot or flattened.

Sometimes the feuds went on for generations. Even the local priests were involved, and mid-worship kept their rifles to hand. Meanwhile the womenfolk, the breeders of guns, extemporized long poetic dirges for the dead.  And if this were not enough, in between the feuding there was piracy and slave trading, and  oh yes, some farming, fishing and salt panning.

Then it seems the Maniates got a grip, stopped stoking local enmities and became prime movers in the 1821 Revolution so ending 350 years of Turkish domination of Greece and thereby setting the scene for a unified nation state. But then, having done this, it appears they reverted to bloody-minded type and became a troublesome thorn in the side of the new political entity.

If ever a people were bred of their terrain, then it must surely be the Maniates – tough, unyielding, unforgiving and, in their own particular way, magnificent. They inhabit territory that Homer knew, a land where gods and heroes walked, a place of resort for besieged ancient Mycenaeans, a place of disposal for the classical Spartans who took wrong-doers there to throw them down chasms and left sickly babes to die on hillsides.

And then the Mani boasts not one, but two entrances to the Underworld: in the labyrinthine caves of Diros in the north-west and at the southernmost tip of its tailbone at Cape Matapan where, guided by Athena and Hermes, Heracles descended to capture Cerberus, the monstrous ‘hound of Hades’.

Now that I am on the last lap with Leigh Fermor, I know I should not be too cross with him. In his stride he is a wonderful writer, and I treasure those transient episodes that let me meet the girl Vasilio, dine and sleep atop an old Mani village tower, quaff ouzo all but frozen from a mountain stream, walk into a desolate village and encounter astonishing hospitality. Such moments are breath-taking. Dream-like. But as for the rest…I read recently that the writer admitted to a friend that he did not know much about the Mani, and used the trip and the book as a peg on which to hang several unrelated topics that had long interested him. There is no doubting his deep regard for Greece and its peoples.

But now I am left in rainy, autumnal Shropshire with my outsider views of the western Taygetos. I have learned from other reading that this side of the peninsula is known as the Shadowy or Dark Mani because it receives little of the morning sun.

My photo at the head of this post suggests  other singular effects of locality. I was standing in the sea when I took it. Later when I looked at the result on screen I found that the only way to reveal any detail of the mountains was to darken the foreground. The more I did that, the more they emerged. It is a very odd photograph: as if two separate views have been spliced together. It is also hard to fathom the perspective. The mountains are two-dimensional, near and distant views almost occupying a single plane. In the midday light the scene looks like a mirage. Or there again like the film in a soap bubble just before it bursts; a negative not quite developed.

At other times of the day – at dawn and dusk, the peninsula solidifies flatly; a woodcut; or a paper chain of tumbled rhomboids; cardboard cut-outs.  Often there is a train of frothy cloud overhead. It looks like whipped meringue.

Another thought then. In my larder cupboard I have a jar of capers bathed in Mani olive oil, yet bought in my sister’s shop in Shropshire. I also have a jar of Mani honey, said to be the best in the region, created by bees who have foraged among the mountain flowers, and bought by G. in a shop on Koroni’s opposing Peloponnesian peninsula. As yet  I have opened neither – because another thought is brewing: to go to the Mani. Perhaps in springtime. Find out for myself what lies within.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

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The Changing Seasons: Please visit Max to see this month’s fabulous photo gallery

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

Greater love hath no man than he who spent hours and days, and more hours and days transcribing this writer’s Kenya journal. Prior to transcription, and due to various computer glitches, it existed only on reams of faded, flimsy print-out paper. It was just about scannable, which was tiresome enough to complete, but the end result then required hours of copy editing. So thank you Graham.

And for those who don’t know the background to this, from January 1992 to January 2000, Graham aka the Farrell Team Leader, was working out in Africa on various British aid agricultural projects. The first year we were largely itinerant, travelling up and down the Mombasa highway between Nairobi, Kiboko, Taita and Mombasa.

Graham was working on a project to control Larger Grain Borer, a voracious grain-decimating beetle introduced to Africa in a consignment of US food aid. The actual home of this pest is Central America, and Graham had spent some time studying its behaviour in Mexico. He was then employed on a short-term consultancy project by the Natural Resources Institute in Kent, and thence despatched to Kenya.

His main base was the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Nairobi, but there was also a field station a hundred miles south at Kiboko, where the Kenyan project staff worked. When Graham had to make a visit, we stayed at Hunter’s Lodge, once the home of big white hunter, John Hunter, and later (in the ‘60s) developed into a small tourist hotel. The place had its heyday around this time, or until the horrendous dirt road to Mombasa was tarred, and coast- or city-bound travellers no longer broke their journeys at Hunter’s Lodge.

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In our day it was unusual to find any other overnight guests there, although there were plenty of staff, the waiters always smartly turned out in black trousers, white shirts and red bow ties, and ever in attendance in case anyone turned up.

Much of 1993 was then spent in Lusaka, Zambia. Graham was attached to the European Union Delegation, contracted there to organise the distribution of food aid during a period of prolonged drought. But at the end of that year we returned to Nairobi, in the first instance, to close down the Larger Grain Borer project at Kiboko, but later to run a crop protection project which involved British and Kenyan scientists working in partnership with smallholder farmers to overcome various crop and livestock problems. And here we stayed until the start of 2000 when the British Government closed the project down.

While we lived in Nairobi we were housed in a British High Commission house, which also came with Sam, our house steward. He lived with his family in a cottage at the bottom of the garden, but as we never had enough for him to do, he only worked mornings. His actual home was in Western Kenya where he owned three very small smallholdings in different places. Then there was Patrick, our day guard, also provided by the BHC. He never had much guarding to do either, so Graham paid him to look after the garden which he did with impeccable diligence. His home was also in Western Kenya, where his wife and children lived on his own smallholding. Sam told me Patrick had deployed his earnings from guarding and gardening on the building of a good stone house for his parents and was currently building one for himself. He was also paying for his children’s education. While he was working in Nairobi, which was 11 months of the year, he rented a room in one of Nairobi’s slums.

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The following extract gives a few glimpses of expatriate Nairobi life and those cultural events that owe more than a little to the country’s British colonial past.

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29 August 1994

Months have passed and no journal entries. In June we went home to England for three weeks. It was cold and windy and time was gobbled up visiting family and storming the shops. Then came the weeks of adjusting again to Nairobi living. It seemed very strange that, after all our days and miles of travelling, the only news Sam had when we got back was that the avocado tree had finished fruiting. Otherwise, everything was as we had left it.

And to root myself in once more, I took to gardening. Another effort to get the better of the over-shaded vegetable plot; flower beds cleared for tomatoes and herbs; a new plot excavated under my office window; seeds sown and the ever vigilant Patrick following up with the watering can at dawn and at dusk.

In July we went to the Ngong Racecourse for the Concourse d’ Elegance,  one of Nairobi’s annual multicultural events. It is a specialist car rally wherein owners show off their vintage vehicles including aged safari trucks (one of which had ‘starred ‘in  Out of Africa), wartime jeeps, a venerable Mini, period Peugeots, Alfa Romeos, Mercedes, Volvos and a red E-type Jaguar.

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Nairobi car rally 3

Car owners from the Asian community were dressed up as maharajahs and Arabian Nights grand viziers, the Europeans in more peculiar costumes – a woman dressed as a large black spider, one chap in full Viking gear. There was an overall atmosphere of the English Village Fete. The Kenya Society for the Protection of Animals laid on donkey cart rides around the race course grounds; Mr Magic was doing tricks for the children; the East African Ladies group had a charity cake stall. There were welly-wanging contests, face painting, remote control model car races, hotdog stands and Lyons ice-cream carts.

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Nairobi car rally 4

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The racecourse itself is a picturesque colonial relic. Stands of gum trees, the tiered main grandstand creeper-covered and housing a shady restaurant, and nearby the race steward’s offices, the Jockey Club members’ precincts, the collecting ring sheltered by mature trees.

We thought we’d like to see what the place was like on race day, so a week  or so later we turned up for the Lonrho races. Kenyans take their racing seriously and the whole ground was humming with activity. The ‘old colonial’ set were very high profile, chaps in their grey plaid racing suits, members’ tickets dangling from lapels, their ‘good ladies’ in Ascot frocks and hats to match. In fact the woman who won the best outfit contest truly looked as if she was anticipating entry to the Royal Enclosure. At such times you can only blink: the British abroad – what are they thinking?

The first race was something of a novelty event being a camel race. The beasts and riders came from the anti-stock-theft police patrol in the remote north. There were four contestants, the riders in  bright racing colours. But the camels weren’t too lively and it took some time to cajole them to the starting line. And even after the gong  had been rung, it was hard to tell if the race had started. Every spectator head was craned, gazing across the course for signs of activity. Time passed. It was thus the biggest excitement when the first camel hove into view. He finally jogged  fast enough to reach the finish line, his rider waving not only arms but also legs to celebrate their mutual victory. It was hard to imagine that these camels ever caught up with any cattle-thieving bandits.

Then the serious racing began, most of the horses from wazungu stud farms up in the Rift Valley, and their riders so slender-limbed and tiny, I wondered if  the race horse owners employed their jockeys from the Okiek community,  the last of Kenya’s original indigenous inhabitants of slight-statured hunters. We sat in the grandstand for a while, watched the Kenyan Air Force band marching on the course between races, listened to the commentator who sounded to be the very same man who serves at every English agricultural show and sporting event wherever it is on the globe, looked at the Kenyan mamas in their elaborate kitenge costumes, had our ears blasted as two Air Force buglers dashed up into the grandstand to trumpet the start of the race,  admired the fine looking Kenyan rider, whose task it is to lead the mounted jockeys to the starting gate,  he sporting his  English hunting pink jacket and tight white breeches – yet another of Nairobi’s cross-cultural phenomena that challenge perceptions at every turn. It was all so absorbing that we didn’t even get round to placing any bets.

Our next trip to the racecourse was in early August, to another extraordinary multicultural event. This time to the Royal Ballet performing their specially created programme in aid of Kenyan conservation, Dances for Elephants. The week’s performances were aimed at raising funds for various Kenyan wildlife projects – rhino surveillance, Grevy’s zebra surveys, elephant monitoring, conservation education in Maasailand. It was the brainchild Royal Ballet Mistress, Rosalind Eyre and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, wife of Dr Ian Douglas-Hamilton, Kenya’s resident elephant expert.

Performances were laid on at several venues: at the racecourse, at the Lake Naivasha home of the Douglas-Hamiltons (complete with picnic hampers), at the Windsor Country Club and at the residence of the British High Commissioner, Sir Kieran Prendergast. Local businesses sponsored tickets so cohorts of Nairobi school children could go to the racecourse matinee and have their first ballet experience.  A congratulatory telegram also arrived from HRH The Prince of Wales, wherein he praised the sixteen dancers’ efforts and generosity in giving up their time. He also said he wished he could be with us, which we could not fail to doubt as we had recently read newspaper reports of another “Diana” scandal looming back in the UK.

We arrived in the racecourse at sundown, and again found the place was thronging.  It was a clear evening and I wondered if anyone had warned the dancers how chilly Nairobi was in August.

The audience was well catered for though. There was a tent serving hot drinks and hotdogs as well as a bar. We had come prepared with our own flask of cocoa, cushions and wraps. The grandstand was mostly filled with members of the diplomatic community and Kenyan professionals from the companies that had sponsored the event, but we could sit where we wanted among the concrete benches of the grandstand. The Jockey Club members’ padded seats comprised “The Circle” for which people had paid 3,000 shillings a ticket instead of our 700  bob. We settled down on Vitafoam sponge mats on the front row.

The stage was ingenious – two flatbed trucks parked tail to tail. Cranes rearing up behind each cab supported the roof and stage light tracking. Either side were the enormous speakers of the sound system that had been donated to the cause by Lufthansa. The racecourse and its stands of gum trees lay to their back and, as the sun disappeared behind them, black kites wheeled overhead,  mewing and on the lookout for abandoned hotdogs.

At dusk the dancing began – excerpts from the whimsical ballet ‘Still Life at the Penguin Cafe’, opening with the zebra dance, “White Mischief”. It could not have been more surreal, of itself and also because there was the stage backdrop of the African plains with the real African sky behind it, and real African ‘sound effects’  of cricket and frog call.

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Here is a version of what we saw out on the Ngong Racecourse on a chilly Kenyan night (best viewed full screen):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh0TPvus7r4

Did The Earth Move For Me? Not Blooming Likely. More A Case Of DIY

All right I confess. I’m a fraud. I call myself a writer, but in reality I move soil.  Year in and year out I move soil. It has become my lot in life – not only on the home front with The Man In My House  Who Keeps Having Ground Moving Notions, but also on my own time up at the allotment. How did this happen? Was this the plan I had for myself?

This time last year we were busy shifting ten tons of gunky green Silurian clay and the junk of builders past, removing a huge and hideous waist-high flower bed outside our back door. We had lived with it for ten years, but finally it had to go. Ground Moving Man, then became Wall and Steps Building Man – using traditional mortar and the old bricks and limestone lying around to place to build a much neater, narrower raised border, and safer steps to the top of the garden. (Our cottage is built into a  bank).  The effort was as momentous, as it was cunning. The Wall and Step Builder had devised a way of dismantling the old steps in tandem with building the new ones so that we always had access to the upper quarters of our small domain, and thence my path to the allotment. Hats off to you, sir!

Here are views of the work as it proceeded.

A wintery before:

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During the synchronised step demolition and rebuilding (pretty good work for a retired plant pathologist):

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After – a bit heavy on the limestone perhaps, but we had it on site, which is always a bonus when you live on a road where deliveries can be tricky:

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Most of the clay spoil and erstwhile builders’ rubble that had been hidden behind the steps and in the bed was barrowed round the front of the house and tipped into a Hippo Bag. This natty item is sent through the post in return for some loot. You fill it with 1.5 tonnes of stuff, and then a truck comes and cranes it away. Ideal for people who live on a busy main road, and have no room for a big skip. We had several of these handy mega bags.

Meanwhile up at the allotment I was dismantling a forty-year old allotmenteers’ spoil heap the size of Everest, and using the substance, which only vaguely resembled compost, to make new raised beds and terraces on my polytunnel plot.  I shifted probably sixty barrow loads, and all with the aim of creating (ultimately) a NO DIG gardening system. I know this may sound mad.

The year before I had started clearing the plot by slicing off the neglected, weed-choked surface and piling the turves into pallet bins in the hopes that one day they would decompose into something usable. This was in no way compatible with the principles of NO DIG, but was my quick and dirty method of checking the buttercup, couch grass, and dandelion infestation. After learning the error of my ways early last spring, I gave it up for covering the remaining uncleared ground in layers of cardboard, and tipping a good six inches of spoil heap soil on the top. He Who Builds Walls and Steps then knocked up a few raised beds. (Those of you who come here often will know all this.)

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This year I find that ants have been busy in the horrid heap of weedy turves, and the ensuing soil is usable, so am now repatriating it to the areas whence I cleared it two years earlier. So good on the ants, but more earth moving required.

Meanwhile, the notions of NO DIG, also require the seasonal application of deep layers of compost to the surface of all beds. The only problem with this is making enough compost. You need tons and tons. However, last autumn I made an effort and amassed material in bins and heaps all over my two plots – wherever there was space in fact. And now these need digging out, or at least turning.

NO DIG, it seems, does not mean the end of wielding forks and spades – not by a long chalk. So there we have it – ‘my days’ career’ as a young Kenyan farm wife once described to me her life of endlessly hauling things about.

And back on the home front  this year we have already dug up the front lawn and replanted the bank beside the road. And we have dug up the back lawn and moved more soil so He Who Builds can now branch out into shed construction, though we did at least have two strong young men come and lay the paved concrete slab from which said edifice will arise. I am told it will have a curved roof.

The arrival of the shed will next dictate the remodelling of the back garden flower beds. All of which makes  me feel as if my  life is founded on shifting ground; the strata beneath my feet in perpetual motion and always needing to be somewhere else, and in some other shape. Perhaps one day all the earth in my vicinity will be in the places where we actually want it – no more moving required. Then perhaps I can give up the fraudulent writer posture and finish off a book or two; return to mental heaving and lugging, re-shaping and visualising, create the content and structure exactly as I want it – and all this without heft of spade or putting on my wellies. Perhaps…

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Hurlers And Miners ~ 6,000 Years Of Heritage On Bodmin Moor

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In the last post I featured The Hurlers stone circles  near the Cornish village of Minions on Bodmin Moor. Here they are again, if only a small segment. They date from the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, around 2,000 years BCE.

The landscape around is exposed and bleak, itself  a product of the human intervention that began at least 6,000 years ago, when the first Neolithic farmers, equipped only with stone axes, began the systematic clearance of the forested uplands.

It is an arresting thought that, armed only with stone-based technology, we humans were already consciously rearranging the planet’s surface. Early farmers carried out shifting ‘slash and burn’ cultivation, clearing ground, then moving on to virgin territory when the farm plots lost fertility. By such means the earliest farmers cleared great swathes of forest right from one end of Europe to the other. On Bodmin, any chances of forest regeneration were then reduced by stock grazing, which through subsequent millennia finished what Neolithic communities had started, creating the windswept moorland we see today.

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Of course these days  we know that removing tree cover contributes to climate change and environmental degradation, by altering rainfall patterns, and accelerating soil erosion. But in this case global climate change was also a factor.  During Neolithic-Early Bronze Age times it seems the climate was much warmer, with these uplands offering a more benign environment than today. A quick look at an ordnance survey map shows that Bodmin was a very busy place back then. There are numerous hut circles, burial cairns and tumuli, tor enclosures, stone-walled field systems, ceremonial stone circles and standing stones.

The siting of burial monuments, in particular, was very important – often on the skyline to be seen from one monument to another; or else related to a naturally prominent feature such as one of the stone tors. The Cheesewring Tor is a good example. It lies due north of The Hurlers circles. You will soon see why this weathered granitic pile of rocks captured the imagination of the ancestors, just as it captures ours today.

But there may also have been practical considerations too. When it came to the gathering of clans and families for important occasions, the visibility of man-made and natural features in a landscape without highways would have been the prehistoric equivalent of SatNav.

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Looking southwest from the Cheesewring this is what you see on the skyline beyond the quarry: a series of round barrows:

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But sometime around 2000 years BCE, the climate began to deteriorate and humanity moved to settle more low-lying areas. It is an interesting irony that the combination of human action and natural climate change which rendered the abandoned uplands unsuitable for anything other than grazing, thereby led to the survival of so many of the prehistoric remains.

Farming, though, is not the only agency of landscape change in this area. Shunt forward to the mid-nineteenth century and you will spot the evidence for quite a new kind of invasion. There’s a clue in that first photo of The Hurlers. Here’s another glimpse:

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And closer still:

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This is the Houseman’s engine house, part of South Phoenix Mine, now partially restored as the Minions Heritage Centre. It one of many such mines in the locality, their ruins as dramatic in their way as the stone circles and tors.  For fifty years, between the 1840s-1890s, Minions was the centre of a booming copper mining industry. Over 3,000 people were employed here, including women and children.

Hundreds and thousands of tons of copper ore was extracted, and exported down to Liskeard and the coast at Looe by means  of the ‘Cheesewring Railway’ otherwise known as the Liskeard & Caradon Railway. It was opened in 1844, operated initially by gravity and horsepower, and also carried granite and tin. You can just see part of the granite quarry below the Cheesewring tor. Other signs of Minions’ industrial heyday of miners, quarrymen and railway workers are the humps and bumps of abandoned spoil heaps. The nearby settlement of Minions is also evidence of the industry – it grew up around the junction of several branch lines to house the influx of workers. It is the highest village in Cornwall, and today has a rather desolate air.

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And now for another kind of heritage: legend. There are all sorts of stories connected with Bodmin’s man-made and natural features. I mentioned the origin of The Hurlers in the last post. The Cheesewring tor has also inspired all manner of explanations. One story tells how it was created by Giants and Saints at the time in the early Dark Ages when Christianity was spreading through the land.

The Giants, who were used to tramping about their domain, and doing just what they pleased, were fed up with the Christian Saints invading their land, putting up stone crosses, and declaring all the wells holy. They called a council to decide how to rid Cornwall of the nuisance.

And to this council there dared to come the frail St. Tue. He challenged Uther, the strongest of the Giants, to a trial of strength. They would have a rock hurling contest.

Rock hurling was one of the Giants’ favourite pursuits. Also, seeing the slightness of Saint Tue, the Giants were sure they would win.

Saint and Giant thus then took turns to throw six very large quoit shaped rocks across Craddock Moor and onto Stowes Hill, but to Uther’s surprise the little Saint soon proved a formidable opponent. By the time the Giant came to throw his last rock, his strength was failing. To the sounds of much Giantly groaning, his stone tumbled from the pile. Tue then  went to make his final throw. The rock was huge, but just as it seemed that the task was beyond him, an angel appeared and placed the rock on top of the pile. The Giants were so overawed by the sight of angel wings casting their golden glow about the place, they conceded to the Saints, and by this means Cornwall became a Christian land.

Another yarn has it that if you visit the Cheesewring at sunrise, you will see the top stone turn three times. This is more up my street myth-wise, and I truly would like to be there at dawn to see what happens, and also to hear the wind on the stones making them resound and mutter.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post: Heritage

 

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