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A marvellous midsummer

The gathering of the Universal White Brotherhood in the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria

I have had a most rare vision. I had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was… The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.

— A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Woah, what a scorcher of a week we’re in. I write this from my train back to Somerset after a few jam-packed days in London. It was joyous to be back in museums and theatres again especially, and for the weather to be somewhat drier than May…

More than that, it’s just nice to look out the window late in the evening and see the surrounding houses and gardens awash with pale blue, instead of pitch black. We might only start properly appreciating the longer days just as they’re about to get shorter again but there’s a lot of daylight to enjoy between now and autumn.

As summery as it feels, summer doesn’t officially start until 21st June, the sun rising around 4.32am and setting at about 9.30pm. In those early morning moments, across northern hemisphere time zones, the summer solstice begins and is celebrated. Some people call it the estival solstice (estival derives from the Latin word for summer, aestas) — but the most popular name is midsummer.

A question I asked myself that I’m surprised I never asked myself before: why is it called midsummer at the start of summer? Well, the ‘mid’ in midsummer is actually because this longest of days in the year is sandwiched in the middle of the spring equinox (which I wrote about recently) and the autumn equinox. Then there’s the meaning behind the word ‘solstice’, I hadn’t really thought of that either.

Solstice is a Middle English word, shortened from the Latin solstitium, which takes the word for sun with the verb meaning ‘to stand still’. This is because the sun stops as it is progressing on its daily path and starts to go back on itself which, in the case of the summer solstice, means the days start getting shorter again from midsummer onwards.

Despite my love of writing about such things, I’ve got to admit that I have never myself actually attended a solstice celebration, even if I have been to Glastonbury. Here is one such ritual I would love to experience one day.

Bulgaria’s Enyovden, Rila Mountains 

Girl with garland in her hair

Because I’ve harped on about the specific date and time midsummer begins, I should start by mentioning that this Bulgarian celebration of midsummer doesn’t actually take place on 21st June! It takes place from the evening of 23rd into the day of 24th June.

And before I get into the details of this fascinating festival, I realise that some of what I’m about to relay will sound a little cult-like — the ‘Universal White Brotherhood’ especially! But when I learned about their particular solstice celebrations in Michael Palin’s New Europe series, the setting and the spirit of it captured my imagination completely.

How old is Enyovden?

As is the case with so many festivals, pagan rituals have over the centuries combined with religious festivals. 24th June is the day that many Christians celebrate St John the Baptist’s feast day, but there have been folk rituals on that day for far longer.

Beyond the myths of how Enyovden may have developed (see below), it’s known that the Thracians – a tribe of Balkan people dating from around 1500 BC and first mentioned in Homer’s Illiad – had numerous festivals centred around the sun. It’s natural to assume that this was one of them.

What are some of the traditions?

A forest

The origins of how Enyovden grew into the midsummer celebration it is today seem to owe a lot to searching for herbs and looking for husbands.

Women healers would often walk through forests to pick herbs at the time we now call summer solstice, giving them enough to use in the forthcoming year. Their walks through the forests sparked local folklore and gave rise to the idea of 1) seductive samodiva forest fairies) and 2) witches scouring the forest to perform wicked deeds. Yes, it’s depressing that adult women effectively taking on the role of early doctors were transformed this way in folklore, but I suppose it’s a positive that at least the wicked deeds bit got dropped over time.

Added to this, it varies, but unmarried girls would often throw rings tied with flowers into water. A fortune teller would pull the rings out and tell the fortunes of each girl, not knowing whose ring belonged to whom.

Don’t forget the sun

The sun

The sun being such a powerful force in the imagination, it was thought that as the days reached their longest, the sun developed strong magical powers. Those powers, passing into the air, the water and the ground could be gathered from the sun by watching the sunrise, going for a swim or by picking herbs at midnight just before the sun rose. Taking part in these actions meant you would be healthy in the year ahead, and using herbs gathered at that time of year, likewise.

Nowadays

Herbs growing

Bulgarians continue to take part in midsummer across the country. Unmarried women can still have husbands predicted for them if they like, but the ritual of herb picking together on their midsummer eve seems to take centre stage of proceedings, following by eating and drinking.

When picking herbs, people search for a magic number of 77 and a half herbs to weave into a wreath, to then hang on their front doors. The half-a-herb is meant to be an ‘unknown’ medicinal plant, that everyone searches for and that can cure all ills on earth. We may be a while finding that one, but it’s a nice symbolic gesture.

Catching the sight of sunrise and swimming in sun-bathed waters is also still very much observed — often in national dress, of which I’m highly enviable.

But who on earth are the Universal White Brotherhood? What do they have to do with midsummer?

Ah yes, we’ve gotten all this way without a second mention of the Universal White Brotherhood. So what are they about? I’m sorry to turn to Wikipedia in this instance, but for a moment let’s appreciate what a fantastic resource it can be:

‘Universal’ refers to humans’ ability to understand universal concepts about life. It speaks to the idea that people can expand their consciousness with these concepts that extend to more than just one person or group.

‘White’ refers to ‘the highest spiritual symbol, which is the synthesis of all [colours], being the manifestations of the soul’s virtues.’ ‘Brotherhood’ is meant to indicate that the Universal White Brotherhood’s teachings are for every human no matter what community, religion, or group they belong to. The Universal White Brotherhood believes that their teachings are for everyone so that they can expand their consciousness and embrace a virtuous spirituality.

The Bulgarian midsummer that captured my attention so thoroughly is not the same midsummer everyone partakes in across the country. It’s a little different because, as you can see above, it features hundreds if not thousands of members of the Universal White Brotherhood moving and swaying together, in practice of their beliefs and in celebration of the coming of the summer solstice.

During midsummer especially but at other times of the year too, the brotherhood (which is actually unisex) sways away en masse to a system of exercises that’s known as paneurythmic dancing. (It looks hard to say, but just think of the pop band!)

The practises undertaken by followers of this religious movement that’s called Dunovism (after its founder) will sound very familiar to a lot of you; dancing is at the core and followers pray, meditate, sing, practise yoga and carry out breathing exercises, to name just a few. Unlike the major religions, members are additionally encouraged to be part of another religion too if they wish. Very ahead of its time, considering it was established in the early 1900s.

Ok, so what do they have to do with the Rila Mountains? Where even are these mountains?

I mean, just look at them! The Rila Mountain range is the highest range in Bulgaria, home to more than 200 glacial lakes — perfect for finding the sun’s magic power. And all only 70km south of the country’s capital Sofia. A phenomenal landscape to visit any time of the year, let alone on the longest day.

So there you have it. My midsummer wish list of one. It might be some time before I can get there, but it couldn’t hurt to iron the tennis whites just in case….

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All walks of life

Passing footpaths

‘Only thoughts reached by walking have value’ — Friedrich Nietzsche

Firstly, an apology is required. Required, because I’ve had a temporary case of writer’s block. Writer’s block because I’ve struggled to get beyond a few notes and ideas of what I could write about, none of it quite interesting enough to capture my attention, let alone yours. And perhaps also because at the moment if I’m using a pen or my keyboard, it’s to write recipes, not travel memories.

It’s amazing how quickly you can fall out of a rhythm, isn’t it? How the sudden dominance of one big aspect of your life (baking, let’s say) combined with smaller distractions (say, a two week tennis tournament in Paris) can so easily cloud your attention span. Next thing you know, weeks have cruised by and you’ve got little to show for them.

But there’s more to it than that.

What I’m missing is a good, long walk.

Many of us are aware already just how important walking is for our mental health. I certainly am. But in practice, even with lockdown restrictions easing, we’re not walking at nearly the same pace because we’re inside our homes so much more more still.

Not only have I felt some lower back problems creeping back in past weeks, I’ve noticed a shorter temper, inability to concentrate and general indecisiveness. It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve not been going on as many walks as normal. This, despite the fact that I live in a rural village close to the heart of the Blackmore Vale on the south Somerset-Dorset border. Indeed, my iPhone Health app tells me that I’m walking fewer steps in 2021 than I walked in 2020. 2,700 steps less a day on average. Ouch.

The less we walk, the less we thrive. Don’t take my word for it though.

Shane O’Mara, author of In Praise of Walking has a ‘motor-centric’ view of our brains. As he put it in a Guardian article from 2019, ‘[the brain] evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well.’

There is a lot of data out there in support of walking being one of the main drivers of creativity. Of it helping reduce depression, sharpening our senses, easing tensions.

Regarding creativity specifically, when the brain is engaged in what O’Mara calls the ‘mental time travel’, it flicks between big picture thoughts (what we have to do tomorrow, plans for next year, challenges to face) and thoughts about a task at hand. This creates a fertile ground into which this rush of thoughts and tasks increases our creativity, as we consciously and subconsciously create paths and make links between everything we’re thinking about. While walking, because your brain is also navigating in your surroundings, adding an extra layer to think about, the opportunity for creative thinking naturally increases.

The physical health benefit of walking is also much greater than high intensity workout advocates would have you believe. But slow walkers, bear this in mind: for walking as exercise, O’Mara recommends that your walking speed should be ‘consistently quite high over a reasonable distance – i.e. over 5km an hour, sustained for at least 30 minutes, at least four or five times a week.’ A speedy walk in the park, then.

Again, though many of us know how beneficial walking is, setting aside the time to get into a rhythm is easily said, less easily done. May was mostly miserable here in the UK and I bet many of us walked shorter distances than the same time last year, when we were only allowed out of the house once a day!

So, if like me, you have struggled recently to get back into a walking routine, here are some motivation suggestions:

  • If I’m going to be sat on the sofa writing a post like this (one eye on the tennis), I’m going to do so wearing my activewear. Rarely do I not head outside, if I’m dressed the part already.
  • Not overthinking is a big one too. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve thought about going out: when to go out, what to do while I’m out to make it worthwhile, whether to get more admin or chores done before I allow myself to go out. Then, the sun goes in and walking doesn’t have the appeal it had three hours earlier. Instead, when I think about going for a walk, I’m just going to go for a walk. (It sounds so obvious, but the approach of just doing something instead of wasting time thinking about it really can be very liberating.)
  • Those times when it seems like the most effort in the world? Just think about how good it always feels to have gone on any kind of walk, for any length of time. Put yourself mentally on the walk already, visualising the route you could take, and it won’t seem like such an effort.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find my trainers.

Next Sunday preview: I’ll be taking you on a tour around the world looking at solstice celebrations, ahead of the summer solstice taking place on 21st June at 04.31am. —

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Stuck on red

17th May. Feels pretty similar to any recent day here in the UK, except now we’re allowed to holiday in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and The Falkland Islands, without having to quarantine on our return.

Yes folks, the UK’s green list of countries are ready and waiting for us.

I am being a little unfair — Portugal, Gibraltar and Iceland are on there too, and you can actually get across their borders as opposed to, say, Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand who made the list but made it clear we’re not invited. (They’re only open to residents.)

But, as I say: Portugal, Gibraltar, Iceland. Which reminds me, if you’re planning to head to Portugal’s second city Porto in the near future, I recommend reading this guide. It’s arguably more gratifying than the slew of coverage this morning of journalists travelling over to the Algarve to show everyone ‘what it’s really like’ en route. Taking one for the team there weren’t you, Jonathan?

Now perhaps you’ll permit me to switch from green to red? I’m referring to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

As Wanderlust put it ten days ago: ‘If Israel didn’t make it onto the green list then nowhere would! Following the huge success of its vaccine rollout, we have had our fingers crossed for this one for a while, and can’t wait to get back to explore the culturally rich country. But note that it is currently only taking group tours.’

Something tells me those group tours will be on hold for a bit…

Wanderlust wrote the above mention in the midst of tensions ratcheting up between Palestinians and Israeli police, who were filmed storming al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem (the third holiest site in Islam) during the celebration of Eid, following weeks of restrictions on worshippers during Ramadan.

Much tension has also surrounded the awaited delivery of a supreme court verdict regarding evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in favour of Jewish settlers with pre-1948 claims to the properties. That court decision is on hold for now but in the past week, Hamas rockets into Israel and the devastating Israeli military response means hostile exchanges have exploded into the biggest clashes seen in the region since 2014.

You’ve probably seen the headlines of recent days: ‘Associated Press chief calls for independent enquiry into Israel bombing of its Gaza office’, ‘Calls for ceasefire after deadliest day’, ‘Netanyahu vows to keep attacks at “full force”‘, ‘White House concerns rising over civilian deaths in Israeli-Palestinian conflict’.

Less prominent are pieces like this one from the Art Newspaper featuring a prominent Israeli rabbi and a former Hamas official calling for unity and peace.

Rabbi Melchior, who works with other religious leaders to promote non-violence and conflict resolution, emphasised just how important a symbol the al-Aqsa mosque is to the 3 billion Muslims around the world who witnessed its storming by Israeli police: “When Israeli police trample into al-Aqsa with boots [and rubber bullets] and stop one of the holiest prayers [of Eid], it is one of the gravest transgressions of Islam…this you don’t do.”

Ordinary citizens are the ones suffering most, whatever Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says about only targeting Hamas and other terrorist groups. The loss of even just one individual life is a tragedy, no matter the side, and so far we are looking at a death toll of at least 188 Palestinians (including 88 women and children, the Guardian reported this morning) and 10 Israelis killed by Hamas rockets, including a five year old boy.

In past months, with the COVID crisis in mind, I’ve written about the disconnect between the high-achieving Israeli vaccination programme and the struggles in Gaza and West Bank to get hold of any vaccine doses, due to the blockading of supplies and some instances deliberate delays.

I’m not going to pretend however that Israel’s entry in the green list didn’t tempt me to consider travelling out there. In fact I have never been to the region, despite my uncle David being an expert on historical religious practices, beliefs and everyday life during biblical times in Israel and Palestine. So I wouldn’t judge you for hoping to get out there as soon as possible for a vacation, if that’s your preference. Right now though, I’m advocating that a better way to flash some tourist cash right now would be to donate to charities helping the ordinary citizens affected by the crisis.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you might consider a donation to the International Committee of the Red Cross which is providing assistance to those on both sides who need it, working with their partners the Palestine Red Crescent Society and Israel’s Magen David Adom. They’re also ramping up providing medical assistance in Gaza.

Wishing you all a peaceful week ahead, and happy travels if you’re making tentative steps far away from your front doors this week!

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The food that we miss

Parisian dining in 2019

Last bank holiday weekend was the most exhausted I’ve felt in a long time. Why? I launched an online bakery – Kate’s Kitchen – in my village!

As a travel writer I try to focus on relevant food stories and the cultural history surrounding food when I can (you may have read my post on the history of the tagine), so it’s not such a leap to be in the business of baking as well as writing.

Assuming most of you don’t live nearby to me in South Somerset in the south west of England, having a browse of the Kate’s Kitchen menu is unlikely to result in me being able to deliver you a big Mediterranean vegetable-topped focaccia or a loaf of Finnish rye bread — sorry about that! But you can probably spot that a love of travel, other cultures and cuisines is a definite influence, as are local ingredients.

Though I’ve got to be honest and admit that if I could be travelling far and wide at the moment, I would be. 2021 was meant to be a gap year (ok, a second gap year) — so I really, really wouldn’t say no to someone else cooking for me a thousand (or even just 150) miles away, by a beach, up a mountain, in a shack. Much as I’ve enjoyed learning to make my own ‘proper’ Napoli pizza and semi-master a pasta machine.

So I’ll end this brief-ish blog with a related plea.

In the interests of research I’d love to know: what foods and cuisines from past travels (or former neighbourhoods, faraway or not) do you miss and crave the most? Have you tried making your own versions? What worked and what didn’t?

For me I’ve really missed eating out in Italy, anywhere, anywhen, all times of day, preferably with a Hugo cocktail of elderflower, Prosecco and soda close by. Artful artisan creations from French boulangeries (the magnificence of the chestnut-choux Paris Brest pastry, pain au raisin snails meant for kids, macarons — and basically anything else on a counter behind glass). Swedish cinnamon and cardamom buns eaten in achingly Scandi, white-tiled cafés. Bright, fresh, spicy, comforting Thai street food. The really ravishing rotis from tiny Malaysian restaurant Roti King in London. Danish smørrebrød open sandwiches all seeming to end up with a bright smear of beetroot dressing…. Ramen ordered from vending machines in Japan….. giant sunflower seed-fleckled pretzels in Berlin train stations…. sorry, I’m daydreaming again.

I’d genuinely really love to hear what food has been at the front of your mind, on the tip of your tongue, on the top of your list this past year or more.

Feel free to share in the comments below, or you can email me at hello@kateskitchenbakery.com. Who knows, it might be coming to a menu nearer to you than you think…

Have a great week!

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The world’s a stage

A graphic quoting and showing William Shakespeare

For some people, St George’s Day (this past Friday) represents folklore and myth, dragons and slayers. For others, it’s more an excuse to feel extra patriotic — or, in the case of two people in my village, a reason to enquire ask why the old church wasn’t flying an English flag (sigh).

For me though, this time of the year marks a chance to celebrate surely the greatest playwright of them all, William Shakespeare.

He was baptised on 25th April, 457 years ago, supposedly two days after his birth on St George’s Day. The parish records also show that he was buried on 25th April in 1616. Therefore many have come to the natural assumption that he must have been born and died on the same day, two days before each parish record entry. There’s definitely a handy timeliness to this assumption, though it wasn’t a very good final birthday, was it…

Anyway, as a way of celebrating the great bard in some way, and because we’re all still starved of much of the joy of journeys, here is a worldly whistle stop tour of earthly theatrical delights, past and future. There are four(ish) stops, to be precise about it.

It’s worth saying at this point that it’s not thought that Shakespeare ever left England in his lifetime. He just leaned on those two stalwarts, imagination and curiosity. A lesson for us all?

The wooden O

…But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Henry V, Prologue

What I wouldn’t give to have been around in 1599 to see Henry V and other plays put on the stage of the new Globe playhouse in Southwark, London. The ‘wooden O’ referred to in the prologue was the Globe theatre itself. Shakespeare wanted to emphasise its power to take his words and transport his audiences away from their cares and their troubles, over to vastnesses elsewhere.

The wooden O was rebuilt 398 years later when I was 10. Old enough that I could have pestered my Dad to take me to see Henry V when again it kicked off opening proceedings.

I’ve made up for it since though. I actually don’t know exactly how many times I’ve stood or sat, enveloped within the Globe’s circular walls (which, psst, are actually not technically round) — absorbed by a history play, tickled by a comedy, distraught in the hands of a tragedy.

But I’ve easily seen over 40 plays there and if I had to pick one place in the world that I probably miss the most, it would be that little corner of south London. Two of my friends passed it on a walk recently and sent me a selfie. They knew.

I am therefore incredibly keen to return this year, perched somewhere under the thatch, cider in hand, Shakespeare on tap.

I recommend… booking now for the summer season. The usual capacity seems to be greatly reduced, so dates are likely to start selling out soon, if they’ve not already. I’m excited to see screen and stage star Alfred Enoch (yes, Dean in Harry Potter) in Romeo & Juliet, opposite Rebekah Murrell.

A vintage year

Five summers have I spent in farthest Greece
Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia
And, coasting homeward, came to Ephesus
.

The Comedy of Errors, Act 1, Scene 1

I know I’m heavily biased because I lived in London at the time and I went to so many events during the 2012 Olympics (sorry), but if you were ranking great years we’ve had in the past decade, 2012 has got to be top of the list. So many sports, so much support — and what a coming together of cultures it was too. In theatre especially.

Shakespeare’s Globe held a season called Globe to Globe, putting on almost all of Shakespeare’s plays (plus one of his narrative poems), each in a different language.

Sport brings nations together, but ultimately it’s to compete against one other. But here the arts were, bringing people from all across the world together in one theatre.

From Love’s Labour’s Lost in sign language and The Comedy of Errors in Dari Persian to Venus and Adonis in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana and Afrikaans; Julius Caesar in Italian, Troilus and Cressida in Maori and King Lear in Belarusian. I attended as many as I could squeeze in, but King Lear remains one of the most vivid of nights.

The Belarus Free Theatre who performed it so electrically were in a position of not being allowed to perform openly in the Lukashenko-led regime of their home country — they had to perform in secret, private locations, such a garages belonging to the cast.

I remember that the director delivered an impassioned speech on stage at the end, urging us theatregoers to remember how lucky we were to have the freedom to choose what we wanted to watch. That most performers could get away with simply performing whatever they felt like performing. Buckets were passed round as the audience emptied the Globe and spilled out towards the Thames, inky by night. A humble request for donations to enable them to keep touring and the light flickering.

What’s changed for them? They’re still standing up to the regime, which hangs on by a thread. One which many of us hope will snap soon.

I recommend… renting some Globe to Globe films from Globe Player.

A family forest

O, how full of briars is this working-day world! 

As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 3

The Forest of Arden in As You Like It. The Athenian woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those moving trees in Macbeth. Storybook woods, alluring in their depth and spellbinding mystery.

Shakespeare clearly enjoyed writing folklore into his woodlands – merry outlaws with Robin Hood qualities, potions, fairies and magic – but it doesn’t mean he didn’t draw on places he knew, forests he had walked through.

I always thought that the Forest of Arden had to be a real forest. His mother’s surname was Arden after all. But then I couldn’t see a mention specifically of a wood on a map (if I search it now, I get a Marriott Hotel) and so I thought that maybe Shakespeare had led us all on a merry chase though pure fantasy forest.

But: the National Trust to the rescue, it did exist! Shakespeare must have walked through it regularly if not frequently. And some of it still exists today, albeit in pockets, mostly converted to farmland now. Sadly that is often the story of Britain’s woodlands, but at least we now recognise (again) the important role they play in an ecosystem.

I recommend… the beguiling pull of nature that weaves its way through the utterly compelling novel Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell. The title refers to Shakespeare’s son (born a twin with Judith Shakespeare) but actually I found it painted a completely real and true-seeming picture of another important Shakespeare family member too. But I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t read it! I wish very often that I could wipe my mind of the memory of reading it, and read it for the first time all over again.

Now is also a great time to go in search of bluebells and wild garlic in your local woods.

Italia 1590s

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…

Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

Fair Verona… not quite how I remember it when I visited, but they sure know how to market the hell out of a fictional tragic love story.

Juliet’s house and balcony? Tick. Juliet’s tomb? Tick. Romeo’s bathroom? Just kidding. ‘Juliet’s balcony’ was built in the 1930s and ‘Juliet’s tomb’ is literally just an empty sarcophagus in the church of San Francesco al Corso, but it is a pretty setting nonetheless. Oh, and don’t forget a sharpie when you visit the balcony for a selfie, if you want to graffiti your message of undying love to whomever you wish to declare it to, on the way in. I won’t fill you in on what some people pinned to it instead…

Poking fun aside though, I had a lovely time when I visited with my friend Kim a few years back. Yes, there was some touristy tackiness going on but under the balcony we met a pianist who was on holiday too, decided to hang out together and have a delicious meal in a local restaurant. A wonderful evening under a starry, late summer sky.

All that glisters is not gold…

A little more haunting but peaceful nonetheless, I wholeheartedly recommend heading to the north west area of Venice at night, walking through the Jewish quarter, once the Jewish ghetto, instituted in 1516 to segregate the Jewish population. In English we in fact have taken the word ghetto from the Venetian use of the term. I dare you to stand in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo square and not feel the past tap you heavily on the shoulder. Or hear the hushed lines of The Merchant of Venice rushing by, woven into the blustered breeze. Am I over-romanticising it? Maybe. But trust me.

I recommend… If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching it, the 2006 BBC TV series Venice with Francesco da Mosto is a delight. He’s lived in Venice all his life and what he doesn’t know about the city is almost pointless knowing.

For something tasty out of the kitchen instead, give this recipe by Nigella: tagliatelle with chicken from the Venetian Ghetto. It is inspired by recipes from Claudia Roden, a cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist.

And that’s that. A very whistlestop tour. There’s so much I didn’t fit in, so I’ll leave you with my 6am ramblings this morning:

Venice – Merchant, Othello/ Ithaca?? / fictional Illyria – Twelfth Night. Croatia let’s say! / Denmark – Hamlet (visiting the fortress) / Verona – Romeo and Juliet – underwhelming at times but when opera is on in the city, it’s great/ Scotland – the Scottish play! / Ancient Rome / Ancient Greece / Troy during the Iliad – Troilus and Cressida / Greece – Midsummer! Should have guessed but seems more otherworldly / Greece – Comedy of Errors (quote 163) / Vienna – Measure for Measure / Padua & Warwickshire – Taming of the Shrew (Arabian Nights influence) / France and Spain – Love’s Labour’s Lost / Messina, Sicily – Much Ado & Leontes King of Sicily in The Winter’s Tale / Paris and Florence – All’s Well That Ends Well / The Aegean – Pericles / New World of The Tempest.

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Postcard from…Windsor (and Westminster)

Gif showing Windsor Castle and Legoland windsor

Many of us think of Windsor Castle when we think of Windsor. It represents over a thousand years of royal history. But when I think of Windsor, I also think of log flumes. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do think of the Windsor Castle bit of Windsor, it’s a stunner of a building. And the events of Prince Philip being laid to rest yesterday brought the place freshly back to mind (I am unashamed to say I did weep while watching). But when I think of a childhood of day trips to Windsor, it is mainly the log flume and the panning for gold – not forgetting the dragon rollercoaster – that spring to mind. 

I’m talking (as some of you may have guessed) about Legoland Windsor. Greatest theme park in the world, no question. At this point, you might think that there couldn’t possibly be a royal connection to the above photograph of my mum and I surviving the Pirate Falls log flume. You’d be wrong. 

I’ll give you a clue: this photo was taken on the afternoon of Saturday 6th September 1997. That was the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, watched by over 31 million people in the UK, including us. 

It also happened to be my 10th birthday. 

I definitely remember that birthday and all the events of the previous week more vividly than I otherwise would have. I didn’t really have the biggest concept of grief and loss then, but it was the kind of time in history that you never forget. Like right now and this past year, for instance. 

I opened my presents over breakfast and then on the TV went. There was no way we would miss the funeral. Perhaps my parents might even have considered going into central London had it not been for the birthday. 

Of that morning, I mostly remember my brother and I horsing around with my new presents (chief among them a giant stuffed toy reindeer with puppet arms you could put your own hands into. You had to see him to believe him, but I chose the name Smartie on account of giant eyes and a nose and that looked like chocolate Smarties or Galaxy Minstrels).

Anyway… although I was naive to the real tragedy of it all, the funeral being on left a massive impression. I can still see the scene in our living room in my mind’s eye on repeat often as the BBC coverage showed the cortège going from Kensington Palace to St James Palace and into Westminster Abbey. The floral wallpaper on our living room walls, the sofa against the wall facing the window, the pine IKEA TV unit rolled closer in than normal. My dad, mum and uncle sat together on the sofa, still as marble, my dad silently sobbing throughout. 

My brother and I had all the space of the rest of the living room in which to play, but we were drawn like magnets to those three adults. I sensed vulnerability. Here was a small window into what grief looked like. If this is how much it hurt when mourning someone we’d never met, what would it be like when someone in our actual family died? 

I probably hoped that maybe it didn’t happen to every family. Funerals seemed like a distant experience, and indeed it was to be 22 years before my brother and I would organise and attend our first (and so far only) family funeral. Nonetheless, I suppose we grew up just a little bit faster that week. Certainly other young siblings a little more in the public eye than us were forced to grow up too soon.  

It would be years though before I watched the ceremony in full and understood just how painful a time it was. The stoicism of William and Harry walking behind the cortége*, the caustic, raw nature of Earl Spencer’s eulogy, the staggering pain etched into every syllable of Libera Me sung by the BBC Orchestra and soprano Lynne Dawson (it still gives me unbelievable goosebumps listening now). And of course, the simple, sheer tragedy of how young Diana was when she died, and how it happened. 

The whole service happened miles away from Windsor, but I still can’t disentangle the connection in my mind. 

(* Something I read during recent Duke of Edinburgh coverage is that the government wanted the young princes to join the procession, as they were worried that the public would be angry at (or even attack) Prince Charles as he walked behind. Prince Philip persuaded them the boys to take part, by offering to walk with them too).

Morning turning to late morning, and my just-reached-10 self shrugged off all that I could only faintly grasp at that age and wondered instead, would we be allowed to have lunch ACTUALLY INSIDE Legoland?!

The public coverage of the funeral had came to an end and life had to go on. For us as a family that meant celebrating my birthday with a half day at Legoland Windsor. The whole country had shut down during the morning out of respect, but by 2pm, the car park was busy enough with people who had also ventured out. 

I definitely sensed the atmosphere as different from any previous time we’d visited, and we’d been a lot. In every queue, either adults talked about the morning’s events, or there was a frisson of understanding that just pulsed through everyone. The fun was more measured, the crowds definitely fewer — though this had the added benefit of allowing us on more rides in a shorter space of time, so my brother and I were in our element! 

Pirate Falls was my favourite ride at Legoland. I still feel a complete thrill at the idea of jumping into one of the log boats, passing the Lego pirate brothers, the treasure, the laughing parrot just before you plunged over the top and tumbled down the flume, in complete soggy ecstasy. It didn’t change for years, it remained a perfect time capsule of birthdays gone by, whenever we visited in later years. It was the ride we headed over to first in fact that afternoon. We felt like queue jumpers, the wait time was so abnormally short.  

Of course Windsor isn’t just the castle or Legoland and nothing in-between.

It is home to over 30,000 people. Windsor Bridge connects it to Eton, location of the famous public school but more vivid to me as seemingly endless lush, green fields and ponds and rivers of ducks, drifting under draping willows. So many willows, I recall.

The whole area around Windsor is special and we spent many fond family outings exploring the town and its surrounds, not always duck spotting but gawping at the castle architecture, finding new walking routes, gazing through shop windows along polished streets at fancy candles and posh knitwear. It’s more than simply a quaint royal town. It is incredibly pretty as well as historic.

Windsor’s seen a lot in the thousand years it’s been around. Just as the log flume should keep on falling and the parrot ought to keep on laughing, so we’ll keep moving on with our lives. But if we can, we should try keeping the happy memories tucked somewhere a bit easier to find than the unhappy ones.

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Vanuatu veneration and the country that risks the world: travel and global news round-up

A chief from Tanna Island in Vanuatu

A Tanna Island chief, 2015. Photographed by Graham Crumb, via Wikimedia Commons Images

World Health Day last Wednesday symbolised the continuing efforts to vaccinate populations around the world — if they can just get hold of the vaccine in the first place. It was important day for discussion and action. Then Friday rolled around and we learned that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh had passed away aged 99. ‘That’s not travel news’, you might say. Think again.

And read on for a round-up of some of the travel news and global stories that have caught my eye, piqued my interest and worried me most over the past week.

Only Together campaign imagery
  • In late March the UN launched their Only Together campaign to lend more weight to calls for global equity in vaccine production and distribution. As the campaign name suggests, the UN is urging countries around the world, particularly the 10 richest countries who own 80% of the world’s vaccines, to join together more than they have so far. It wants them to meet the goal set by the UN / WHO co-led organisation COVAX, which aims for at least a third of the people in each participating country to be vaccinated by the end of 2021.

Around the world we are seeing the biggest vaccine rollout in history, but COVAX estimate they still need around $2bn worth of funding and vaccine doses to meet the goal.

  • The first Global Travel Task Force report was released in the UK on Friday, alongside PM Boris Johnson announcing plans for a traffic light system for foreign travel. The idea of introducing red, amber and green statuses to holiday destinations is to avoid the chaotic scenes over summer last year as countries went from ‘yes you can visit’ to ‘leave now or face quarantine’ overnight.
  • Taking tests remains key to current government plans, but with a view to looking at reducing their cost. You can read the report in full here, and this opinion piece from Ben Clatworthy at the Telegraph points out that while the news is welcome for travel operators and holidaymakers alike, there remains much to be cautious about.

As Travel Weekly reports, for travel not to be prohibitively expensive due to test costs, the UK will need to do something about the reality that it currently costs more than twice as much to arrange tests here than it does in many European countries in: £128 versus £62. Karen Dee, Chief Executive of the Airport Operators Association, echoed what many in the industry are saying:

‘Without a cost-effective solution [free testing for those returning from green light countries], a summer holiday will be out of reach for many and damage an already badly hit aviation and travel industry even further’.

Prince Philip with Peter Scott, co-founders of WWF

Courtesy WWF

  • The news of Prince Philip’s death on Friday led to a huge bloom of coverage that has surprised some and left others cold — I for one was saddened at the news (though, I mean, 99, what an innings!) and welcomed the chance to learn more about his life and career beyond the bits and pieces you pick up over the years and episodes of The Crown.

Amid the news reports and recollections (including this from wonderful former Archbishop of York John Sentamu), I realised just what an advocate the Duke of Edinburgh was for conservation and fighting climate change — he was involved in the founding of the WWF organisation, launching their first national appeal in 1961 and becoming president of the organisation from 1981 – 1996. He also toured the world to highlight the dangers such as poaching, pollution, deforestation:

‘We depend on being part of the web of life, we depend on every other living thing on this planet, just as much as they depend on us’.

As this BBC tribute details, Prince Philip showed a commitment to conservation and fighting climate change before it became mainstream. He pushed for the use of unleaded petrol in cars used by royal palaces and put sustainable farming practices in place, drove around in his own electric taxi and wrote books about conservation challenges, even presenting a series of related TV programmes. Over the decades he joined forces with David Attenborough too, a sprightly 94 and ¾ himself now.

It just goes to show that behind every sensationalist headline (Philip was heavily criticised for taking part in hunts over the years) there are usually far more nuanced and balanced stories and opinions to be found, including in this Independent article from yesterday.

Map of Vanuatu
  • After news of the Duke’s passing, one area of the world I was keen to hear from is Tanna Island, one of the islands of the nation of Vanuatu, whose people have famously venerated the Duke of Edinburgh since his visit with the Queen in 1974. The local legends surrounding Prince Philip may stretch back to the 1960s, according to the man in the know, Kirk Huffman, an anthropologist and honorary curator at the National Museum at Vanuatu Cultural Centre — who I would wager, judging by all the articles published on the subject this weekend, has had an incredibly busy 48 hours.

The local legends? It was foretold that a pale-skinned son of a local mountain god ventured across the seas to look for a rich and powerful woman to marry. Whether they knew that as a child he arrived by sea in England as a refugee from Greece I can’t say, but he certainly did marry well.

Since Friday, many news pieces have speculated as to how the news would be received on Tanna Island, and whether they would move their focus onto Prince Charles. For now, islanders have responded to the news with heartfelt condolences to the Queen, with plans to hold a ceremony on Monday.

Needless Covid denial and reckless attitudes to even the most basic ways of curbing the virus such as mask wearing threaten all of us and distract from other worrying global developments.

  • And going almost unmentioned by comparison, the situation in Tigray in northern Ethiopia is threatening to spill into a country-wide civil war. It started in November when the Prime Minister (Abiy Ahmed, of Nobel Peace Prize-winning fame…..) announced military strikes in the region to ‘restore the rule of law’ by ‘eliminating’ the influence of the local political party TPLF, after they had attacked army bases.

Recent accusations against government-led Ethiopian and Eritrean forces include that they have committed a wave of massacres, including of 182 people killed in door-to-door attacks in the town of Abi Addi in Central Tigray on 10th February. Victims ranged from infants to elders in their 90s.

While fighting the pandemic remains such a priority, we mustn’t lose sight of conflicts around the world intensifying in the shadows.

German civilians on their way to becoming refugees

German civilians, fleeing the Soviet advance, pick their way across the River Elbe on a partially destroyed railway bridge at Tangermünde, May 1945 © IWM (KY 12151F)

  • The inescapable result of global conflict is often displacement of huge numbers of people, as Imperial War Museums (IWM) – my former employer – has been exploring in their Refugee season. I am unlikely to be able to see their exhibition Refugees: Forced to Flee in person before it shuts on 23rd May (if anyone from IWM is reading this, could it be extended please?!) but there are some very thought-provoking on the season homepage.
  • But kudos to Martinez for not caving in to Saudi Arabia’s demands surrounding a potential loan to the museum of the world’s most expensive painting, Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. The painting was snapped up in the world famous 2017 auction by journalist-murderer Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), it turns out — he forked out $450m for it. Problem is, after lab analysis the Louvre reported that it was only partly produced by Da Vinci. MBS tried to pressure them into pretending it to be ‘100% Da Vinci’, so they refused to exhibit it. Zut Alors!
An aerial shot of Padstow harbour in Cornwall
  • Have you watched Seapiracy on Netflix? The Telegraph published a piece analysing the various claims in the documentary but I have to confess I haven’t gotten around to watching yet, though it’s high up on my list. I learned lots about the harm we’ve caused to ours seas and waterways in David Attenborough’s book A Life on Our Planet, which I wrote about in this long form article from 2nd March.
  • If you’ve already watched Seaspiracy, I can wholeheartedly recommend catching this BBC series on Cornwall’s fishermen (pictured). It’s been incredibly illuminating on the state of fishing in Cornwall (and by association, the UK), particularly during the pandemic. Each episode comes from a different fishing port, highlighting different aspects and challenges — from fish stock sustainability and housing prices by the sea to tourism and vessel licences. Really absorbing.

I’ll be celebrating with a trip to the library on Tuesday. Have a good week!

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Spring is here part II: a calendar year in the countryside

Spring blossom blooming

I mentioned last week in my first post about the beginning of spring that every day this year I’m reading The Shakespeare Almanac by Gregory Doran. I’m also reading a book called Wonderland, day by day.

Every day in the book focuses on a different aspect of flora and fauna in the UK, as the seasons change. It gets you looking around more when you’re walking, even in places you think you know inside out.

Suddenly, you notice how early in the year bumblebee appear; You start looking more closely at the mosses clinging to the trees, now that you recognise there are so many varieties (and that they are a sign of clean air); It means something special to wait a whole year for the bluebells to shoot up out of nowhere again and carpet the trees you’ll walk by, or anticipate the elderflower blooming on the trees again, sugar and water at the ready to make new batches of cordial.

Most of us have been in pretty much the same place day in, day out over the past year – we’ll all have noticed more of nature, even just out of our windows. The dawning of spring, the changing of clocks, the lengthening of days. It means more to us all than it maybe ever has done before.

I wanted to mark this by going back (sorry, clocks) for a brief moment. Back over my calendar year spent living in the countryside, on the Somerset Dorset border. Four beautiful seasons from one doorstep:

(Sound on!)

Wherever you are in the world, near or far – whether you’re at the start of spring or the beginning of autumn – I hope you are also enjoying the changing of the seasons and the festivals that surround these important times in the calendar.

I’m going to be taking a break over Easter myself, returning on Sunday 11th April with a special focus on global vaccination efforts, following World Health Day on 7th April.

Until then!

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Spring is here part I: equinox

Sunrise

Welcome hither, As is the Spring to the earth.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (Act 5, Scene 1)

Today is the first day of spring, the spring equinox. In the UK it’s also Census Day, if you needed a reminder to send yours in!

As usual with days like this, it led me to ask myself: what is an equinox and how does half the world celebrate?

What is an equinox?

The Great Sphinx in Egypt

Each day this year I’m be reading a page from The Shakespeare Almanac by Royal Shakespeare Company Director Gregory Doran. Today’s entry is quite useful:

Equinox literally means ‘equal night’ [in latin]. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, day and night are the same length. Since the early Egyptians built the Sphinx to face directly towards the rising sun on the day of the vernal (spring) equinox, this moment has been celebrated ritually by succeeding civilisations.

The Christian church observed Easter on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. But because the date varies slightly from year to year (the various phases of the moon only repeat exactly every 19 years), the church decided to plump for March 21st as the official ecclesiastical vernal equinox.

Watch out for the next full moon, the Paschal Moon, and Easter will fall on the following Sunday. Today, therefore is the first day of spring.

So there you have it!

How is half the world celebrating?

It’s only the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere of course, but that’s a pretty big group of people celebrating…

  1. In Britain
Stonehenge at dawn

I had to start on home ground first!

How we celebrate… Paganism was the dominant belief system in Britain from around the 5th century AD until around the 8th century AD, when Christianisation took hold across Europe.

One of the biggest pagan celebrations to have persevered is the equinox celebration that centres on Stonehenge in Wiltshire. It started many hours ago around 6am —though, as you can see, it was a little cloudy.

A bit of cloud or drizzle couldn’t dampen the spirits of Druids who celebrate the spring equinox – which they call Alban Eilir – as they have not one but three different festivals.

From shamrocks and egg painting to hares and rabbits, they also continue traditions and use symbols that have been adopted so widely that we tend not to know they are pagan in origin. Read more about them here.

The Bore tide on the River Severn

Courtesy The Severn Bore

Rising tides… Did you know that tides rise during an equinox? The pull exerted on the Earth by the moon and the Sun is what creates tides. Twice a year during the equinoxes, the Sun’s gravitational pull on the Earth is highest, leading to so-called ‘great tides’, many feet higher than normal. The River Severn in Gloucestershire attracts surfers and kayakers year round, even more so over the spring equinox.

Simnel cake

Courtesy James Pett @ Wikimedia Commons

Mid-Lent… You might think of Simnel Cake as specific to Easter, but its traditions go back to Mothering Sunday.

If like me you’ve given something up for Lent, you’ll know that we’re four weeks into a six week stint. Traditionally around this time last week used to be known as Mid-Lent Sunday. Because servants and apprentices would use the day to see their mothers, it became known as Mothering Sunday.

Of the two food traditions on this day (a porridge called frumenty is the other), Simnel Cake has stuck. Maidservants would give their mothers a cake with a layer of almond paste baked into the middle, so it became known as mothering cake too. Nowadays, there’s a whole lot of marzipan going on too, as above.

Why is it called Simnel cake? Lambert Simnel was a man who got caught up in a 1487 uprising against the newly-crowned Henry VII. When I say caught up, I mean that men who were against Henry claimed Lambert was Edward Plantagenet with a claim to the throne. The rebellion was quashed but Lambert was spared, and for a time ended up in the King’s kitchens, where he is said to have invented Simnel Cake.

Cool story, except for the fact that Simnel Cake predates poor Lambert, with references found at least 200 years before. The word likely derives from the latin word simila meaning ‘fine flour’, which also gives us the word semolina, which is a course flour a bit like polenta.

Either way, if you’re feeling rebellious, you could give this Simnel cake traybake a go.

Or you could follow the example of the Swedes and bake some cardamom and almond-scented, vanilla cream-filled Semla cakes. They used to be made only on Shrove Tuesday but are now so popular that you can get them throughout spring up to Easter.

2. The Hindu festival of Holi

Hindu widows at Holi

I came across this image by Tom Watkins. It might look like normal Holi celebrations but in fact shows Hindu widows, normally forbidden from taken part, enjoying Holi in Vrindavan, northern India, thanks to the NGO Sulabh international.

What is Holi? At its most basic, it is a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It’s thought also to relate to the story of the defeat of the evil king Hiranyakashipu by his son Prahlad, who survived his sister’s attempt to do her father’s bidding and kill him in a fire.

What happens at Holi? Taking place in late March each year (this year it would be 28-29 March), Holi is famously known as the ‘festival of colour’ for the crowds of festival goers exuberantly throwing paint powder and water at each other, though they also sing and dance. This actually all happens on day two of the festival — it begins the day before with revellers lighting bonfires, throwing popcorn, chickpeas and coconut into them.

I feel like next year the whole world should hold a Holi festival to celebrate the end of the pandemic…

3. Poland’s pagan Slavic Goddess

Slavic goddess effigy

Courtesy Tomasz Kuran via Wikimedia Commons

Już wiosenne słonko wzbija się po niebie
W tej wezbranej rzece utopimy ciebie!

As the spring sun rises in the sky of blue
in this swollen river we are drowning you!

This medieval tradition is a little macabre… Topienie Marzanny (‘drowning of Marzanna’) involves making an effigy of the goddess out of straw, linen and beads which at dusk on the spring equinox is burned and then ‘drowned’ in a nearby river. Who would want to hurt a Slavic goddess? Well, apparently, Marzanna is the overseer of winter, plague and death, which means she’s not much-loved.

After being thrown in the drink, the effigy is carried from house to house (usually by girls) with dancing and singing and sometimes donations collected for the local church or a charity. Technically all for a good cause then?!

A rare survival… Poland is a very Catholic country which means that there aren’t many traditionally pagan rituals or celebrations knocking about these days, but it’s a testament to the strength of feeling about the approach of spring that this one is still going.

If we’re honest… Teaching kids of make the doll of a woman and set her on fire then drown her shouldn’t perhaps be so prominent on a curriculum, but I suppose we’ve got Guy Fawkes here in the UK… moving on!

4. Gardens of Adonis

Plants being watered

I had to give this a mention, it’s so fascinating.

Given spring’s long association with birth, rebirth and renewal, and flowers resurfacing after a winter hibernation, it’s not surprising that women all over ancient Italy used to plant seeds at this time. The plots they planted them in were called Gardens of Adonis — which is where is gets all Greek.

If you know your Greek mythology, you’ll know that Adonis was the mortal lover of Aphrodite, goddess of love. He favoured her above other goddesses but died at the hands of the goddess of wild animals, Artemis, who set a wild boar on him in revenge for Aphrodite killing a follower, Hippolytus.

In Ancient Greece, women took part in a festival called Adonia, mourning the death of Adonis with singing and dancing. They also – get this – planted fennel, lentil and lettuce seeds, whose fast growth and withering symbolised their mourning and worship.

It makes sense, then, that in Italy these seeds (as well as flowers) would be planted at the spring equinox and transferred to family graves, ready to bloom (and wither away) on Good Friday and over Easter. One of so many ways that ancient and pagan traditions have merged with Christian traditions — Gardens of Adonis are still planted in Sicily apparently.

5. Sakura and Sanzu

early morning blossom

A feature on spring would be incomplete without… mentioning the Japanese obsession with cherry blossom. The spring equinox is called shunbun in Japanese but really this time of year is all about the sakura season, waiting for and picnicking (hanami parties) under the freshly flowering cherry blossom trees. Meanwhile, elegant plum blossom is the first to appear and should get some credit for being the first true sign of spring in Japan.

Buddhism origins… The spring equinox is actually in the middle of a week-long Buddhist holiday known as Higan whose origins can be traced back to reign of Emperor Shōmu in the mid-700s AD. The word higan means ‘other shore’ and refers to the mythological Sanzu River which separates this life from the afterlife. Paying respect to ancestors through services and by heading to one’s hometown is the usual way of things.

a blossom forecast for 2021

Though this year the Japanese public is advised not to hold hanami picnic parties, nothing can stop the blossom forecasts.

6. Happy Nowruz

Kurdish women

Courtesy Salar Arkan @ Wikimedia Commons

A Tehran mall at Nowruz

Courtesy Rye-96 @ Wikimedia Commons

Nowruz means… ‘new day’, as it is the first day of the Persian new year. Nowruz celebrations centre on Iran, but over 300 million people around the world celebrate it in some way (and have done so for 3,000 years), especially around the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia and other areas of the Middle East.

The two images above represent the contrast of cultures celebrating Nowruz, even within Iran itself. While a shopping mall in the country’s capital Tehran displays the symbols of spring for busy shoppers, a grandmother and her grandchild celebrate wearing traditional Kurdish dress 580km away in the small village of Besaran, close to the border with Iraq.

Celebrations are so widespread across the world that the UN recognises 21st March as International Nowruz Day

What goes on? As you would expect from a giant, 300-million strong celebration, there are many different traditions and ways to celebrate. Here are a few:

  • In normal times, communities come together to share food and celebrate together.
  • In most celebrating households (and shopping malls it would seem) there is a Haft Sin table, displaying items that begin with the letter S in the Farsi alphabet — wheat grass, garlic, vinegar and herbs. Each item has meaning, from garlic (Sir) to protect against illness to plates of growing wheatgrass (Sabzeh) which symbolise regeneration.
  • Goldfish are a popular addition to the household, symbolising good luck.
  • Houses are cleaned, new clothes are bought.
  • Nowruz isn’t just one day, celebrations and rituals go on for 13 days. Despite the unlucky nature of the number, on day 13 every household’s growing wheatgrass is thrown into flowing water. This is deemed to counter any bad luck and absorb all the negative energy from the home…

Another tradition that perhaps we should all consider adopting when this pandemic is over?

Now, I best get on with filling in that census…

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Lake Akan calls


Ni juu ni!

‘Did he say twenty-two? I’ve got all nine numbers then. I think I’ve won the top prize… Does that mean I’ve won the Nintendo Switch?!’ Here we were, my brother Stephen and me, 5,532 miles from home at a Japanese village fete, about to call ‘bingo!’. 

We had found ourselves almost by accident at the Akan annual summer festival, held in the volcanic crater town on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. I say by accident because, when we started fixing pins to maps and planning our route, we wanted to be hiking our way through a national park, not idling in towns.

But feisty flash floods and train-derailing landslips precipitated a rethink. Probably, we reasoned, we should pick somewhere less likely to drown us. 

So, arriving through pattering rain and on the tail of a storm, we waved a soggy hello to our Akan host Mayumi as she bounded towards us at the coach stop. Beckoning us into her home, she asked only that we consider it ours for the next three days.

Kyuu juu ichi! Ninety-one!

For travellers dotty enough to visit Japan during its hot, humid summer months, Hokkaido is a mecca of mild weather. Its cooler climate like a resplendent bird, stretching out its wings to envelope us. It was such a relief to feel rain in the toes of our sandals, not sweat.

But without the skin-shrivelling heat to busy my thoughts, I could resort to another worry. Bears. 

In some sort of ‘prepare for the worst’ mind-game, I’d daydream various murderous grizzly bear scenarios. Often I’d happen upon the bear, starving and looking for a square meal, then it spotted me, bounding over to do its worst. Occasionally playing dead would work, other times not. I tried to keep the worry out of my voice as I casually asked Mayumi how often she’d seen bears. As we surveyed the woods beyond her home on the western edge of town, she mused that she had never seen bears anywhere near the town. 

‘Perhaps you might be lucky and see a sika deer from your room. Or an owl.’

Roku! Six!

In the native Hokkaido-Ainu culture, legend has it that the Kamuy bird gods once joined forces to defeat a fierce bear who’d been attacking humans. A once-timid wren volunteered to lead the charge, spurring on its fellow birds.

Birds, not bears, seemed to sum up life around the ancient Akan lake. In fact the wren is thought of as highly on Hokkaido as we think of the robin in the UK. More so in fact, for the wren is literally worshipped.

We must have seen some around on our walks, though a rarer birding experience has stayed with me more.

On our first of two full days in Akan we ventured out onto Lake Akan itself. All activities in the town seemed to us to centre around the lake. You’d see it out of the corner of your eye, guarded by the Oakan-dake and Meakan-dake peaks. You’d hear the boats zipping along on it. You’d sense its waters rippling and look for the wildlife in it, above it.

We joined a boat tour with the express view of chancing upon some of the famous Marimo algae balls that grow to big sizes only here in Japan. We did see some, but the discovery of a Blakiston’s fish owl was more impressive. They are native to Japan (known here are shima-fukuro), China and north-eastern Asia. It was later named after the naturalist Thomas Blakiston who ‘found’ them in Hokkaido in 1883.

We gazed at the owl perched regally up on tree branches, and the owl looked back in our general direction, seeming to size us up. I’m sure it would have been equal to the task of nabbing one of us, as we glided by on our boat.

They were clearly known long before to the local population. A rare encounter, but not the only owl we would see that day…

San juu hachi! Thirty-eight! 

Mossy marimo balls spied from the glass-bottom platform (looking like big, earthy shot puts) we set off back for shore.

The weather had improved and the sun was blaring out at us, so we took two of Mayumi’s bikes for a ride round part of the lake, through some of the forest around her house. Her assertion that she’d never seen bears seemed a world away as Stephen and I chatted loudly and clanged our bike bells regularly as we rode — all the better to put off the bears. A casual ten minute pit stop incurred at least 20 cranings of the neck to check for movement in the leaves beyond us.

Just squirrels and song birds.

As evening approached we strolled over to the Ikoro Ainu theatre, at the centre of Akan’s Ainu community, called the Kotan. Here we saw our second owl of the day, perched beautifully on the archway entrance. A beautifully-carved fish owl, which to the Ainu is a kamui bird god.

We wondered if we’d be the only ones in the audience for the Ainu performance of traditional songs. The theatre was a very quiet space until minutes before curtain up, when groups of people spilled in, and the buzz and anticipation spiralled up in volume as the local Ainu performers readied themselves. Perhaps some of these people had already seen other performances earlier in the week and knew the best time to arrive.

Was this show going to be the kind of show that’s ‘only for tourists’ or was it more than that?

The Ainu people have a long history as the first settlers on Hokkaido, and indeed the name ‘Akan’ comes from the Ainu word meaning ‘unchanging’, ‘eternal’, which is quite apt as they have remained in the town, though their lands once stretched further north and south onto the Japanese mainland. Enforced assimilation and marginalisation under Japanese rule meant their culture, language and traditions suffered, as is sadly so often the case around the world.

We were there to see what’s called the Iomante Fire Festival, ‘a flame-lit story of kamuy, humans and prayers’. Those same kamuy bird gods that we felt we had come into contact with already during our stay. We needn’t have worried about how ‘authentic’ an experience the theatre would be. Here were a people wishing only to keep their culture alive, peacefully and serenely sharing their traditions and inviting us to share their world, if only for an hour.

Nana juu go! Seventy-five!

Peace – and relaxation – could also be found in the town’s onsen, aka at the public bathing facilities. Many Japanese people use onsens daily, and on Hokkaido it is no different. They are more than a series of pools or springs; people go there to shower, wash their hair, scrub up, calm down. And being naked is just part of the daily ritual. Completely normal. Every shape and size, not that anyone’s really looking.

Mayumi didn’t tend to go as much as her husband, who would go religiously every day. So we met him in the lobby of the only hotel in Akan, and took the lift up to our rooftop onsen. My brother went in with him while I minded my own time.

It was a lovely place to unwind, though I didn’t know how fast or how slow I should be, in order to meet my brother in the outdoors part of the onsen, the rooftop pool. So I didn’t quite switch off, but just floating for some time in one of the more temperate pools, across from a family doing the same. It was pretty blissful.

Here we were hanging out with the locals, and we’d gotten a taste for it.

Roku juu go! Sixty-five!

Eating out being my absolute favourite activity on holiday, on our second and last full day, I persuaded Stephen to try some local food with me over a late lunch.

Walking into a small restaurant I’d spotted on an earlier walk, I knew we’d struck gold; the menu outside was only in Japanese and the place was clearly popular with locals. As everyone sat cross-legged on mats, animatedly making their way through plates of steaming, delicious looking food, we plonked ourselves down at the only free spot – the counter by the kitchen — one of my favourite places to be in any restaurant.

While Hokkaido is known more for the beer it produces in its capital Sapporo than for particular food specialities, one foodstuff does come close.

Scanning the menu using our nifty – though sometimes glitchy – photo translation app, we found what I was looking for and gestured to the owner for two bowls of roast venison with rice.

Elsewhere in Japan, venison in July might have seemed a little bonkers, but here it hit the spot. I still wish I’d ordered a second bowl for myself.

Juu yon! Fourteen! 

Something all of Japan goes for is yakitori — marinated chicken skewers that entire bars are sometimes devoted to. It was the first smell to waft into my nostrils on our arrival at the summer festival later in the afternoon.

Mayumi had invited us and we were excited to be there for our last evening on Hokkaido.

The festival was, unsurprisingly, in one of the parts of town closest to the lake. Always in the corner of eyes, now taking centre stage. The downcast grey clouds clashed with the festival atmosphere, as mothers carried their excitable toddlers around, families sat relaxedly on tables in the centre and locals strolled between stalls, mostly buying yakitori and beer.

It hadn’t been that long since I’d eaten, but that didn’t stop me grappling with my yen and ordering up whatever the stalls had left to sell, as the student band played Beatles and Oasis covers.

Ni juu kyuu! Twenty-nine! 

Lighters at the ready, folks.

Framed by a crane holding up the festival sign and singing their hearts out, I loved this band! They were a delight — even if most of the crowd appeared quite nonchalant, there were a few of us going for it. Maybe, for many, they had heard it all before.

Or perhaps their minds were on the main event.

It was time for the bingo.

Hyaku! One hundred!

Within half an hour of our arrival, the last of the snacks were on the grills, the band’s set was coming to an end and the tension was palpable, as everyone searched for their bingo cards.

Wait. We had none! They had sold like hot yakitori.

But Mayumi came to our rescue, she’d bought us each a card along with her own.

As the dials decreased on stage, the volume among the Akan locals ratcheted up. Cards were smoothed out, laid out on tables or spread out on the ground, pens and pencils were distributed as the prizes were deliberately laid out on the stage, like jewels carefully being set in a magnificent crown. Crates of Sapporo beer, hampers, toys, gift vouchers.

And a brand new Nintendo Switch, boxed and ready to be claimed. My brother’s eyes lit up, like Mario uncovering a cache of golden coins.

Maybe there were more valuable prizes, but not to him. The first to cry bingo would surely be given first dibs.

All of sudden and unceremoniously the bingo began — and we quickly realised we would need Mayumi to translate every number for us. My knowledge of 1-10 wasn’t going to get me that far with a hundred numbers flying about.

Five numbers in. My card unmarked, gripped solidly in my sweaty palm.

Ten numbers in. No-one had yet come forward. I’d gotten my first number, but had eight more.

Fifteen numbers in. Stephen was a paragon of concentration, his card swathed in blue circles.

‘I’m one away!

Ni juu ni! Twenty-two!

There his last number was. The day of his birthday in June.

Hollering ‘BINGO! WAHOO!’ as he tripped his way to the front of the crowd, Stephen approached the all-seeing, all-knowing Bingo Master to collect his prize.

The only man standing between my brother and a Nintendo Switch.

Stephen was asked his name, where he was from and whether he was enjoying his visit. Basking in the glory of having snagged the top prize, he cracked a few jokes and motioned towards it, almost trying to magic it into his hands.

However.

To my brother’s dismay, the bingo maestro, grinning, pulled out a small sack of democratically-jumbled up prize item tickets from his pocket. The crowd seemed collectively to be saying, ‘no, not that fast mate!’

Joy turned to apprehension as Stephen theatrically, and blindly, rustled around and around the tickets to make his choice. Sweeping through the item tickets undecidedly and with all the reverence of a child in a sweet shop with a crisp £10 to spend. Would he pick that one? Perhaps that one? No, maybe that one? Here goes……

Damn! It wasn’t to be, he had picked out the prize of a buffet lunch for two in the town’s hotel. My idea of complete nirvana, but we were leaving at breakfast the next day and wouldn’t get to use it.

So of course we offered it to our host Mayumi to use with her family. She had been such a wonderful host. We were very glad to have made our way to Lake Akan for those three days.

It took until we arrived in Kyoto, but Stephen rallied his spirits after the bingo disappointment.

After all, he did already have a Nintendo Switch at home.


If you’re interested to find out more about the Ainu people:

Japan’s forgotten indigenous people

The Ainu kotan village

Featured

Empowering women around the world

Header image showing a sewing machine and a rickshaw

Monday 8th March is International Women’s Day, as I’m sure many of you are aware. But did you know that its beginnings date back as early as 1908? I didn’t!

There is a different theme to each year’s International Women’s Day, and this year’s is #ChoosetoChallenge, because with challenge comes change.

That’s definitely the spirit that many of the woman I’m featuring today embody.

For a couple of years now I’ve been following two not for profit initiatives – one in Rajasthan in India and the other in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa – quite closely. It’s about time I shared them with you.

Read on for what I hope will be two inspiring profiles of two incredibly inspiring projects, followed by a snapshot of some other fascinating women-led projects and news from around the world.

Jaipur and Udaipur, India: The Pink City and Lake City Rickshaw initiatives 

A line of pink rickshaws

The eco-friendly electric pink rickshaws wait in line in Jaipur. Credit: Wild Frontiers

  • What’s it about?

The Pink City Rickshaw Company is a sustainable, travel-focused initiative that champions women living in Jaipur to become tour guide rickshaw drivers with a stake in the business itself. This is alongside a sister initiative, The Lake City Rickshaw Company, in Udaipur. Both cities are hugely popular on the tourist trail in India’s Rajasthan State. 

The Pink City Rickshaw Company empowers over 200 women from low income households to challenge stereotypes in what is a male-dominated environment, giving them a career that provides for them and their families while also introducing more environmentally-friendly transport onto the roads in the form of electric rickshaws.

This initiative is part of the not for profit organisation called ACCESS Development Services, who run projects across at least nine states in India, from partnering with the UNHCR to help refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma) and revitalising the loom industry to running various farming initiatives (increasingly important work, if you’ve seen recent news of protests over controversial new agriculture laws proposed.) 

  • What they say
Women from the Pink City Rickshaw Company celebrating International Women's Day 2020

Experience the medieval mystique of the walled city in these unique and custom designed, eco-friendly rickshaws driven by smart, enthusiastic and well trained women. The well planned tours of the important tourist attractions of Jaipur and the novel circuits provide you the best sights, a chance to soak in the local culture and give you an experience like none other.

Help our Pink City Tour Hostesses discover their new found economic independence.

Credit: Pink City Rickshaw Company

  • What I love about this

I first heard about the project at a Royal Geographical Society event in early 2020. It was a star-studded fundraising event run by the travel company Wild Frontiers, whose Foundation raised enough money from the event to fund two new electric rickshaws.

This initiative is clearly lifting women up to become breadwinners in their family, challenge male prominence on the roads, promote sustainability and seek to show different sides to two well-trodden and popular cities — needless to say I left that lecture hall hugely inspired. I planned to write a feature on the women of the Pink City Rickshaw Company, but Covid had other ideas. 

The women’s main income stream is tourism and so, like many other small-scale tourism businesses and operators, the pandemic has hit them especially hard.

  • Renu & Lalita
Fundraising leaflet

In August last year the Pink City’s Rickshaw Company launched a fundraising campaign to help the 200+ women left without work in Jaipur and Udaipur. One of the Jaipur drivers and tour guides, Renu Sharma, shared her worries:

‘I used to earn a good amount. With the tourist industry being badly impacted, we have no income and our families struggle even for two square meals!’

I hope that that call out, and Just Giving campaigns from Wild Frontiers and others has given them some financial relief, and that visitors can return soon. I’m keener than ever to meet some of these women, when it is safe to travel internationally again. Including Lalita:

Before the world was turned upside down, the Wild Frontiers Foundation interviewed Jaipur rickshaw driver Lalita about life after joining the initiative: 

‘I am now giving my children a good education. I am fulfilling their needs and I am saving some money as well. My husband says that I work with him “shoulder to shoulder”. He likes it [and my] kids are happy too’. Not only is Lalita a driver and tour guide, she is also on the company’s board, something that she says has given her extra confidence.

What wonderful women!

  • How you can get involved and support the project

By going on a tour in Jaipur or Udaipur when tourism opens up again. 

The aim of each tour isn’t to give you a history lesson but a unique experience, going behind the scenes and avoiding tourist traps. Early morning tours in Jaipur are designed to show you the city before everyone is on the roads, or their food tour takes in Jaipur’s old town flower and vegetable market, with its crates of bright citrus fruits, open bags of chillies, tubs of peppers and baskets of herbs.

In Udaipur, the Old City tour is their most popular, but the cooling Lake City tour of Fatehsagar Lake gets my vote.

You can also donate via Just Giving and by getting in touch with the Pink City Rickshaw Company.

The Democratic Republic of Congo: Virunga National Park’s Sewing Workshop for the Widows of Fallen Rangers

A woman at her sewing machine

A Virunga widow using one of the sewing machines. Credit: Virunga National Park

  • Why they are widows

Virunga National Park in The Congo (DRC) is the oldest national park in Africa, established in 1925 primarily to protect mountain gorillas — work that continues to dominate the mission of the rangers who guard the park’s 3,000 sq mile range.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, Virunga is home to more mammal, bird and reptile species than any other protected area on the planet, and the only site on earth to be home to three species of great apes: the mountain gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla and eastern chimpanzee. Thanks to Virunga National Park and surrounding conservation efforts, the mountain gorilla is the only great ape in the world whose numbers are increasing. 

But it comes with a burden that grieving widows and families bear every day. 

Virunga is often called the most dangerous park in the world; the twin, related effects of the First and Second Congo Wars (1996-2003) and increased poaching became a huge threat to wildlife that continues to this day in the volatile region.

Over 200 rangers have lost their lives protecting the park since the 1920s, including most recently on 10th January 2021 when six Virunga rangers were ambushed and killed by a so-called Mai-Mai militia group.

Since 2004 (with a resurgence in 2015) the Kivu region of eastern DRC there has witnessed increased military conflict. Virunga was even forcibly used in 2008 by rebels as a base for launching attacks.

This extreme volatility provides a backdrop to the award-winning Virunga documentary from 2014, which led me to become aware of efforts to support the rangers’ widows through sewing workshops and The Fallen Rangers Fund.

  • What they’re about
Women looking over fabric

Some of the women working on the beautiful fabrics. Credit: Virunga National Park

Before the Fallen Rangers Fund was set up, widows and families would struggle financially, with many struggling to live normal lives. When the fund was set up, fundraisers and organisers sought to trace widows and their families from 1991 onwards, committing to provide pension and other support for any widow of a Virunga ranger. 

The fund has flowered into a sewing workshop project currently existing in two locations — Rumangabo to the south which opened in 2016 and Mutsora in the north, opened a year later. The sewing workshops give widows the chance to learn sewing, or develop their skills so as to earn a living from their craft. Not only do they hand make items such curtains, cushion covers, handkerchiefs and quilts – even toys – but they also repair the worn uniforms of rangers, which provides an additional income stream. 

This project is much more than just learning to sew however; the workshop buildings are also meeting spaces and women can participate in classes on entrepreneurship, health and personal development. One woman recently graduated with engineering qualifications, others are learning to be chefs and chocolatiers. Childcare and educational facilities are available on site and for women who don’t feel able to attend there is at-home support and smaller initiatives such as bracelet making.

  • What they say

The ultimate goal of the Widows Sewing Workshop is to help support these women to get beyond bare subsistence. Equally important is to foster a sense of community and strengthen their optimism for what the future holds.

Virunga National Park [is] committed to delivering development initiatives that benefit local people and the wider region, and to working in partnership with local communities to bring peace and prosperity to many millions of people whose lives have for too long been blighted by conflict and the activities of armed groups.

After the tragic loss of a Ranger, a private fund is immediately established to garner support from our community and all donations towards that fund are given directly to the Ranger’s widow.

  • What I think is so important about this project
Three women at a fabric cutting table

Three women, widows of Virunga rangers, prepare some fabric in the Rumangabo Workshop. Credit: Virunga National Park

January’s attack sadly shows how necessary this project is. The task is a constantly uphill one and the risk involved for the rangers in protecting hundreds of species, including some of the world’s most endangered wild animals, is tremendous.

But when the worst happens for some of the 689 plus rangers and their families, it is comforting to know that there is a sympathetic, empowering project at the heart of what happens next.

As well as the financial and social opportunities the project affords, one of the most meaningful everyday interactions is with the tributes on the walls themselves.

In each of the workshops there is a mural for fallen rangers and the animals they lost their lives trying to protect. With each ranger’s death, a star goes up along with their name — pictured above. It isn’t showy or flashy, but quietly there in the background as life goes on around it. 

Grief is life-changing and it never quite goes away, but with the Fallen Rangers Fund and Widows’ Sewing Workshops, the women whose lives have been impacted by tragedy at Virunga can also find solace there, and future happiness. 

  • Sakina Salambongo & Therese Sangira
The opening of the Rumangobo Workshop

The 2016 opening of the Rumangabo Workshop. Credit: Virunga National Park

Sakina Salambongo Masika is one of the Virunga widows. Her husband was killed in 2011, leaving her and her six children behind. She spoke to Sruthi Gottipati at The New Humanitarian from the Rumangabo workshop nine months after it opened.

‘I knew there was little chance that in a ranger’s job he’d grow old [but] I can’t be angry because I know my husband’s job was protecting animals’

24 years her senior, Therese Sangira is a seamstress in the workshop. She lost her husband, who was in park administration at Virunga before he was promoted to be a ranger, in 2004. She tells Sruthi that her nine children often ask her to move south out of the park to Goma, the capital of the Kivu Province in DRC. 

‘They tell me, “Come to Goma, we’ll build a house for you in the town”, but I can’t live where there aren’t animals, where there aren’t trees. I want to die here.’

  • How you can get involved and support the project

By visiting Virunga National Park in the future you would be helping their conservation efforts, their rangers and the Fallen Rangers Fund.

I don’t know about you, but a spot of gorilla and volcano trekking and a stay at the Kibumba tented camp on the misty Mikeno Mountain would set me up for life I think…

Virunga’s website also features an awesome online clothing shop. They don’t sell the work from the workshops online (otherwise I’d have bankrupted myself this weekend) but all clothes are made to order, sustainably in renewable energy factories using natural fibres — they’re even sent out in plastic-free packaging. More than can be said here in the UK with every online purchase!

You can also donate directly to The Fallen Rangers Fund here.  

Discover more women-led projects from around the world

The women cleaning up Lake Titicaca's waters

Some of the women helping clean up Lake Titicaca’s waters. Credit: Canada Fund for Local Initiatives

For Indigenous peoples it is clear: the less you know about something, the less value it has to you, and the easier it is to destroy. And by easy, I mean: guiltlessly, remorselessly, foolishly, even righteously.

Nemonte Nenquimo
  • Meet Nemonte Nenquimo, the Waorani woman co-founder of the indigenous-led nonprofit Ceibo Alliance who is on the frontline to protect indigenous rights — and the future of the Amazon Rainforest.
  • The Australian Museum has appointed its first ever First Nations Director, who traces her family history to Wailwan and Kooma Aboriginal tribes. Laura McBride promises to prioritise the repatriation of ancestral remains still in the collection. The museum was one of the first cultural institutions to begin repatriations 35 years ago, but many have no provenance and it is expected to be another 10-15 years work.

We just don’t know where to repatriate them [because their provenance wasn’t noted] so [I am] looking to continue conversations on establishing resting places for ancestors so that we can get them out of museums, off shelves, and at peace where they deserve to be.

Laura McBride

Featured

David Attenborough on saving our planet

Graphic featuring David Attenborough's book and a quote

Long read

Did you tune in to watch new BBC miniseries Attenborough’s Life in Colour on Sunday night? I’m still picturing the lime green-mouthed mating dance of the so-called wonderful bird-of-paradise…

This new project comes as David Attenborough approaches his 95th birthday in May. Ninety-five years on Earth! His life and career have been almost entirely devoted to understanding (and helping us to understand) the world around us — and yesterday I finished perhaps one of his greatest achievements.

That is I finished reading his 2020 book, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future. In it he provides witness testimony to the decline of planet Earth and its biodiversity as a result of the mistakes of humankind. It is incredibly stirring and powerful, as is his vision for how we can put right our many wrongs. And there can be no more delay.

As Attenborough himself said in this UN speech last week, ‘The climate crisis is the biggest security threat that modern humans have ever faced. If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains. And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilisation will quickly break down.’

That speech and this book feature some of his starkest warnings yet about the immediacy of the climate change threat, and his latest book is equally as eye-opening, fascinating, galvanising. He doesn’t focus only on what has gone wrong, but what we could do, what we need to do, what we absolutely must do in order to survive on this planet and save planet Earth.

This book has taught me more than I could have imagined it would before starting it. It was the cause, consequence and also the hope for the future all in one that I’d been missing. A world away from ‘doom-scrolling’ and opinion-based narratives. Over the next four chapters of this post, I want to share some of the most powerful threats, lessons and solutions that struck me most from reading the book. I also want to share a bunch of recommended reads with you too.

Whether you have come across this book, the accompanying documentary on Netflix, know a lot already or none of the above, I hope that what you read will galvanise you further into wanting to take a more active role in these issues — whether that’s simply becoming more informed or taking direct action to make change.

Chapter one — if we do nothing

Pictured: Deforestation in Indonesia / courtesy Josh Estey & AusAID and Barrier Reef bleached coral / courtesy Oregon State University. Both via Wikimedia.

In such a future, we will bring about nothing less than the collapse of the living world, the very thing that our civilisation relies upon.

David Attenborough

Eight pages in the book spell out what could happen to the planet and to us as humans, if we don’t radically change course now. Here are a few of the predicted consequences:

2030s

  • The Amazon Rainforest would be on course to be reduced in size by 75%, which may be the tipping point towards what’s called forest dieback, where a lack of moisture from a diminished canopy eventually turns the land to open savannah. Thirty million people across the Amazon watershed would likely need to move and there would be water shortages, including (ironically) a drought on the new farmland created by deforestation. More and more wildfires would lead to a greater quickening of global warming, with less and less carbon able to be stored away, the more the rainforest disappears.
  • It’s predicted that the Arctic Ocean may have its first entirely ice-free summer. This would lead to an even greater quickening of global warming, because less ice = less surface on the earth to reflect heat back to the sun.

2040s

  • The next tipping point is predicted to occur in the tundra of Alaska, Russia and Northern Canada. The melting of the ice in the permafrost of the tundra would release an estimated 1,400 gigatonnes of carbon (4 x more than humankind has emitted in the last 200 years combined) and would turn the region into a mud bath. Local communities, oil and gas workers and wildlife — all would be displaced.

2050s

  • This combination of wildfires and thaws would send the carbon count in the atmosphere into a great acceleration by this decade. Surface water would take higher and higher amounts of carbon, which would turn into carbonic acid. This acidification would lead to a bigger decline of our oceans, continuing the bleaching of coral reefs. Some scientists predict that 90% of the Earth’s coral reef systems could be destroyed a few years into this decade.

We are only just beginning to understand that there is an association between the rise of emergent viruses and the planet’s demise. An estimated 1.7 million viruses of potential threat to humans hide within populations of mammals and birds. The more we continue fracturing the wild with deforestation, farmland expansion and practice the illegal wildlife trade, the more likely it is that another pandemic will arise.

David Attenborough

2080s

  • Looking further ahead, global food production is expected to be at a crisis point with pesticide use, habitat removal and the spread of diseases potentially affecting 3/4 of all our food crops by this decade. More harvests will keep failing and tonnes of lost topsoil could enter rivers and increase flooding of nearby towns and cities.

2100s

  • Sea levels could rise by 0.9 metres which would be enough to destroy ports and land vulnerable to floods, already under severe strain now.
  • Our planet may be 4°C warmer by this point if the above plays out, which means a quarter of the world’s population would live in places with an average temperature of 29°C or above — currently only the Sahara has those kinds of average temperatures.
  • Farming would be impossible, migration to cooler climes would increase and future generations who live to see the 2100s could witness the largest event of enforced human migration in history and a staggering humanitarian crisis.

Chapter two — 8 powerful lessons I learned

Graphic wordcloud

On what we eat…

In the US, the average person today eats 120kg of meat each year, Europe 60-80kg, Kenya 16kg and India 4kg. We’re all going to need to be closer to India’s intake each year.

An area as large as North and South America, 80% of the world’s farmland is used for meat and dairy production. It won’t surprise anyone who has watched the Cowpiracy documentary to know that beef is the most damaging meat to produce. It’s a quarter of all the meat we consume, only 2% of our calories (turns out the grass they eat doesn’t do much for us), but it uses 60% of the world’s farmland!

That’s 15 x more land needed for beef than for pork or chicken. Factor in population growth and some simple maths will tell you that we can’t go on producing or consuming that much beef.

A lot of that space isn’t devoted to the animals themselves but to their feed. Even meat bought locally may have been raised on feed from countries destroying their forests and grasslands to grow feed crops. In November 2020, Indonesia’s environment ministry ruled that protected forests could be cleared to make way for farmland.

The present habit of throwing everything away, even though, on a finite planet there is of course no such thing as ‘away’, is a relatively new thing.

David Attenborough

On food and material waste…

Waste on Thilafushi Island in the Maldives / courtesy Dying Regime and food waste in New York / courtesy petrr. Both via Wikimedia

Globally, food prices are expensive and many struggle to afford a healthy diet. And yet we waste and we lose about one third of all the food we produce. Think of all those wasted production hours and emissions to produce food we don’t even consume.

It’s larger than supermarkets discarding ‘imperfect looking’ fruit and veg or people throwing away too much food in developed nations; in poorer countries, weaker infrastructures mean higher waste before the food reaches shops or markets, including harvest losses and poor storage.

Beyond just food waste, The World Bank estimates that the total amount of municipal solid waste (aka rubbish) we produce each year amounts to 2.01 billion tonnes a year, an average of 0.74kg per person, per day. Of this waste, at least 33% (likely much higher) is not managed in environmentally safe conditions. One of the most infamous of these environments is Thilafushi (trash) Island in the Maldives.

When humankind as a whole is in a position to give back to nature at least as much as we take, and repay some of our debt, we will all be able to lead more balanced lives.

David Attenborough

On how we get our energy…

Smog in a forest
Courtesy Arif Meletli for the European Environment Agency, via Wikimedia

Over a matter of decades, we have returned millions of years-worth of carbon back into the atmosphere. This carbon overload seems to be replicating the changes that led to the greatest ever mass extinction (of the five we’ve had so far) that took place at the end of the Permian, about 251 million years ago — except we are bringing about these changes at a much faster rate.

So we are at a massive disadvantage: we have no option but to change the ways we’ve learned to gain power and energy from the planet, but we have almost no time in which to find the solutions.

In 2019, fossil fuels provided 85% of our global energy. Hydropower (low carbon but location-limited and capable of environmental damage) provided 7%. Nuclear power (also low carbon, but not without risks, just ask Chernobyl) provided just over 4%. Where does that leave renewable energy – the harnessing of energy from the sun, wind, waves, tides and heat from the earth’s crust – the energy we should be using more of? It’s still only 4% of the energy provided around the world. And how long have we realistically got to switch from fossils to clean energy?

Less than a decade.

This is because we have already heated the planet by 1°C in the past 200 years. We have to limit further increase to 1.5°C meaning we only have so much in our carbon budget, and at the rate we’re going we’ll max out that budget within a decade.

What’s in our way?

We already know how to generate electricity from the Sun, wind, the natural heat of the earth and from water — but there remain the obstacles of storage, efficiency, cost and vested interests to overcome.

Six of the ten largest companies in the world are oil and gas companies. Plus, almost every large company, government and place of heavy industry use fossil fuels for power, production and distribution. Even large banks in control of your pension funds invest heavily in fossil fuels.

On the significance of Earth Overshoot Day…

Earth Overshoot Day graphic

Have you heard of Earth Overshoot Day? If not, you might still have seen the news of us reaching this day earlier and earlier each year.

I was born on 6th September 1987, just before the first Earth Overshoot Day was announced on 23rd October that year. This was the day in the year by which it was estimated that humankind’s consumption had exceeded the Earth’s capacity to regenerate the resources we’d taken from it. The Earth could not replenish what we were taking from it fast enough.

Fast forward 32 years and in 2019 we reached Earth Overshoot Day on 29th July. This means that at present, each year humankind uses up to 1.7 x what the Earth can produce in a year.

Our excessive and unsustainable demand on nature is clear.

To restore stability to our planet… we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. We must rewild our world!

David Attenborough

On biodiversity loss…

IUCN Red List categories

‘We are causing a rate of biodiversity loss that is 100 times the average, and only matched in the fossil record during a mass extinction event’.

If you add up the amount of carbon found in the world’s land plants and soil, you’ll find it contains as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. We have unleashed 2/3 of this historically-stored carbon to date so far, by burning our forests and tearing down its trees, ploughing and removing grasslands, dredging wetlands. A terrible betrayal of our wild landscapes around the world, which endangers all life forms.

There are approximately 41,415 species listed on the IUCN Red List, of which 16,306 are classed as ‘endangered species threatened with extinction’.

Overfishing of cod
Courtesy Asc1733 via Wikimedia

To focus on the sea for a moment.

90% of fish populations are either overfished or fished to capacity, and since the 1990s we’ve been unable globally to fish more than 84 million tonnes of fish from the ocean. That might sound like an awful lot, but Fish farming (aquaculture) has has to plug the gap between demand and availability, and we get 82 million tonnes of fish that way too.

Which means fishing malpractice comes from two sides of the industry — many countries pay their trawlers to fish 24/7 all through the year, giving them subsidies even when they are catching barely anything, such is the level of exhaustion of wild fish stocks. They are literally paying money to exacerbate ocean depletion.

Fish farming meanwhile can lead to water pollution and species loss. In 2007, China’s shrimp fisheries created 43 billion tonnes of effluents, which created huge agal blooms in the sea that drained the waters of much-needed oxygen. And non-native species frequently escape farms around the globe, harming the fragile ecosystems around them. 

On the space we take up…

Farming in a wheat field

As humans have expanded on Earth, the conversion of wild habitat to farmland is the single greatest cause of biodiversity loss. And, as you’d expect by now, it’s largely happened in very recent human history.

In 1700, humans farmed around 1 billion hectares of the land surface (1/12th of the total land surface). Today, it has increased to 5 billion hectares, an area equivalent to North America, South America and Australia combined.

The suggestion is that we need to get our farmland down to about the size of North America, closer to 1 billion again.

On ecosystem failure…

Planetary Boundaries Model

Earth system scientists have studied the resilience of our ecosystems across the globe, looking at the elements that have enabled each ecosystem to function and using computer models to test the point at which each ecosystem would start to fail.

What they produced is the above Planetary Boundaries Model which gives us a tangible measure. If we keep our impact within the thresholds shown, we’ll occupy a sustainable existence. If, however, we push our demands to such an extent that we breach a boundary, we destabilise the ecosystem and permanently debilitate nature.

You don’t have to look too closely to see that we are already past the boundary threshold of four of the boundaries — climate change, fertiliser use, land conversion, biodiversity loss. Further data will tell if two further boundaries (chemical and air pollution) surpass the model’s thresholds too.

‘People, quite rightly, talk a lot about climate change. But it is now clear that manmade global warming is one of a number of crises at play. The work of the Earth scientists has revealed that, today, four warning lights are flashing on the dashboard. We are already living beyond the safe operating space of Earth. Humankind’s Great Acceleration, like any explosion, is about to generate fallout… a Great Decline.’

Yikes.

We all need to align and work hard to give everyone a fair and decent standard of living as soon as possible.

David Attenborough

On reaching ‘Peak Human’…

Image of a Model of Demographic Transition

Stick with me on this one!

Reducing farmland by 4 billion hectares is one thing, but human population growth has to be addressed too.

While the world’s population is growing at the slowest rate since the 1950s, the UN predicts that by 2100 there will be between 9.4 – 12.7 billion people on the planet. That’s 7-10 billion more people than when Attenborough was a boy in the 1930s.

The balance of nature features what’s called carrying capacity, which is to say that species of plants and animal will increase slightly, then decrease slightly, increase, decrease. It is a balance that their habitats are able to sustain.

As humans we seem not to have reached our own human carrying capacity ceiling, instead inventing new ways to use the environment to cater for our growing population — while environmental catastrophe unfolds around us and our use of the Earth’s resources grows towards greater and greater unsustainability.

The above graph shows what’s called demographic transition: the four stages each country’s population growth goes through, during its economic development. It goes from pre-industrialisation high birth and death rates then high birthrate but low death rate once industrialisation occurs, to a dwindling of the population boom as birth rates drop, finally allowing (by stage four) for steady population growth and the achievement of what’s called peak human.

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

For planet Earth as a whole, population growth peaked around 1962 and since then has broadly dropped year by year – implying that the transition from stage 2 to stage 3 happened at this point. The average family size has halved in this time. But we haven’t yet reached peak human.

Demographers who study population are looking for the time we reach this fourth stage — the moment our population stops growing and remains stable for the first time since farming began 10,000 years ago. It will be a huge milestone.

Sounds fantastic, but we’re further than you might think from settling into stage four and our peak human status. The reason is down to people like David Attenborough.

Extended life expectancy.

Just look at Japan’s ageing population — forecasters predict 1 in 3 people will be over 65 by 2030. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be more than twice as many people aged over 65 as there are children under five. It creates a population momentum that means that perhaps only future generations will see us reach this population stability in the 2100s.

Or, we might reach this vital peak sooner, as well as address all of the issues raised above.

Read on to find out how.

Chapter three — what can be done?

Girls cycling in rural india
Courtesy Mann Deshi Foundation

The task could hardly be more daunting and we have to support it in every way we can. We have to urge our politicians, locally, nationally and internationally, to come to some agreement and sometimes [forego] our national interest in support of the bigger and wider benefit. The future of humanity depends upon the success of these meetings.

David Attenborough

What follows are just some of the many recommended solutions posed by scientists, conservationists and advocates that feature in Attenborough’s book. I’m sure you’ll be familiar with some of them as I was, but others may be a surprise.

How to eat more kindly…

Unpackaged fresh fruit and vegetables in a supermarket
Courtesy Scwede

I mentioned earlier that average annual meat consumption in India is 4kg, compared to 60-80kg in Europe and 120kg in America. Surveys like this one from 2018 indicate that 33% of Britons have reduced meat consumption or cut it out, while 39% of Americans say they are trying to eat more plant-based food. These percentages will surely have grown since.

Adopting vegetarianism, veganism, flexitarianism is all helping cut down on meat consumption, particularly beef. I for one decided off the back of reading this book to take being flexitarian to a more committed level, and only have beef as a treat.

For those of us keen on meat alternatives, alt-protein products like Beyond Burgers are easily found in supermarkets now, and clean meat – meat grown from cells that requires 99% less land – may be coming to a table near you soon.

And when you do eat meat? Quality over quantity is the answer in my opinion – and in this Cornish butcher’s opinion too. (Fast forward to 47:40).

Dairy alternatives are now incredibly commonplace too, though still pricier than cow’s milk; I spend £1.50 a week on a carton of Oatly instead of 56p on a pint of semi skimmed. I do worry how farmers’ livelihoods will fare as a result of the trend away from meat and dairy — though trying to censor how plant-based non-dairy products can refer to themselves may not be the avenue to go down I would say.

Increasing renewables…

Morocco's Noor Solar Power Plant

I mentioned the obstacles earlier. They are many.

Attenborough points to the need to ‘bridge our shortcomings’ and partner renewable energy with nuclear, hydropower and natural gas until we can solve the problems of storage and efficiency.

Even bioenergy runs into requiring huge amounts of land. Meanwhile, hybrid, fully electric and hydrogen planes are in development but large scale production is a way off (especially given the hit on aviation in this pandemic) and so carbon-offsetting remains the plaster over the cracks for now.

Regarding the relative cost of renewable energy, progress is more positive; The scaling up of solar and wind power means prices already outcompete coal, hydropower and nuclear energy — soon they will outcompete oil and gas on price too.

And those sinister vested interests in fossil fuels?

Reading the book has made me want to know more about what investments and interests my local council and banks have. It’s a bit fiddly but one place to start is this tool on divest.org.uk which exposes how much pension fund money local authorities invest into fossil fuel investments and information on contacting your local councillors to raise concerns.

And you can find out how much your bank invests on fossilbanks.org. (Warning: it’s not pretty.)

We shouldn’t lose sight of what’s already possible though.

What seems like a fantasy at the moment – a new, clean, carbon-free world run on renewable energy – doesn’t have to be. Iceland, Albania and Paraguay already generate all their electricity without using fossil fuels and eight other nations use coal, oil and gas for less than 10% of their electricity needs.

Morocco is a great example, stopping its huge reliance on imported oil and gas and instead becoming home to the world’s largest solar power plant, Noor, pictured above. From a network of renewable power plants, Morocco generates 40% of its energy needs at home. A figure that will surely grow.

Forging ahead with renewables is what we hope will happen sooner rather later, but Attenborough outlines a very useful interim measure: carbon tax. Sweden has put a tax on carbon emitters since the 1990s —it would be great if more countries made the break with fossil fuels and followed suit.

Global companies cannot survive in the future without transitioning towards a circular economy. That is a really exciting future.

H&M

Reducing waste in a circular economy…

This video from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a fantastic (and very brief) introduction to how a circular economy could work and why it’s so important for the future.

As with so many things in life, nature is already giving us a demonstration of how we can reduce our waste. In nature the waste from one process becomes food for the next and all materials are reused in cycles, involves lots of different species. Almost everything is biodegradable.

We can bring this logic into a circular economy of our own, but it will require a change in mindset, away from take-make-use-discard mentality. In reality, we’re looking at two cycles — a biological cycle for food, wood and clothes made from natural fibres that biodegrade, and a technical cycle for materials such as plastic, metal and synthetics that don’t.

What’s needed to crack the circular economy system are smart ways to ensure materials in the technical cycle can be reused, like nutrients. And in the biological cycle, addressing the damage of food production and food waste from deforestation, pesticide and fertiliser use and fossil fuels for transportation is key.

It can seem overwhelming to consider just how big a problem waste is to tackle. However, as with so many issues, we can do our bit to help from home.

Rewild, rewild, rewild!

Storks at Knepp
Courtesy Brad Albrecht for Knepp

When Attenborough was a boy, the estimated remaining wilderness around the world stood at 66%. Now, that figure is a lonely 35%. Attenborough devotes a lot of his book to the importance of rewilding as a way of increasing biodiversity.

If you’re familiar with the concept of rewilding or wilding, one place in the UK that might leap to mind first is the Knepp Estate. It is a 1,400-hectare farm in West Sussex that went from commercial, ‘traditional’ agricultural techniques that were running at a loss, to a biodiversity explosion over the past 15 years, since they began rewilding their land. You might have seen back in May last year that the first white stork chicks to be born in the UK in over 600 years hatched at Knepp.

In a Royal Geographical Society talk last January, Knepp co-owner Isabella Tree discussed the work they’re doing to encourage other farmers across the country to consider rewilding techniques, from allowing cows and horses to roam the land together (mimicking how ancient breeds roamed Britain, increasing plant diversity) to installing animal corridors between farms and privately owned land.

Knepp isn’t alone.

Other rewilding success stories include the Ennerdale project in the Lake District, run in a partnership between The National Trust, Forestry England and others; there is the American Prairie Reserve initiative in the U.S., aiming to create the largest nature reserve across the country’s lower 48 states (excluding Alaska); and various projects across Europe that are supported by Rewilding Europe, including 580,000 hectares of wetland wilderness in the Danube Delta.

Regarding wildlife specifically, the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 is a runaway success story that shows how much biodiversity within an ecosystem can flourish when one crucial keystone species is reintroduced.

Here in the UK we’re seeing similar success with the careful reintroduction of beavers in pockets across the UK since 2009. In the second episode of his Cornwall series, Simon Reeve met one beaver-mad farmer, and saw the introduction of the fabulously named Sigourney Beaver to a neighbouring farm.

The high seas would become the world’s greatest wildlife reserve, a place owned by no one would become a place cared for by everyone.

David Attenborough
Fish underwater in the waters around Palau

Rewilding the landscapes we live around, as well as those we’ve exhausted for resources, is crucial, as is rewilding the sea and other water systems.

To encourage sea stocks to rebound, give some balance back to marine ecosystems and help us to fish sustainably, we have to have more Marine Protected Areas and more ‘no fish’ zones.

A gigantically-sized candidate in the ocean for such zones would be the high seas.

As international waters they belong to no nation, which has meant that in the past they’ve been extremely over-fished. New rules are being touted for the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, though sadly updates were delayed from being made last year due to the pandemic.

The waters around the archipelago islands of Palau (pictured above) show what’s possible when you introduce no-fish zones.

The ancient rule of bul (‘prohibition’) exists, whereby reefs can become no-fish zones overnight and won’t be lifted until neighbouring waters are teeming again with fish from those reefs. With a growth in population and tourism, drastic decisions to close more and more reefs were made, to protect the ecosystem and fish stocks. Even more admirably, Palau’s four-time president Tommy Remengesau Jr. announced radical plans to reduce the amount of fish they would export, focusing on fishing in order to feed the population (and its tourists) and take only what they needed.

Palau’s success means that neighbouring nations benefit from greater abundance of fish. We just need the rest of the world to be more like Palau…

But radically encouraging fish stocks to increase wouldn’t be enough to feed the still-growing global population — which is where responsible and sustainable sea farming comes in. We can do our bit to encourage the growth of sustainable wild fishing and fish farming every time we shop; look for farmed seafood with the ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) label or for wild-caught seafood with the MSC label, approved by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Kelp forest off Cape Peninsula, South Africa
Kelp forest off Cape Peninsula, South AfricaCourtesy Peter Southwood via Wikimedia

And a type of farming called ocean foresting may hold the answer too.

Kelp is so fast-growing that its fronds grow a staggering half a metre every day, forming vast forests that feature a remarkable level of biodiversity. As well as being a great home for invertebrates and fish and a foodstuff for animals and humans, kelp captures vast quantities of carbon and, sustainably harvested, it could be used as bioenergy or in biochemicals.

Unlike bioenergy crops on land, kelp doesn’t compete with us or with wilderness for space. It is its own underwater wilderness!

As for other water areas, I was staggered to learn that even in their depleted state, the world’s saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass meadows alone remove the equivalent of half of all our transport emissions from the air. Protect and expand these areas and the knock on effect will be huge.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that [in 2040], with the current rate of improvements in farming efficiency alone… we may stop taking up more space on Earth, for the first time since we invented farming 10,000 years ago.

David Attenborough

How to farm better with less space

Soil on a farm

The Netherlands, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, is leading the way when it comes to the question of how to get more food from less land, and the approaches of some of their farmers could be the key to reducing our farmland from 5 billion down to 1-2 billion hectares.

When a new generation of farmers took over around the millennium, they turned their backs on diesel and chemicals and turned towards renewable energy, climate controlling their greenhouses and using nutrient-rich water instead of soil and natural predators such as pollinating bees, instead of pesticides. Outdoors, they measured every metre of land for its water and nutrient content and made their own fertilisers as well as crop packaging from stems and dead leaves left over after harvests.

The result? High yield and low impact. The downside? It is expensive.

For smaller-scale and subsistence farmers, the answer may instead lie with regenerative farming — the practice of keeping the topsoil in place and using a cycle of crops that each require different nutrients from the soil, so as to avoid exhausting the land.

Approaches such as this will eventually remove the need for fertilisers and lock away an estimated 20 billion tonnes of carbon too. Score.

Wherever women have the vote, wherever girls stay in school for longer, wherever women are in charge of their own lives and not dictated to by men, wherever they have access to good healthcare and contraception, wherever they are free to take any job and their aspirations for life are raised, the birth rate falls.

David Attenborough

Reaching peak human faster while ensuring a just society for all

The Doughnut Model

Chief among the ways we achieve the human peak and stabilise the Earth’s population is (massive drumroll): empowerment of women.

Empowerment brings freedom of choice and the choice is often to have fewer children. The faster women are empowered across the world, the faster all countries move from stage three and onto stage four of transitional development and the quicker we achieve population stability.

One example of empowerment that really stood out to me in the book related to the trend in rural India of only 40% of school girls staying in school past the age of 14. The distance to travel to high school was often much greater than primary and middle school, and household tasks couldn’t be balanced with this extra commute time.

The solution? State governments and charity projects provided hundreds of thousands of free bicycles which radically improved attendance. It’s now common to see groups of school girls cycling through fields to finish their education.

If a multinational effort to raise standards of education across the world were successful, and the poorest country’s systems improved as quickly as the fastest developing nations such as Taiwan did last century, Austria’s Wittgenstein Centre forecasts that we could fast-track our way to a peak human / stage four global population by 2060. That’s 50 years earlier than current models predict, and could happen in our lifetimes! This means the population would stabilise at the lower estimate of around 8.9 billion.

I don’t know if I’ve been writing this post for too long, but that potential for it to happen in my lifetime blows my mind. I want to be a part of it happening.

I’ll give Attenborough the final word on the matter:

‘It’s a wonderful win-win solution, and this is a repeating theme on the path to sustainability. The things we have to do to rewild the world tend to be things that we ought to be doing regardless.’

Chapter four — recommended reads

I cannot recommend David Attenborough’s book A Life on Our Planet highly enough, especially as my post has only skimmed the surface of what is covered.

If, like me, you are always on the look out for more to read, here’s a small list I’ve put together of other book titles, websites and newsletters I’d recommend. Most I’ve read or am reading, others come highly recommended.

Books

**A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough**

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth (Attenborough refers to her Doughnut Model and the Planetary Boundaries Model it’s based on quite a lot in his book.)

Wilding by Isabella Tree (of the wonderful Knepp Estate.)

Wonderland by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss (designed to be read once a day for a year and full of wonderful insights – today’s entry was ‘primroses’ and yesterday’s ‘urban buzzards’.)

Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of the other by Kate Humble, (who makes a delightful reading companion.)

The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel (a favourite book of my mum’s, who has recommended it with great enthusiasm. He writes beautifully about his project to take a farmed field and rewild it, with stunning results.)

Rewild Yourself by Simon Barnes (top tips for finding nature all around you, wherever you are. Like sitting down in a wood or near some trees for 20 minutes and watching nature appear in abundance.)

Websites and newsletters

The Inkcap Journal from environmental journalist Sophie Yeo (a twice weekly newsletter dedicated to journalism about the British environment.)

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation website has more on the possibilities of, and research into, a circular economy.

Our World in Data is a fascinating fall down a rabbit hole of facts, figures and glorious graphs.

Gapminder.org lets guess your way into challenging your misconceptions about the world with a series of quizzes.

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Travel’s roadmap out of lockdown?

Sunday's issue of The Observer and Friday's issue of i paper

On Monday the UK government’s much-anticipated big lockdown announcement will take place, indicating how restrictions will or might be eased in the coming months, even weeks. If you read the news avidly I’m sure you’ll have fund yourself a bit swamped by the flurry of differing opinions and predictions about what our ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ will look like.

Much as I’ve been tempted to switch off from most of it, some of that news and opinion relates to opening up (or not opening up) the travel industry. Conservative PM Boris has previously intimated that holidays wouldn’t be on the agenda tomorrow, though reports suggest that former Labour PM Tony Blair has been working behind the scenes to get the issue of vaccine passports onto the government’s list of talking points.

In this week’s post I wanted to look at some of the recent travel and world news-related headlines and dissect them a little — from the worry over Covid variants and the possibility of vaccine passports to views on staycations versus summer holidays abroad.

A road trip over some of the key issues facing us, ahead of this long-trailed roadmap announcement.

If you make it to the end (well done, because I nearly didn’t), I’ve rounded off with three extra positive news stories. Because life isn’t all doom and gloom.

Headline news

graphic with the words read all about it

Covid variants keep varying – Since the shit really started hitting the fan in Christmas week, we’ve seen the spread of the ‘Kent’ variant, the two ‘South Africa’ variants, the Brazilian variant, even the ‘Bristol’ variant – and recently researchers at Edinburgh University have found a new variant with ‘worrying’ mutations, found in Britain, the US, Denmark, Australia, Nigeria too – though there are no signs as yet that it causes more severe illness or increased transmissibility. Even so, getting the whole world vaccinated is the only real way to counter the threats posed by variants – more on that late.

Quarantine hotels make their rocky debut in Englandone traveller compared his stay at a Holiday Inn hotel to being in prison and another claimed they were served food by a staff member not wearing a mask. All that and it costs £1,750 to cover the stay plus testing if you arrive in England from a red list country. Can you name any or all of the 33 countries currently on the list? I couldn’t so I looked them up:

Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Eswatini, French Guiana, Guyana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal (including Madeira and the Azores), Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Suriname, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uruguay, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe (Spain and the US aren’t currently on the list but they are also being considered.)

Just how sustainable will we really be when we can travel again? I’m in two minds. It’s not just going to happen at the flick of a switch, particularly as Covid safety will likely be higher on many travellers’ agendas. But if we can keep the conversation flowing in the mainstream then there’s hope.

I feel quite strongly that a large part of the responsibility lies with travel operators to not just treat sustainability as a trend but a necessary path to a better future for the travel industry. We as travellers and consumers must also face up to our responsibility. Yes, I want to travel the world ten times over, but I’d rather take my time than hop about without a care. It’s also up to travel publications to keep the topic in the forefront of readers’ minds. And national and local governments and city officials have to lead by example and keep up the momentum of green campaigns such as the C40 initiative which creates a platform for mayors from 40 of the world’s megacities to better implement green policies.

Set within the sustainability debate is an aviation industry desperate to fly again. While The Daily Mail reports on business class flight bargains (‘why not treat yourself?’), The Times takes an in-depth snapshot of an aviation industry gearing up to get more passengers back on flights worldwide.

There are also practical, consumer-based features out there for those considering how to travel more sustainably in the future.

The Independent just published this piece featuring a fantastic array of 11 of the best travel companies for booking a sustainable holiday And within the same news family, the inews website (part of i paper the The Independent) features a great sustainable travel hub which includes this thoughtful piece from 12 industry experts who share their hopes and predictions for post-pandemic travel. Most of it positive that we will travel more mindfully and responsibly in the future.

A nation prepares to staycation – In recent weeks, the inevitable staycation stories have bubbled back to the surface and we’re left wondering (again) whether we ought to book asap ‘in case everything sells out’. Perhaps some of the most feverish headlines can be found in The Sun, detailing the SUMMER SCRAMBLE, with demand ‘ten times higher than 2019’ (to some destinations, not all. And what about compared to 2020?!). Perhaps not unexpectedly, the demand appears to be from those over 55 years old who are more likely to have had their first jab.

The Sun isn’t alone in rounding up summer staycations, everyone’s at it, including:

Top staycation destination? Surely poll-topping Cornwall. Even the summer’s G7 summit is going to be there, and it’s on TV every five minutes too. I’ll give it a miss this year I think!

The Telegraph has teamed up with holiday companies to launch a #SaveOurSummer (SOS) campaign, demanding international travel opens from 1st May. This campaign had actually largely escaped my notice even though I’m currently a digital Telegraph subscriber (got to keep up to date on the travel features front), but this article, Restart travel or proceed with caution? Two experts debate the holiday roadmap, piqued my interest greatly.

If you can’t see beyond the paywall, here’s a summary of the arguments from each side.

Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy firm The PC Agency and #SaveOurSummer campaigner:

  • SOS want a better roadmap on the easing of travel restrictions, suggesting international travel restart by 1st May.
  • Travel firms surveyed by SOS say they expect to have to lay off between 20-40% of their staff if there’s no clarity in tomorrow’s announcements about when Brits could expect to be able to travel again.
  • Telegraph Travel asked followers on Twitter ‘if we should be opening up our borders by May’, to which 441 voted ‘yes – about time’ and 281 voted ‘no – it’s too soon’. [I supposed that’s a done deal then?!]
  • ‘The health of the British people is vital, but with declining cases and soaring vaccination numbers, more than 600 firms, employing tens of thousands of people in the sector, believe that Boris Johnson can target a responsible and safe re-opening date for travel.’

Which? Travel Editor Rory Boland

  • On the other side of the argument, Rory points out that pandemics don’t tend to ‘work to deadlines’ – it didn’t work very well for the government last year.
  • Do SOS have the public on their side? Rory questions a lack of data in the SOS campaign. The data he provides from a YouGov public survey says that 78% of respondents believe all inbound passengers should be made to quarantine and 58% of people surveys feel that all flights should be stopped. There’s a debate to be had about practicalities, but the public mood doesn’t seem to be all in for 1st May.
  • ‘Demanding travel opens up on May 1 leaves the industry liable to being seen as irresponsible by their own customers. Public sentiment on restrictions will soften as more of us get the jab and infections and deaths decrease. Arguments to unlock holidays abroad will be better received when hospitals aren’t full and kids are able to return to school.’
  • He suggests that campaigning to reduce the cost of private tests would be a better way to campaign right now, helping to ensure that ordinary holidaymakers aren’t priced out of travel.
  • Rather damningly, he also alludes to the presence of some holiday companies in the SOS campaign who have flouted holiday refund rules and laws since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic isn’t about taking sides – no-one in the travel industry wins by hedging themselves against each other – but I am inclined to think that Rory’s arguments are the stronger here. They do however agree on one thing – that the furlough schemes for the travel industry haven’t worked for every area of the sector and can’t plaster over the cracks ever-widening in the industry.

On the subject of vaccine passports, early stage talks between Greek & UK officials made the news last week. Greece and Cyprus have already made a deal with Israel to allow travel between their countries once flights resume, with Israel setting records in terms of the percentage of the population so far vaccinated.

As this Guardian article reports, Israel is about to issue its own vaccine passes (in the form of an app) to the 50% of the population who have had the jab, meaning they can access bars, gyms and other facilities – in effect giving privileges to those who have had their vaccine. It is untested and there are bound to be hiccups at best and controversies at worse, in my view. This is set against the news that so few vaccine doses are making their way into Palestinian territory. There were delays in the delivery of 2,000 doses for 1,000 people (bearing in mind there are around 2m Palestinians) — held up because the Israeli national security council ‘had not yet decided whether to allow vaccines into Gaza’.

I have my doubts, as does a recently-released Royal Society report challenging the notion of each country following its own rules, stating that, while vaccine passports are a ‘feasible’ option, they shouldn’t be made available until international standards have been set. The report goes on to make suggestions for 12 key points that would need to be unilaterally addressed.

Germany’s ethics council have also come out and criticised the idea of vaccine privileges because it promote ‘elbow mentality’, in other words, pushing people out of the way in order to do what’s best for you instead of what’s best for everyone.

In the UK, I suspect some form of certification will go ahead, but that it will take time. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi recently suggested on breakfast TV that those who have been vaccinated can expect a government-backed certificate: ‘if there is a requirement [during a passenger’s journey], any viewer can then ask for their vaccine certificate, in the way that we [the government] do pre-departure test certificates now.’ The thing is, as The Independent points out, the government doesn’t issue ‘pre-departure test certificates’ – they don’t exist.

If vaccine passports do go into use, internationally agreed or not, that doesn’t mean that international travel will suddenly open up as a result. And, in my opinion, nor should it open up until there is a more level-playing field between countries in terms of vaccine dose availability.

Which leads me to the last headline in this section…

I’ve already mentioned that Palestine has struggled to get hold of doses despite Israel’s wide-reaching vaccination rollout. The UN reports that 75% of available vaccines have been used by 10% of countries while 130 countries around the world have no vaccines at allof all the recent global Covid news, this angers me most.

I am proud of how well the NHS has rolled out vaccines in the UK, and the government strategy to buy vaccines from pretty much all sources was clearly a winning strategy – for us.

The squabbles between the UK and the EU were so incredibly frustrating, not just because the EU often seemed so petulant and there were hints of ‘told you so’ from our side, but because the divisions of borders shouldn’t be our concern with regards to vaccine rollout; everyone in the world deserves fair access to vaccinations and no country should be expecting that they may not receive any doses until 2022 or 2023.

COVAX, an organisation that’s part of the WHO, is a global initiative aimed at expanding global access to Covid vaccines. The UK and many other countries no doubt part of the lucky 10% have thus far donated money to COVAX, but not vaccines. It’s not surprising, but it is vastly disappointing.

One thing you can do to add your voice is sign this Vaccine Equity Declaration, calling on countries to ‘work together in solidarity’ to ensure that within the first 100 days of 2021, vaccinations of older people and healthcare workers is underway in every country around the world.

In more optimistic news…

a graphic with the words 'good news I tell you'

Just so as not to finish on such a frustrating note, here are three optimistic stories from around the world for you:

The European cities going green in 2021from the Finnish 2021 European Green Capital of Europe to cities pledging big carbon cuts and installing the world’s largest urban rooftop farm, National Geographic glides over six gloriously green cities.

Saving lives in Timbuktu – Most leaflets that fall out of any newspaper I put in recycling straight away – but not the the monthly update from Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders. The work the charity carries out is absolutely vital to recently war torn regions like Mali and this latest leaflet looks back at the success of a Measles vaccination campaign in the country’s capital Timbuktu that reached around 50,000 children aged between six months and 14 years.

And I couldn’t not mention that those Welsh goats are back

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Next week (International Polar Bear Day no less), don’t miss a reflection on the latest book by David Attenborough I’ve been reading, and a deeper dive into issues around sustainability, rewilding, biodiversity and ways we can all tackle climate change.

Featured

A festival feast for Mardi Gras

Animated header image

Let me start by promising you that I had every intention of writing an original piece about this coming Tuesday — known around the world as many things, but primarily as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. I earmarked today as a chance for me to find out more about carnival food traditions in particular, because I know lots of countries celebrate carnival as spiritedly as we flip pancakes here in the UK.

But then I read the exact kind of story I had in mind (from food writer Miranda York) in the February edition of the Waitrose FOOD Magazine! Dang. It’s a lovely piece, but I know that the magazine isn’t free to read for everyone, and it also doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras recipes to try.

To bridge that gap (and in so doing avoid having to write about Valentines instead), I’ve picked some of my favourite facts from the feature and added a few discoveries of my own, all accompanied by links to recipes you might like to try in the coming days — whether you’re giving up anything for Lent or not.

Me? I thought I’d give up chocolate, sweets, biscuits and cakes with chocolate or sweets in them for Lent, but not cakes with fruits and nuts in them because I’m not a masochist.

  1. If in doubt, fry it
A bowl of fritole doughnuts
© Klenje on Wikimedia Commons

Fried doughnut-style treats are clearly the Mardi Gras treat du jour: during the Venetian Carnevale, cake shops produce fritole; in Hawaii they eat malasadas, brought over by Portuguese labourers. Hawaiians in fact still call the day Malasada Day, so integral are these sugar-dusted fried treats; New Orleans is famous for its pillow-shaped dough beignets but NOLA-born journalist Lolis Eric Elie wants the little-known calas to come back into fashion – fried doughnuts using cooked rice. Here’s his recipe on the NYT website.

  1. Let me hear you sing Carnival Time
Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1975

If you fancy working up a carnival appetite, I recommend listening to this wonderful New Orleans Mardi Gras playlist. Kermit Ruffins & The Barbeque Swingers literally sing about the food of New Orleans, and I dare you not to feel joyous listening to this version of Carnival Time from Bo Dollis and the Magnolias.

If, like me, you wish this was a normal start to the year and that it was possible to get swept up in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations, I give you the DIY shoebox float and the drive-thru parade!

  1. C’est bizarre
Men dressed as Gilles with ostrich feathers
© Jean-Pol Grandmont on Wikimedia Commons

Belgian Fat Tuesday tradition Gilles de Binche wins the oddity prize.

Picture yourself walking down a frosty side street in the town of Binche at dawn. Round the corner, men (only men) are stuffing their costumes with straw to create the silhouette of Gilles, a carnival character that has been around in the French-speaking Wallonian regions of Belgium since the 14th century.

Stuffing themselves with straw is just the beginning. They’ll proceed to go door to door to pick up fellow Gilles. Accompanied by the banging of drums, the men then put on identical (and freaky as hell) wax masks each depicting a pink face wearing green glasses. Armed with twigs or sticks to wave, and sporting clogs, it’s time to parade through the streets, stomping said clogs to ‘wake up the soil from its winter sleep’, as writer Regula Ysewijn puts it.

Those masks are then swapped out for hats festooned with the classic carnival addition of white ostrich feather plumes (real? fake? No idea) and oranges are lobbed into the crowd.

Yup.

There is one part of proceedings I can completely get on board with however: the breakfast tradition of feasting on oysters, smoked salmon and Champagne.

  1. Pack your sardines
Sardines on a grill in Andalucia
© Gildemax on Wikimedia Commons

In true Spanish style, pre-Lenten celebrations cover a span of days, including Ash Wednesday itself, and food traditions vary from region to region, village to village.

In chef José Pizarro’s village of Talaván in south western Spain they hold what’s called ‘the burial of the sardine’. Symbolically it represents the burial of the past and a new start. (Perfect if, like me, you didn’t bother with new year resolutions…)

Practically, it involves a big barbecue in the main square, giant enough to grill sardines for the whole village, with enough sangria to ensure plenty of sore heads the next day.

Recreate this ritual with Pizarro’s Basque recipe for sardines marinated in cider and dust off that white or red wine at the back of the cupboard for these sangria recipes. Drunken 2022 Spanish holiday planning is optional.

Navigating away from fish and wine, Spaniards also celebrate Fat Thursday, or Dia de la Tortilla (day of the omelette). It’s held on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday so it has been and gone this year but I plan to embrace the savoury as well as the sweet and make a mini version of this Spanish Tortilla with chorizo next week. (Los siento as this one’s behind a pay wall).

  1. Move those trotters
A gif featuring Rio Carnavale and a diagram showing a pig

In Rio, something substantial is required after hours of Samba dancing and carnival partying, and it involves trotters. Brazil’s famous carnival dish of feijoada can be made using pork and beef, or just pork. Probably best just to source a whole suckling pig for this one.

  1. Still, they’re flipping good
A pancake race in the town of Olney in Buckinghamshire
© Robin Myerscough on Wikimedia Commons

Prepared as I am to admit that much of the above completely tramples over the humble way we celebrate Shrove Tuesday in the UK, let’s not forget that some of us like to race each other in the streets while flipping pancakes.

As for what pancakes to make, in the Crowther household we turn to the gospel, this recipe by Delia Smith, which are surely the most classic type of pancake for Pancake Day. This wasn’t always the case though.

For a start, they were called ‘poor man’s’ pancakes in the 18th century and ale was often added to the batter, which makes sense when you factor in that it was more common a drink than water. But – surprise! – it turns out that ‘rich man’s’ pancakes were also a thing, featuring cream, sherry, rose or orange water and grated nutmeg.

Nowadays, the easier recipe reigns supreme but if you fancy giving the pimped-up pancakes a go, here’s Jane Grigson’s take.

And with that, I’ll just cut myself a slice of Seville orange and pistachio bread and be on my way to look up 2022 flights to New Orleans.

A loaf of Seville orange and pistachio bread
Featured

The art of my travels

Wandering their halls and atriums and corridors. Glancing sideways at priceless art as I make my way to new exhibitions. Plonking myself down in front of an epic triptych or scrunching myself into the corner of a small darkened room to watch a new video art installation. Learning a hundred things I didn’t know when I woke up that morning.

I’ve really been missing museums and galleries, so I’ve taken matters (and art) into my own hands this week.

Read on and discover five artworks from my travels that span four continents, various decades and whole worlds of artistic ingenuity.

Japanese woodcut printing

My Heron Maiden woodcut print on an easel

Where I found it

In 2018 I visited the Mokuhankan studio in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, hot and flustered after a very confusing metro journey, to take part in a woodcut ‘printing party’.

This woodblock (or woodcut) printing workshop was set up by American printmaker David Bull who moved to Tokyo about 20 years ago. He is something of a YouTube star, with 125k subscribers and videos that have racked up millions of views over the years.

My own woodcut print

Here’s the print I made at the workshop (sorry, party). The man himself popped by briefly and declared that I’d make a decent printer, but perhaps he says that to all the new recruits.

I was pleased with my efforts, but the woodcuts he creates and the designs Mokuhankan print blow mine a million miles out the water.

The Heron Maiden print up close

A snowy scene

This scene of a kimono-clad woman in the snow is one of the most iconic images in the entire ukiyo-e genre of woodblock printing that flourished in Japan during the Edo period of 1603-1868. It was designed by Suzuki Harunobu, the first printmaker to print in full colour – as opposed to a limit of two or three colours – in the 1700s.

The Heron Maiden

It was likely part of a series entitled Fashionable Flowers of the Four Seasons, representing winter of course. If you follow iconography of the time, she also represents Sagi Musume, the Heron Maiden of Japanese legend.

The Heron Maiden story was popularised in folk tales and the Japanese theatrical tradition of Kabuki. As the story goes:

A young woodcutter discovers a wounded heron, who he sets free. Later, a beautiful woman arrives in the village and he marries her. She is shown to be an expert weaver, producing beautiful clothes that he sells for lots of money at market. She pleads with him not to look in on her while she is weaving but he cannot resist. He walks in to find a heron at the loom. She can no longer live as a human, and she flies away.

Seeing it properly

Hopefully in the image above (you might need to zoom in) you can see some of the delicate embossing on the washi paper the design is printed — especially in the kimono pattern, the snow and her hood.

I’ve sat deep in thought with this print a few times recently, looking closely at all the delicate pigments and the patterns in the snow. It’s a stunner.

Aboriginal bark art

Bark art made by an Aboriginal artist in Queensland

Far from home

I wish I could say I bought this work in Queensland where it was made, but I actually got it in a charity shop in nearby Sherborne, Dorset —10,382 miles away from where it was sold.

Originally the work was commissioned and sold by a company called Queensland Aboriginal Creations who describe it as an ‘authentic Queensland Aboriginal Artefact’. Is that true? I’ll get onto that.

The legend of the morning star

As QAC puts it:

The ‘Morning Star’ is an unusual bark painting which has several interpretations. In one of these it illustrates the legend of the Morning Star which tells how two women imprisoned the star all day and evening in a bag. The bag is represented by the swelling at the base of the main stem between the two women.

In another interpretation the picture represents a yam, and the swelling at the base is its tuberous edible root. The swelling on the stem above it represents the fruit. Blossoms decorate the end of each branch. Swellings on the branches on the left side show the places where the plant has twisted round a tree.

This remarkable picture is also a simple map of north eastern Arnhem Land and each blossom indicates a definite locality.

Queensland Aboriginal Creations postcard

Digging a bit deeper

I spotted this article about an exhibition of QAC artworks called Agency and Legacy that was held at the University of Queensland’s Anthropology Museum in Brisbane last year. It mentions that Aboriginal people from Queensland were often asked to copy bark paintings from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory next door.

This does obviously ring alarm bells. Why not let the Queensland Aboriginal people share their own creative heritage instead of copy from neighbours? Can copies really ever be called authentic?

On the other side of the coin, as the curatorial team puts it:

‘Despite these mandates (to copy certain artworks), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and craftspeople were radically creative, producing works that contain traditional storytelling and finding innovative ways of expressing themselves and making a living for themselves and their families.’

Respect

Whether it is one of many copies of the same work, or a rarer reproduction of a neighbouring artistic style, I remain drawn to it as an example of the unique artistic talent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. I hope they were respected for their skills, and not taken advantage of, even though that has been a familiar story over decades.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is more popular than it has ever been. Soon perhaps I can see the contemporary art scene for myself and maybe even meet some of the brilliant artists keeping their ancestral history and mythological beliefs alive today.

Indonesian batik printing

An Indonesian batik print made on the island of Java

Background to batik

Evidence of batik printing can be traced 2,000 years back, with examples or references found in the Far East, Middle East and India.

According to the Batik Guild, ‘it is likely that the craft spread from Asia to the islands of the Malay Archipelago and west to the Middle East along the caravan trading route.’

The influence of the craft even stretches over to the tribes of southern Nigeria and Senegal, but the Indonesian island of Java is where batik mania reached its peak.

Close up of my batik print

My batik print

And Java is where my print was bought, in the capital Yogyakarta. It was a birthday present from my brother Stephen who travelled around the islands of Indonesia and much of Asia in 2019.

If you browse batik designs, most are very pattern-orientated, often richly swathed in flowers. Mine is quite different; though there are dots and lines characteristic of the style, the print is a more painterly portrait of rural and coastal life.

Your eyes catch on the activity at the centre, is this person hauling up a fish or simply laying out a line? The clever use of dots under the boat conveys movement in the water, but the outcome of this fishing trip, under the flaring heat of a red sun, is left to our imagination.

The most frequently used colours in Batik printing are red, blue, yellow and brown. In this work, there are fewer colours and a painterly technique that sets it apart as a hand-drawn work created by one artist.

The technique

‘Batik’ derives from the Javanese word ‘tik’ which means ‘to dot’ and batik means both ‘to batik’ something and ‘a batik’ finished work or object.

Batik printing is seen as a craft as well as an art because it usually involves fabric and sometimes paper, wood, leather or ceramic. On the face of it, the technique of creating designs using wax and dye sounds simple enough but there’s more to it, particularly to hand-drawn tulis batik prints like mine:

  • The cloth is hung over a frame and the design is drawn on with a canting (or tjanting), a small copper pen-like cupped spout with a bamboo or wooden handle.
  • The canting is dipped into a pot of hot wax and then allowed to flow through the spout on to the fabric.
  • To make a strong resist (i.e. a wax surface that will repel dye), both sides of the cloth are waxed.
  • Once the design has been fully waxed, the fabric is usually dipped into a vat of dye and then left out in the sun to dry.
  • The fabric is then immersed in boiling water to clean off the wax.
  • The waxing, dyeing, drying, immersion process is repeated numerous times depending on the number of colours that feature in the print.
  • Making Batik tulis is significantly more time consuming and therefore more expensive than hand-stamped designs which use copper stamps dipped in oil, and are useful for repeat pattern designs.
  • You can watch a video of the process here, published by UNESCO when they placed Indonesian Batik on their Intangible Cultural Heritage list 11 years ago.

Indonesia is perfect for the art of batik because the materials needed – beeswax or pine resin, cotton, plants to make natural dye – are easily available. The batik industry is highly skilled and employs millions across Indonesia.

Though my print may not have the prettiness of a floral pattern design using lots of colours, I love the boldness of it and the fact that new details show themselves the more you look (eg at the bird). I have a new appreciation for just how skilled batik artists are.

First Nation art

Walrus art on our fridge

The best kind of souvenir

I know this one is just a postcard, but I love postcards! I must own thousands and thousands, all squirrelled away in shoe boxes, except for a lucky group that are dotted about the house, on rotation.

The postcard is a reproduction of the 1969 woodcut print Walruses by First Nation Inupiaq artist Bernard Tuglamena Katexac, one of numerous colourful works that are in The Anchorage Museum’s collection.

What I love most about this artwork is the contrast of golden hues against the blues and creams of the sky and the ice floes, the lazy gentle gestures between the creatures, as one leans peacefully on the next.

An Inupiaq artist

Katexac was born on King Island in 1922 to the very west of Alaska, the eldest of seven children. He grew up learning the Inupiaq skills of hunting walrus and seals, fishing and carving ivory, which he showed an especial aptitude for after leaving school.

Moving to nearby Nome in 1966 (where summers were always spent, but which was gradually welcoming more and more King Islanders permanently) Katexac started taking block printing classes.

He created this piece quite early on in his career, which is all the more impressive.

Close up of walruses

Never taking nature for granted

The Anchorage Museum, where I bought this postcard, was honestly one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. We only had a few hours to explore before leaving for northern Alaska, but of what we could fit in, the personal testimonies from First Nation groups struck me the most.

Presented in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Centre that sits within the museum are hundreds of artefacts, written testimony and films — all connecting together the experiences of the first peoples of Alaska, their ways of life and their deep cultural heritage.

What came up time and time again was an expression of utmost respect for nature and for the animals that gave them sustenance. The sum of what many of them said has stayed with me: ‘when I look into the eyes of the creature I am hunting, there is an understanding that flows between us. There is a look in the animal’s eye that says it trusts me to respect it. Trusts me that I will make use of every part of it and not waste its death. That I will respect it and never forget it.’

Andes art

Painting featuring Cotopaxi volcano and Quito

Where it was bought

In the last few days of my trip to Ecuador, we explored one of the capital Quito’s biggest markets, the Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal towards the south of the city.

I was in a heaven of haggling and browsing and buying, I really was. (Top tip: ask the price then don’t say anything else but keep looking at it in silence, which leads many vendors to fill the quiet with suggestions of price reductions).

At one stall I was struck by a table sagging with gorgeous paintings of the buildings and landscape of Quito and its surrounds, sold on behalf of one artist. I probably picked up his card but it’s lost now. The only clue I have to the artist is the signature which seems to read ‘Luchin’.

A ruby in the Andes

The painting has a beautiful simplicity of geometry going on. Your eyes lead swiftly up from two walkers on Quito’s streets, up past settlements and the church of San Francisco, to the Andes mountains that surround the city, up to the snow-capped majestic peak that seems to have levitated into the sky, as if craning its neck to reach the moon. Or is it the sun?

Quito is itself 9,252 feet up in the mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dramatically placed in the heart of the Ecuadorean Andes. Perhaps the most famous of its mountains is Cotopaxi, a volcano I spent a few days in the shadow of, only a few hours’ drive from Quito. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see this very active volcano without leaving the city.

When we stayed for a few days in the Cotopaxi National Park in September 2016, we weren’t able to climb higher than the refuge because of the fallout from the previous eruption which has lasted from August 2015 – January 2016. It has erupted 49 other times since 1738.

What’s in a name

Earlier I didn’t sound sure as to whether the sun or the moon is depicted in the painting – though I see it as the moon. The origin of the word Cotopaxi isn’t clear cut either, but relates.

I read somewhere that in the Quechua language coto means ‘neck’ and paxi means ‘moon’. However, the Quechua language is mostly spoken in Peru and when cross-referencing the words in a Quechua dictionary, the word for moon is instead given as Quilla.

Ecuadorean mountaineer Marco Cruz believes the name comes from the Cayapa language of northern Ecuador (spoken by the Chachi people). Coto still means ‘neck’ but pagta / pa means ‘sun’ and shi / xi could be translated as ‘sweet’. Sweet neck of the sun?

Or else, in the poorly understood pre-Columbian Panzaleos language that was spoken by people indigenous to Quito, Cotopaxi apparently translates as ‘fiery abyss’.

Whatever it means (and it’s probably everything all at once), and whatever the artist’s original depiction, I’ve loved it ever since I stumbled one day into that market stall, on a gauzy, sunny day high up in the mountains years ago.

Featured

Viking Shetland

Up Helly Aa – the festival celebrating Shetland’s Viking past – would, in a normal year, have taken place last Tuesday in the island’s capital Lerwick. But it is not a normal year, and so it has been delayed until 2022.

I was lucky to discover some of Shetland’s Viking history back in September, so I thought I would do my bit to fill the Viking void with my post this week.

Who the Vikings were

The Jarls Squad during Up Helly Aa in 2019 © Mulvara, Wikimedia Commons
© Mulvara, Wikimedia Commons

What do you think of when you think of Vikings? Marauding sackers of villages or enlightened engineers? Seafarers, farmers or traders? Bloodthirsty or thirsty for knowledge?

Across the four centuries in which they were most active, 700 – 1100 AD, the Vikings were all of these things. They were not a single group from a single place in Scandinavia.

Granted, the word Viking in Old Norse means ‘a pirate raid’ and Britons’ first contact with them was at the sharp end of seeing their churches stolen from and their villages pillaged — but Norse settlers came in peace too.

Vikings (called Danes by the Anglo Saxons but mostly from Norway) began plundering the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney in the 800s before thoughts turned to invasion, when available land was becoming scarce back in Scandinavia. New laws, new language, new ways: a familiar tale for many colonised islands throughout history.

Some historians think that the Vikings who ended up raiding / invading / settling on Shetland might have first tried to live in Ireland, or left Norway as opponents of Harald Hårfagre (Harald Finehair), thought to be the first King of Norway.

Exactly when settlement in the 800s began remains unclear, but Harald himself sailed over, took control of both Shetland and Orkney and gave them as an earldom to his friend and relative Ragnvald Mørejarl, who in turn gave them to his brother Sigurd the Powerful, for reasons I’ll let you assume.

Whenever Vikings did start settling, and even if some came in peace, their presence must have left the legacy of the indigenous population in tatters, as we don’t know much about them going forward, though in many sites across Shetland and Orkney you can see plenty of evidence of over 5,000 years of human history; we know there were more farmers than hunter gatherers, that there is spectacular Iron Age history and evidence of tribal Picts.

You can read more about Shetland’s history on Shetland’s very own online encyclopedia.

So what about the legacy of where and how the Vikings settled in Shetland? What did I find there?

Tracing Viking Shetland

There were two main Viking areas I wanted to explore while we were on Shetland, offering old and new ties to Scandinavia and Norse history.

Jarlshof

Sunset over Jarlshof
© Ronnie Robertson, Wikimedia Commons

Jarlshof, near the southern tip of Shetland and across the road from the island’s tiny Sumburgh Airport, is a wonderful, archaeologically significant 4,000+ year old jumble of habitations that is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland, completely free to access.

By ‘jumble’, I mean to say that the site is remarkable for featuring an explosion of dwellings across six levels that literally takes you through the ages.

The site features remnants of a Stone Age / Late Neolithic hut that dates to around 2,700 BC, multiple Bronze Age houses, Iron Age brochs and sophisticated wheelhouses (both types of roundhouses) making up a sizeable village, Norse longhouses and outbuildings which evolved into a Medieval farmhouse and finally a Scottish laird’s (lord’s) house.

What’s now called the Laird’s House was originally the Old House of Sumburgh, built by the tyrannical Earl Patrick Stewart (not that one) in the 1500s, after Shetland passed from Norway to Scotland in 1469.

The area was dubbed Jarlshof in the 1800s, after a fictional earl’s house that the writer Sir Walter Scott used in his novel The Pirate. But it was all hidden under sand dunes until the early 1900s when a violent storm exposed stonework next to West Voe Beach.

Seeing the remains of a Viking longhouse, the evidence of the Viking invasion in the 800s, set amidst the earlier and the later structures at Jarlshof provided a lot of context for me. The Vikings hadn’t razed the area to the ground, you could see in front of your eyes evidence of their assimilation in the area.

The longhouse at the heart of the Norse farmstead on the site would have been lived in by 12 to 16 successive generations of families, growing and shrinking with the times, before evolving into a Medieval farmhouse. Vikings may have started out as invaders from an outside realm but, by the time Viking influence waned, they had become inseparable with Shetlanders.

Today, around 29.2 per cent of Shetlanders carry Norse DNA.

While we were there… the walk to Sumburgh Lighthouse

A grey seal off the Sumburgh coastline

Seals and puffins and bracing winds. The walk from Jarlshof along the coastal path towards Sumburgh Lighthouse was a highlight of our forays into the southern half of Shetland. We saw a few hardy grey seals like this one, but in summer you can also see puffins as you walk through RSPB Sumburgh Head.

Viking Unst

Unst is, to quote the Shetland Amenity Trust, ‘the special island at the end of Britain’. It is the most popular island to the north of the Shetland mainland because there is just so much for wildlife watchers, walkers and history-lovers to see.

Popular, but also remote enough that encountering a petrol station shop in Haroldswick felt like walking into Harrods…

We were staying next door on Yell but, without our own wheels, it was tricky for us to get around Unst without the help of local, sporadically-running buses (that turned out to be cars) and taxis (that were coaches). But our one day there left a big impression.

The bay (wick) that gives Haroldswick its name

Unst is where legend says Norse raiders first landed on Shetland and its Viking credentials are impressive: at least 60 longhouses have been discovered over the years by archaeologists, the highest concentration found anywhere, including Scandinavia.

The most excavated and researched longhouses are at Belmont and Underhoull in the south and Hamar in eastern Unst, each with their own trails to follow. One key development in the understanding of these Viking longhouses is that settling groups didn’t follow one standard design when constructing them, perhaps highlighting a variety of purposes, roles and origins to each group.

Without our own car we only saw those sites tantalisingly in the distance, but in Haroldswick towards the north — pictured above, where the Vikings might have first landed — we could walk inside and jump on board a Viking longhouse and longship. Replicas, of course!

A view of the replica longhouse at Haroldswick

The longhouse replica is based on the floorplan of the building excavated at Hamar. It’s made up of stone and turf from Unst, Scottish wood and birchbark from Norway (used to keep the roof waterproof).

The local craftspeople who worked on it had to learn Viking ways of working such as wooden joint cutting, which joins wood together very precisely, without nails. Working with the Shetland Amenity Trust, it took them three summers to build. You can find out more here.

A view of the Skidbladner replica longboat

The Skidbladner longboat is a full size replica of a 9th century ship called the Gokstad that was discovered and excavated at a Norse burial mound in Sandefjord, Norway in 1880. The Gokstad was possibly built during the reign of Harald Finehair.

According to the Shetland Amenity Trust website, ‘this type of Viking ship was suitable for a variety of purposes including trade, warfare and general travel.’ I think a few of us wouldn’t mind one for general travel, at the moment…

A few facts:

  • The replica has been at Haroldswick since 2006 and is made mostly of oak in what’s called the clinker fashion: overlapping planks for flexibility and to increase speed.
  • It’s one of the largest Viking ship replicas ever built: 24.3m long and 5.25m wide.
  • The Vikings invented the keel, rudder and sun compass, so it’s no surprise they penetrated as far away as North America, founded Dublin and led boat raids into the Caspian Sea.

You can view the Haroldswick trail here.

While we were there… the walk to Muckle Flugga and Out Stack

The magnet on Unst for wildlife lovers really is Hermaness National Nature Reserve, which encompasses the northernmost points of the United Kingdom and the British Isles.

The walk to Muckle Flugga and Out Stack rocks can be very boggy (I ended up knee deep in a boggy stream at one point) but it’s worth it for the sublime sights and sounds.

Thousands and thousands of gannets hang out on every available rocky surface, leaving them white with guano (seabird poo) when they fly off, dive bombing gracefully for food as they go. You’ll find puffins here too, in summer.

A lost language found

A still from a BBC News piece about the Orkney Norn
© BBC News

Not everything about past Viking and Norse settlers is visible in ruins or replicas. Place names and everyday words speak to the lingering of a lost language once spoken across the Shetland Islands.

That language is called Norn. It’s particular to Shetland and Orkney, with origins to the south of Norway, developing during settlement in the 800s.

As the Viking settlers influenced, integrated and assimilated into Shetland life, for most Shetlanders Norn developed into their first language, until 1469 when Norway gave the islands to Scotland in a marriage dowry between James III of Scotland and the Norwegian Princess Margaret.

Though in rapid decline by the 19th century, Norn was still spoken then in some form, but sadly became officially extinct with the passing of the last speaker, Walter Sutherland, in 1850. There is however a record of the language in The Orkney Norn, a book first published in the 1920s that was rediscovered in 2016. Hear Norn being spoken in this BBC News feature.

Today, certain Norn words are still used by Shetlanders, especially for seabirds (and there are a lot of them about):

Maa: seagull

Skarf: cormorant

Longie: guillemot

Shalder: oyster catcher

De haaf: deep sea (meanwhile, Da Haaf is a great seafood cafe in Scalloway)

A Viking-lover’s to do list

Beyond exploring Jarlshof and Unst, here are some more ideas if you’re thinking of making like a Viking and heading to Shetland when you next travel.

Northlink Ferries logo
  1. There’s only one way to travel to Shetland, if you’re committed to the Viking cause: with Northlink Ferries. Everything from their logo, ship names and even WiFi passwords are based on Viking history and Norse words. We sailed on the MV Hamnavoe, the old Norse name for Stromness in Orkney.
A torch procession during Up Helly Aa
© Roy Mullay, Wikimedia Commons
Burning the galley during Up Helly Aa
© Roy Mullay, Wikimedia Commons

2. Attend the next Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland’s capital Lerwick, on Tuesday 25th January 2022. Not dissimilar to the annual Bonfire Night processions in Lewes and across Sussex. A day of marches, saga telling, torchlit processions and interactions between the different squads who take part, dressed in their finest Viking attire — culminating in the burning of a replica Norse galley ship. Preparations for the festival take up most of the year, it would be a real treat to see the culmination of all those efforts up close.

3. While you’re there, look out for Lerwick Town Hall’s stained glass windows. In place since the building opened in 1883, the windows chart Shetland’s Norse history from the 9th to 13th century.

Road sign for Tingwall
© Thingsites.com

4. If you’ve visited the oldest parliament in the world, þingvellir (Thingvellir) in Iceland, you’ll know that a Thing is a parliament. Shetland’s parliament met by the loch at Tingwall, on a promontory called Tingaholm, up until the 16th century.

Although the features around the loch have changed over time (the stone causeway isn’t needed as the water levels have been lowered), it makes for a lovely walk.

A screenshot from the Viking Cultural Route map

5. Go big or go home and follow the Viking Cultural Route around the world, from Newfoundland to Novgorod.

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Feel the Burns

Last week, as I was mulling the approach of Burns Night, wondering whether to add a haggis to the food shop, up popped an email from National Trust for Scotland, entitled, ‘who was Robert Burns?’. It was then that I realised I really didn’t know that much about Burns, or the night dedicated to him.

So I had a read.

And, 262 years after Burns was born, here is the result! This week’s post is in two parts; some thoughts for the mind and then some recipes for the stomach.

Some thoughts for the mind

  1. What is Burns Night?
Graphic with the words Burns, haggis, January

The main things people outside Scotland usually know about Burns Night are that it takes place in January, relates to Scottish poet Robert Burns, and that a poem is read out over a haggis. I’m ashamed to say that’s about as much as I knew too.

Burns Night is an annual toast and celebration to Scotland’s National Bard, cherished and famous around the world for his poetry and music, which of course includes the New Year classic Auld Lang Syne (Good Old Times).

Burns is about as close to the heart of Scottish culture as it’s possible to be – as is the supper that celebrates him. Burns suppers have been taking place at Scottish dinner tables on and around 25th January for over 200 years.

2. A Burns Supper

A Burns Supper held at Downing Street when Theresa May was PM

Although I’m sure different Scots have their different ways of celebrating (there are over 130 Scottish whisky distilleries to choose from, for a start), there is a certain order to Burns Supper proceedings.

For a few pointers, I turned to the excellent book How to Celebrate Burns Night.

Full disclaimer, the book was written by my ex-boss, proud Scotsman Daniel Bee. Daniel has hosted many legendary Burns Suppers in Edinburgh, London and L.A. over the years, raising lots of money for charity in the process, so he knows his neeps from his tatties.

Order of events:

  • Piping in the guests
  • Formal welcome
  • Piping in the haggis (bagpipes optional)
  • Dinner, which could include Cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek) soup followed by the essential dish of haggis, neeps and tatties* and a Scottish dessert which could be raspberry cranachan or Tipsy Laird whisky trifle. All washed down with drams of whisky.
  • The Immortal memory address – a keynote speech written by the speaker, tailored to the audience. It could be entirely about Burns, mull over the issues of the day (we’ve a fair few at the moment) or focus on jokes and anecdotes. What is essential is that Robert Burns and some of his works must get a mention, and afterwards the speaker must conclude with a toast ‘To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!’
  • A toast to the lassies – traditionally this was a humorous address to the women present who would likely have been in the kitchen cooking the haggis, and over the years has become a chance to praise the role of women in the world today. Concluding with the raising of glasses ‘To the Lassies!’
  • Reply to the toast to the lassies – from the lassies in question (whether in thanks, jest or revenge)
  • Closing words from the master of ceremonies

* neeps means turnips, but what is known in Scotland as a turnip is known in England as a swede. It’s the one that’s orange inside. Tatties = potatoes.

3. Who was Robert Burns?

A graphic showing the Burns family tartan and Burns Cottage

To understand why Burns has achieved such a legendary status in Scotland, I recommend reading or listening to any of his poems and songs. (I would say my favourites so far are A Red, Red Rose, Ay Waukin, O and To Daunton Me).

He didn’t just write beautifully and with passion, he wrote in Scots rather than English, keeping alive a minority language for generations to come.

And his story is one of humble beginnings, an overnight rise to fame and an untimely death, all of which adds to the impact of his work and legacy.

Burns was born in 1759 into a farming family, his father having built the cottage they lived in, in Alloway next to Ayr and near Glasgow. Though his parents weren’t well off, they insisted he be educated well.

In 1784, after Burns’s father died, he and his brother Gilbert tried to keep the farm going, but they were never keen on farming as a way of life (Burns was more interested in poetry, nature, women and drink, not necessarily in that order), and the farm suffered financial losses.

Tangled love affairs, ripped up marriage contracts, attempts to move to the Caribbean and an illegitimate child. All this before the publication in 1786 of Burns’s first collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which turned him into a superstar at 27. It included the poem To a Mouse which is often read on Burns Night.

Subsequently settling down and marrying Jean Armour (good surname), Burns moved with her to Dumfries, where he worked on many more famous works, as well as on building up a big brood of children.

In 1796, in the prime of his career, he died of a rheumatic heart condition at the age of just 37. His last child, Maxwell, was born on the day of his funeral.

Robert Burns left behind hundreds of poems,songs and tunes that have inspired a nation as well as countless famous poets, and his most famous song Auld Lang Syne is sung the world over at New Year, and on Burns Night.

4. So how did Burns Night actually come about?

A quote from one of Burns’s letters

Five years after Burns’s death and still grieving, nine of his friends met in July 1801 at the family cottage in Alloway. They toasted his life, read some of his work and sang his songs over a moreish menu of haggis and sheep’s head.

The Greenock Ayrshire Society took the idea and formally started Burns Suppers, and in subsequent years the celebration caught on more widely, especially after novelist Sir Walter Scott hosted a big literary Burns Supper in Edinburgh in 1815.

5. Get yer facts straucht

A graphic featuring Burns wearing sunglasses
  • I’m calling him Robert Burns, but lots of Scots call him Rabbie Burns.
  • You can visit the family cottage, now called Burns Cottage, which is part of the birthplace museum run by National Trust for Scotland.
  • The year after Burns’s nine friends met, they decided to meet on his birthday instead, except they got the date wrong (his own friends!) and met on 29th January. In 1803 they sorted themselves out and met on the date of his actual birthday, 25th January.
  • Burns had to have enjoyed haggis to write Address to a Haggis in 1786, but he likely wanted to read it over dinner at a friend’s house in Edinburgh, where he’d recently moved. There is a more romantic idea that he wrote the poem on the fly, after enjoying a particularly tasty haggis one night. Read both the Scottish and English version of it here.
  • Many of those celebrating their own at-home Burns Nights this year will already have held them, as it’s popular to use the weekend when Burns Night falls on an early weekday. Then again, each day is like the next at the moment so why not celebrate on a Monday?!

Some recipes for the stomach

Haggis in a shop

For those of you who eat meat but haven’t tried haggis – I highly recommend it! Veggie and vegan-friendly haggis is everywhere too, I had some in a pub in the Hebrides that had a great taste and texture.

The picture above is how we tend to think of haggis, and it’s actually quite misleading; these are in their casing, which you don’t eat. I won’t deny I felt a little trepidation opening up mine today, not sure how it would appear, but it was a bit like crumbly mince.

Below are some recipe ideas that I hope will convince you to give haggis or veggie haggis a go!

Haggis croquettes with an apple and mustard sauce

Haggis croquettes and apple and mustard sauce served up

I bought a haggis expressly to give these a go, spotting the recipe in a December issue of the Waitrose newspaper. I made my breadcrumbs using a mix of white bread and some sourdough made a few days ago – adds a bit more bite to the coating I think. I also replaced the English mustard with Dijon mustard. The croquettes are quite filling, but the tangy sauce balances beautifully with them.

Here is the recipe.

Haggis pakora

Haggis pakora in the Hebrides

My first taste of haggis was in September when I tried these delicious haggis pakoras, in the Isles Inn pub in Portree on the Hebridean island of Skye.

With any leftover haggis I’m hoping to recreate them, with this recipe. (Though I’ll cheat and use shop bought sauces).

All the haggis

Macsween website featuring recipes

The haggis I bought came from the award-winning Scottish butcher Simon Howie’s brand, you can find out more about their products here.

Better known, and with lots of awards too, haggis-makers Macsween prove haggis’s versatility as an ingredient, with a great recipe section on their website, using both haggis and veggie haggis.

I’ll give Burns the last word:

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis

You powers, who make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,
That splashes in small wooden dishes;
But if you wish her grateful prayer,
Give her [Scotland] a Haggis!

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Museum openings worth planning holidays for

Ordinarily, this is the season for spending lots of time indoors in museums and galleries, exploring new exhibitions and shows. As that obviously can’t happen at the moment I thought I would share some 2021 museum openings from around the world that I’m most excited about, as well as some culture fixes you can have from home.

We are living in very uncertain times for the arts, with a whole tonne of cultural venues permanently shutting their doors in the past year. What’s clear though is that museums and galleries (and theatres) have provided culture lovers with solace in dark times.

We should support them in whatever way we can.

(Re) Openings to plan future holidays around

These are just some of the museums and galleries opening or re-opening in 2021. In most cases, they have understandably been quite coy about exactly when they will open, so I suggest signing up to their newsletters or social channels if you want to receive announcements on opening dates directly.

March: Berlin’s Humboldt Forum

The exterior of the newly-built cultural landmark, Humboldt Forum Berlin

What they say

The Humboldt Forum is taking shape in the historical heart of Berlin as a unique place of inquiry and encounters. A place with a significant past. A place for the arts and sciences, for exchange, diversity and a multiplicity of voices. A place where differences come together.

Why I’m keen

Describing itself as a place for culture and science, exchange and debate, the Humboldt Forum, Berlin’s newest landmark, took down its hoarding in December so that Berliners could enjoy the architecture ahead of opening in March, and you can take a look inside now. Behind the curatorial-marketing jargon there seems to be a real attempt to foster new ideas across disciplines.

Not to miss

Its architecture – which would be hard to miss I think? The Humboldt Forum as an entity was made by reconstructing Baroque features from the Berlin Palace that stood on its site – bombed in 1945 and demolished in 1950 – pieced together with cavernous, contemporary spaces. A statement larger than words.

If they do launch in March they’ll have a big programme of exhibitions, including the launch of the Humboldt Lab and BERLIN GLOBAL, connecting the city to the world.

Exploring outside the building you’ll find gardens planted with 13,000 flowers and trees.

Spring: France’s Luma Arles

The Frank Gehry-designed Arts Resource Centre
© Hervé Hôte

What they say

Luma Arles is a cultural centre dedicated to providing artists with opportunities to experiment in the production and presentation of new work in close collaboration with other artists, curators, scientists, innovators and audiences. The centrepiece of Luma Arles is the Arts Resource Centre designed by American architect Frank Gehry.

Why I’d like to visit

It brightened up my day just discovering the Luma Foundation website, let alone discovering their Luma Arles art project, which has been going since 2013, somewhat under the radar.

That all changes with their spring openings. It would be wonderful to explore the art, architecture and architectural landscape gardens in this UNESCO town.

Don’t miss

Catching sight of the stunning Frank Gehry-designed arts centre (pictured above), a shimmering, magnetic presence within the complex, overlooking the new public park and gardens designed by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

Also worth looking into, Luma Arles will be hosting photography festival Rencontres d’Arles, and the Les Suds world music festival every summer.

While you’re there, you’d also be next door to ancient Arles and its well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. And you might recognise more than a few of the surrounding landscapes from Van Gogh’s paintings…

Late spring: London’s Museum of the Home

How the entrance to the new Museum of the Home will look
© Museum of the Home

What they say

Our purpose is to reveal and rethink the ways we live and think about home. The reimagined Museum will be a place for visitors to consider the ways we have lived in the past [and] explore creative ideas about new ways of living in, and looking at, the world today.

Why we should all want to go

Our idea of what home is and where it is has never been as important or integral to our everyday thinking and well-being as it has been in the past year.

The Museum of the Home (formerly called the Geffrye Museum) had been shut for renovations some time before the pandemic struck, but I imagine an analysis of 2020 and all that it has meant for our homes will feature prominently.

In fact, they are asking members of the public to share experiences for their Stay at Home project. It may sound like homework, especially if being at home has been a trial, but don’t psychologists say the best way to deal with bad memories is confront them head on?

Don’t miss

New Home galleries with new stories, including that of Shirin who moved to London from the African island of Zanzibar and a man named Harry who lived in the same house in east London for most of his life, as did four other generations of his family – and Rusty the tortoise! I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the same Harry I met years ago when promoting a recreation of his house at Imperial War Museums London. He was in his nineties and still went bowling every week.

Gardens Through Time, an outdoor survey of city gardens from Elizabethan knots and Georgian rooms to modern roof gardens.

Summer: Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM)

The exterior of the Grand Egyptian Museum, overlooking the Giza Pyramids
© GEM

What they say

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) holds in trust for Egypt and the World a chronological statement for the ancient history of Egypt over the past 7000 years. Neighboring a timeless wonder, the Giza Pyramids, the new museum is to pay homage to eternal Ancient Egyptian monuments, treasures and history, hosting over 100,000 artifacts, about 3500 of which belong to the famous King Tutankhamun.

Why I want to go

GEM‘s plans to open have suffered years of delays (the Arab Spring, ensuing political turmoil, lack of funding and a global pandemic to name a few reasons), and 2021 seems quite an unlikely year to get to Cairo if they do at last launch, but this makes the prospect of the eventual opening all the more tantalising to me.

Don’t miss

Probably the entire building and its contents?!

Of the 100,000 artefacts in its collection, GEM have picked out a few highlights beyond the statues, monuments and sarcophagi we all think about; an alabaster cosmetics jar from the New Kingdom (1570 – c1069 BC) adorned with a lion poking its tongue out (I bet it was a must-have item), a decorated gold dagger found on Tutankhamun; a Libyan tribute tablet carved with entrancing hieroglyphic patterns, dating to 3000 BC; a stela gravestone from the west banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt, still bright with colour 2,221 years on from the reign of King Ptolemy V, to whom it is dedicated.

The museum master plan shows there’ll be lots of terraces and gardens in the grounds (I like the sound of the Nile Valley Garden), and the panoramic views out to the Giza Pyramids are surely going to be phenomenal.

If you’re as keen as I am to get to this museum when it does eventually open, I recommend signing up to receive updates from this independent website, run by Egypt travel expert John Nicholson.

30th September: L.A.’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

The exterior of LA's Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
© Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

What they say

When it opens, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will be the world’s premier institution dedicated to the art and science of movies. Global in outlook and grounded in the unparalleled collections and expertise of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy Museum will offer exceptional exhibitions and programs that illuminate the world of cinema. The Academy Museum will tell complete stories of movie-making—celebratory, educational, and sometimes critical or uncomfortable.

What’s interesting

Before even opening, the Academy Museum is a very slick operation, right down to the Rolex-sponsored countdown clock on the homepage announcing the days are left until the 30th September opening.

The building has architectural clout as well as the might of the Academy of Motion Pictures behind it; the designer is famous Italian architect Renzo Piano who has lots of form building fantastic museums and city landmarks.

2020 was the year no-one went to the cinema, so this opening is something film fans can be seriously excited about. The museum will have six floors of exhibition, education & cinematic spaces and they plan to hold regular screenings and live events throughout the year, making it a changing space, and no two visits quite the same.

Who doesn’t love a Hollywood ending, after all?

Autumn: Stockholm’s Vrak – Museum of Wrecks

A shipwreck in the Baltic Sea
© Vrak – Museum of Wrecks

What they say

On the bottom of the Baltic Sea lies much of the world’s greatest cultural heritage. It is time to bring these wrecks and finds to the surface in a new museum. With Vrak – Museum of Wrecks, we want to let visitors dive deep into the secrets of the Baltic Sea.

Why I want to go

I’ve visited Stockholm many times and their museums are always great – this one has the potential to be one of the most fascinating in the whole city.

Vrak – Museum of Wrecks will be situated on Djurgården Island, next door to the slightly bonkers Vasa Museum – the home of the preserved 17th Century warship that was so enormous it sank in Stockholm’s harbour before it saw any service. A crazy, royal shipbuilding fantasy that led to the death of 30 crew.

Unlike the Vasamuseet‘s more narrow focus, the Museum of Wrecks will bring together the work of all the naval museums in the city and show off the work of marine archaeologists who have been scouring Stockholm’s Archipelago and the Baltic Sea for decades looking for new shipwrecks.

And that’s how I found out about this project, when I saw the news in November 2019 of the Vasa’s two sister ships found in the water off of Vaxholm Island in Stockholm’s Archipelago.

Don’t miss

The opportunity to learn about a vast underwater world – and crazy giant wrecked ships – through archaeology and technology. For now, here are some of the shipwrecks archaeologists have discovered in recent years.

From 2022 you may also be able to go diving with shipwrecks in one of several dive parks that are planned off the coast of Sweden’s Karlskrona region, south of Stockholm.

Get your culture fix from home

Still from a video by the WA Museum Boola Bardip

For culture vultures and procrastinators alike, scroll on for more art news and my picks of some great ways to re-acquaint yourself with museums anywhere in the world, from home.

  • If you can access BBC iPlayer, I recommend watching the first episode of Secrets of the Museum which goes behind the scenes at the V&A in South Kensington. Available until the end of January, meet curators, staff and some of the 2m objects in the museum’s collections.
  • Further afield, a museum I’d like to visit one day in Western Australia: the WA Museum Boola Bardip.

The museum is built on Aboriginal Whadjuk Nyoongar land, and the words Boola Bardip mean ‘many stories’ in the local language. Exploration of the importance of the land to its ancestors and present day custodians is a key part of the museum’s mandate. Learn a bit more about their permanent collections, or take a drone ride round the museum building (pictured above).

'Umiaq and north wind during spring whaling' by Kiliii Yuyan
‘Umiaq and north wind during spring whaling’, © Kiliii Yuyan
  • As soon as it was announced I wanted to see the British Museum’s Arctic: Culture and Climate exhibition, but I haven’t been able to. It will be closed for the remainder of the run till 21st February, and I’m hopeful rather than optimistic that they might extend it.

Whether that happens or not, there is a lot of excellent online content to consume, from a curator tour of the exhibition to in-depth articles and recent online events you can stream for free. There are some upcoming climate change-themed in conversation events too.

My copy of the book 'Treasure Palaces'

  • The premise of the book Treasure Palaces is simple; a group of great writers visit some great museums and write about them. Among the 24 chosen, author Roddy Doyle sweeps through the front door of the Tenement Museum in New York, columnist Ann Wroe recounts a soggy, marvellous day at poet William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Cumbria and writer and MP Rory Stewart encounters perhaps one of the world’s most scarred museums, The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.

My brother bought me a copy a few years ago and I’ve only just started reading it – I’ve been missing out. It sadly seems to be out of print now, but you can get hold of copies (sorry to say it) on Amazon.

Inside the Japanese-designed Bourse de Commerce gallery
© Bourse de Commerce
  • The Bourse de Commerce is a Parisian contemporary art venue that’s been 20 years in the creating, so the postponement of its 23rd January ‘inauguration’ will be taken in its stride I’m sure.

It’s got insane amounts of money to thank for its inception (built to display French billionaire businessman François Pinault’s art collection), but I’m not going to be turning my nose up at it for that – better to have money in the arts than out! Scroll down on the gallery’s homepage and you can watch a time-lapse of the transformation and re-construction of the site of the centuries-old commodities / stock exchange into a €140m art gallery.

Screenshot from the Google arts & culture hub
  • Google being Google, their arts & culture hub (best viewed using the app) has umpteen virtual tours round some of the world’s most impressive museums (large and small) and famous heritage sites, plus stories behind the creation of iconic landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, and artworks from around the world in high definition. Easy to lose a whole day on there, if that’s what you need / want right now.

Pick of the day: It’s Martin Luther Day today, marking the anniversary of his birthday on 15th January 1929, an extra reason to explore MLK’s life in 10 locations. It’s a partnership between LIFE, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and Google Street View.

Night of Ideas campaign graphic
  • Somewhere in London that I’ve really missed getting a chance to know better is the Institute Français, home of Ciné Lumière. From 22nd – 29th January they’re hosting Night of Ideas online, with film screenings, in conversation events and debates. All answering this year’s theme, ‘together’.

On a side note, one of the most hilarious films I’ve ever seen was one I saw at Ciné Lumière, a French film called C’est La Vie (yes, really) about a wedding going wrong in just the most glorious and gorgeous way.

Have fun!

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A photographic journey into The Cairngorms

The area of the Cairngorms in northeast Scotland is not an unknown wilderness. Five of the UK’s six highest mountains are all in the park so to say it’s very well-trodden by walkers, tourists, walking tourists is a vast understatement.

Not that you’d want to go walking if you could be there right now.

Right now it’s incredibly snowy, and the locals have it to themselves! Including the staff of the Pine Marten Bar near Aviemore.

On Friday they shared this video of one of the owners snowboarding on Cairn Gorm mountain nearby, showing how much snow has fallen. And I’m so jealous.

But after watching it for the fifth time I realised that in completely different weather back in September I walked where this woman is snowboarding!

It inspired me to go through my photos and pick out some favourites from a few days spent managing to find some remote (or just quiet) spots in one of the most popular parts of Scotland.

Read on for a photo story from a few memorable days spent in the Cairngorms.

A boat on Loch Morlich's sands
  1. Loch Morlich

A couple of hundred metres from where we were staying at the YHA Cairngorm Lodge lies Loch Morlich, the highest sandy beach in the UK.

In any normal year the campsite next door would have been open and full, and the beach café wouldn’t have had its shutters down with nothing to buy or hire.

But it did mean we had the beach pretty much to ourselves most of the time.

Picnic tables at Loch Morlich

Picnic tables with no-one to perch… We had just arrived and wanted somewhere other than our YHA room to eat lunch. We would have sat down at one of these picnic tables but, as you might be able to tell, the weather was slightly inclement and so we watched the lake and ate our picnic from the dry of the boarded-up beach café behind. Out of shot there were some very inquisitive mallards.

Looking out onto a chilly Loch Morlich at sunset on the first day

Tempted as I was, I didn’t go for a bracing dip…

Trees near the edge of Loch Morlich

The weather was much nicer when we returned two days later, as the evening danced towards sunset. You can walk all round Loch Morlich, though at times you aren’t near enough to see the water.

The end of the River Luineag as it spills into Loch Morlich

The sun started to vanish but the blue sky stuck around, dappling itself against the water. This is the point where the River Luineag pours into Loch Morlich. Behind us it snaked away towards Aviemore.

  1. The Abernathy National Nature Reserve and Ryvoan Pass
The view as we walked towards An Lochan Uaine

This day I remember being so full of trees! We wanted to walk in some of the ancient Caledonian pine forest that makes this part of the Cairngorms famous.

Spoiler alert: the sky didn’t stay this blue.

Starting the walk among tall trees

The start of our walk was gentle enough…

A very tall and very lonely pair or pine trees, against blue skies and sunshine

I dared to say that it was almost too warm, and that I wouldn’t mind a little more cloud cover.

Trees and heather

And we discovered just how well pine trees and heather go together. A fairytale might have played out here once, it had that kind of magic air…

Rocks on the path ahead

From here on it got very rocky, particularly downhill. My brother and I were fine, though our mum had badly sprained her ankle the day before, and we quickly realised that this was perhaps not the best trail to aid her recovery…

Ryvoan Pass bothy exterior

My wish for cloud cover was granted as we arrived at a bothy, marking the start of a new section of the trail, along the Ryvoan Pass and into the Abernathy National Nature Reserve.

Pots and pans and fireplace inside the Ryvoan Pass bothy

Basic inside, but I’m sure in the past there’d be daily competition to stay overnight as it’s free, you can light a fire and make a hot meal, plus it’s located right in the heart of the reserve. With no-one in it, it was of course freezing.

Some lochans - small lakes - overlooking Bynack More on the Ryvoan Pass.

Just beyond the bothy, some lochans (aka small lakes). Storm clouds were fermenting above the landscape beyond Bynack More.

A big gnarly old tree in the Caledonian pine forest

A particularly big, gnarly tree with tributaries of lichen running all over it, lining the path through ancient Caledonian pine forest.

This was our view for some miles. We could have continued and eventually would have reached Loch Garten, but it was getting dusky so we turned back.

A close-up of a rare wood ant spotted on the path

Small and rare, a few wood ants crossed paths with us through the deepest sections of the forest, bringing the total number of creatures and humans we saw on the Ryvoan Pass to four..

The Ryvoan Pass, looking down towards Aviemore

The clouds were still very moody as we retraced our steps back down the Ryvoan Pass.

Close-up of heather bushes

And, while there might not have been much wildlife beyond our wild ants, there were cheery clumps of heather to encourage our weary legs to complete the last mile of ten.

  1. The Cairngorm Plateau
Panorama up on the Cairngorm Plateau

Neither myself nor my brother had walked any great distances for some time, cooped up as we’d been, and we feared that the previous day’s ten mile walk would leave us exhausted before we even reached a Munro.

Munro?

When you walk up a mountain in Scotland (anything over 3,000ft), you’re actually walking up a Munro, as that’s the Scottish name. And there are 55 of them in the Cairngorms National Park, so we had a few to choose from.

The Cairngorm Plateau is one of only two subarctic areas in Scotland (and therefore the UK), characterised by relatively dry weather year-round and with only 1-3 months displaying temperatures above 10°C.

I said relatively dry, but not entirely dry…

Ski lift on Cairn Gorm Mountain

Our bus dropped us off on the mountain of Cairn Gorm itself, at the ski centre. We passed reminders of the mountain’s winter occupation at the very start.

Heads bowed against crosswinds as we started our Cairngorm Plateau walk

9.45am in the morning and we’d already nearly had our heads blown off on the aptly named ‘Windy Ridge’ path. Here, it was clear that the only way was up. (And note the excellent paths. No matter how challenging the conditions, the paths were always excellent. Rocky boulder fields another matter perhaps..)

Walking on relatively level ground in the Cairn Gorm Plateau

The first Munro we were aiming for was Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in Scotland no less. We kept expecting steep sections, but our route upwards was gradual enough that we weren’t too out of breath.

It took a while for it to come into view, but after half an hour, we could look down into Coire an Lochain, formed through erosion by glacial ice.

Walking above the coire, or corrie

Low-lying mists and clouds were the cause of our right sides getting completely soaked as we walked above the coire, feeling closer to the summit of Ben Macdui.

Part of the huge boulder field towards the top of Ben Macdui

There was a sting in the tail of course. The mountain’s sides seemed to be one huge boulder field, featuring lots and lots and lots of boulders.

Views from the top of Ben Macdui over to the Allt Clach nan Taillear river

Our reward at the top of Ben Macdui.

We strayed away from those getting pictures next to the cairn at the peak, and instead found these stupefying views overlooking the winding curves of the Allt Clach nan Taillear river. I wrote in my diary that it made me think of the Amazon river, and it does still.

Mists on the way across the Cairngorm Plateau

Higher up and into the early afternoon, the weather it was a-changing.

Near the mountain's edge, amidst a Mars-like rocky surface

This look like a premium picnic spot to you? After completing another Munro (already at such an elevation, it wasn’t much effort), we stopped for lunch near this Mars-like mountain edge, in icy, pouring rain… though we found a few rocks to shelter by, it remained appallingly cold nonetheless.

Weather clearing a little in the valley below to highest points of the Cairngorm Plateau

A brief respite as we resumed our walking. Before ferocious winds bit again, further on..

Descending Cairn Gorm mountain

The weather really starting to close in, we decided not to climb the last Munro, Cairn Gorm Mountain itself, where we’d started. We knew we’d made the right decision, as it was tough going down even on the paths, which were some of the best made we’d encountered on the whole hike.

We walked as fast as we could (given the conditions), hoping to catch the last bus of the day…

A path that would normally be ski runs in the snow

And it was about here, on paths designed to be skied on in winter months, that we saw the bus pull up in the distance. Oh well.

Reindeer on the Cairn Gorm mountain

Reindeer!

A silver lining to our bad luck on the bus front. Cairngorm’s reindeer are Britain’s only free-ranging herd and they’ve been roaming 10,000 mountainside acres since 1952 – introduced by a Swedish couple to show that they could thrive again in Scotland, 800 years on.

The reindeer herd numbers about 150 and in normal times you can take officially-run guided hill trips to see them.

Sadly we saw no sign of a sleigh, which might have been a help as we had some walking to do yet to get back to our hostel…

Pages from my diary featuring the day hike on the Cairngorm Plateau

My travel diary from the day of our hike.

  1. If you ever need some provisions (scran)…

No better way to spend the evening after a big walk (or ski) in the Cairngorms than at the Pine Marten Bar – also a shop, restaurant, snow sports hire and eco lodge spot! It was so popular inside the Pine Marten Bar to begin with that we thought we might have to be outside all evening, but we thankfully got a (socially-distanced) table just in time for dinner. All locally sourced grub, and the staff are the best.

A sign to watch out for skiers

Despite all the snow, the Pine Marten Bar sadly have no customers to serve, or rent skis and cabins to, because of the latest lockdown. But they’re doing their best to keep themselves busy – they’ve got their very own ‘snowbadger’ snow park which featured on yesterday’s Ski Sunday!

They’re a great follow on Instagram too.

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It’s Christmas, again

No, I’m not in denial, and you haven’t overslept.

If you read my piece last month about Christmas traditions around the world, you will have spotted an entry on the Orthodox Christian Christmas taking place in January. For most, that day is tomorrow, January 7th, in fact.

And that’s because

Those of us who celebrate Christmas on 25th December do so because we adhere to the Gregorian calendar, while Orthodox Christians celebrate 13 days later because they follow the Julian calendar.

Ever wondered why we have more than one calendar?

A portrait of Pope Gregory XIII and a bust of Julius Caesar
These guys have a lot to do with it

The short answer: Nowadays, the Gregorian calendar is used widely for civil purposes while the Julian calendar is retained for Orthodox religious purposes, i.e. feast days. In Islam, too, a different calendar is often used for religious purposes.

In a bit more detail: The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE, replacing the Roman calendar which had gotten three months ahead of the solar calendar. He was advised by the Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria, who advised that 46 BCE should be 445 days long to rebalance things a bit. It took 54 years for the Julian calendar to be widely implemented however.

We have Sosigenes to thank for the need for a Gregorian calendar, because he got his maths slightly wrong on the length of a year – by 11 minutes 14 seconds. (It happens).

This seemingly tiny error in his calculations accrued over the centuries, meaning that by the mid-1500s the seasons were out by 10 days.

So in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, reducing the calendar year from 365.25 to 365.2425 days, with the leap day becoming 29th February. It still doesn’t completely align with the solar year, but it’s pretty close.

While Italian and German Catholic states, Portugal, Spain and other Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, other countries took longer to switch. England and its colonies didn’t make the change until 1752 for example.

Nowadays, the Gregorian calendar is the accepted calendar almost everywhere in the world, especially for civil purposes, but for Eastern Orthodox religious purposes especially, the Julian calendar has remained in use.

As far as I can tell, this is because a 1923 special council meeting of Orthodox Christian leaders from various countries couldn’t all agree on whether to join the Gregorian calendar or not.

And because it would have caused more problems to have two sets of dates for movable feasts each year, Orthodox churches stuck to all following the Julian calendar – even within countries that follow the Gregorian calendar.

Who celebrates Christmas on 7th January?

Christmas Day is a public holiday in Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, and Ukraine. In Armenia, 6th January is Christmas Day.

How will they celebrate?

In all sorts of varied and colourful ways, too many to mention here!

But scroll on for some facts about events and celebrations around the world that I’ve uncovered. Undoubtedly this year will be very subdued, but I’m sure with some hope mixed in too.

Russia

Moscow in the snow
Moscow in the snow

In Russia, where 71% of the country identifies as Orthodox Christian, Christmas holidays begin on 1st January, culminating for many in a six course meal on Christmas Day (which I could totally get on board with…). Popular dishes include goulash soup or, to break Advent’s meatless fast, baked goose with apples, or meat pies.

Next door, in Ukraine

Kiev Christmas celebrations outside St Sophia's Cathedral
Christmas crowds in Kyiv in a past year

Carolling is a big part of a Ukrainian Christmas, often involving dressing up and going door to door. For anyone planning some distanced song-singing, the forecast for the country’s capital Kiev (Kyiv) tomorrow is a balmy 4°C, incidentally.

In Kiev itself, the beautiful and grand 11th Century St Sophia’s Cathedral, with its golden blur of mosaic and fresco interiors, is a focal point of celebrations (pictured above).

More intrinsic to the nation’s expression of itself at Christmas is a tradition centring around grain.

As an agricultural product and a foodstuff, it’s a big deal in Ukraine. I had never considered this till now, but the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag symbolise wheat fields against blue skies – that’s how important grain is.

During most Ukrainian Christmas celebrations, it is therefore common to bring a sheaf of wheat, called a didukh, indoors. It strikes me as a nod to what we might think of as pagan traditions, crossing over with Christian. If you’ve got some wheat handy, you can have a go at making your own.

Over in Ethiopia

A church built into the rock in Lalibela, Ethiopia
A church built into the rock in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Photo by Mulugeta Wolde

Christmas in Ethiopia is known as Ganna or Genna, very much focused on tradition and ceremony.

White is the traditional colour to wear, including the Netela scarf.

Celebrations normally take place all over Ethiopia, but they are especially significant in Lalibela, home of the famous ancient churches built into the steep sheer rocky landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I would love to witness processions there one day.

Northwards, in Egypt

A member of the Egyptian Coptic church
A member of the Egyptian Coptic church

The Coptic Church started in Egypt and is one of the oldest churches in Christianity. Egypt is a Muslim-majority country of course, with Christians making up about 10%. However, I’ve read that pretty much everyone in the country, whether Muslim, Christian or secular, buys a Christmas tree and decorations are a big thing too.

According to dw.com, most of the trees come from Alexandria or, slightly further afield, Amsterdam.

The country’s Coptic Christians, having fasted for up to 43 days (as is customary in many Orthodox countries), usually attend mass in the evening on 6th January.

I’ve read also that it’s tradition to distribute Zalabya honey doughnuts and Bouri fish to the poor on Christmas Day. I hope that’s able to happen in some form tomorrow.

Here’s a good-looking recipe for doughnuts you could try.

Big is best in Bethlehem

Manger Square in the centre of Bethlehem, and the 15 metre Christmas tree

Ordinarily, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Bethlehem in December and January each year. Instead, this year’s Orthodox Christmas in the holy city will be spent under a strict curfew, with no international tourists and many empty hotels.

I asked my aunt and uncle (a minister) what Bethlehem is like in winter and whether it ever snows there. They told me that when they visited in 1992, there was record snowfall for 16 days! And it’s not uncommon for there to be snow every few years there apparently, so perhaps Jesus really was born in winter after all…

Whether ceremonies and processions are taking place or not, the Church of the Nativity (on Manger Square) will always be central to Bethlehem’s importance at Christmas, it being the site where Jesus is said to have been born.

It is owned by three church authorities, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic Church. The Coptic Orthodox and Syriac (aka Syrian) Orthodox Churches also have rights of worship.

Perhaps counter-intuitively to their overarching aims, scuffles are often said to break out between the churches, such is the importance of the site to so many people, and the Palestinian police are often called to restore the peace.

But back to Orthodox Christmas…

Inside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

In the lead up to midnight mass on 6th January, a procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem usually travels via Beit Sahour, known as Shepherd’s Fields. It is said that Jesus’s birth was announced by the angel to The Three Shepherds there. (Meanwhile, in ‘the West’, 6th January marks Epiphany, when the Three Magi learn about Jesus in the bible.)

On 7th January itself, sights and sounds on Star Street, leading onto Manger Square would involve the 15 metre-high Christmas tree with marching bands of Palestinian scout groups parading by, heads of churches and dignitaries arriving to the Church of the Nativity and Christmas carols playing through loudspeakers in Arabic.

See events in Bethlehem for yourself in this video from 2013.

Hope for the future

Manger Square in Bethlehem against a blue sky
A busy Manger Square

In 2019, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, tourism in Bethlehem increased by 15%. So there’s hope that the hotels (and I hope inns) that currently stand empty around Manger Square will be full up once more, when travel is safe again.

Whether you believe in the Christmas story or not, the colour, vibrancy and beliefs of millions of people around the world is something to look forward to experiencing in person again soon.

—–

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/science/Roman-republican-calendar

https://www.britannica.com/science/Julian-calendar

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Gregorian-calendar

https://www.travelallrussia.com/blog/russian-christmas-traditions

https://www.tripsavvy.com/ukraine-christmas-traditions-1501864

https://www.ethiopianonlinevisa.com/ganna-celebrating-christmas

https://www.fena.news/international/orthodox/-christmas-in-bethlehem

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New Year, new things to do

We made it out of 2020, hooray! Wishing a heartfelt Happy New Year to you all.

We will probably (/ hopefully) never have a Christmas and New Year like this again in our lifetimes. In the UK, no one can avoid the fresh restrictions, the moving to higher tiers and establishing of new lockdowns. Even post has been slow to get through and many of us are indoors for the foreseeable future.

I count myself in that; the NHS app told me last week (for the second time) to self-isolate. So here I am, sofa-bound, looking out at freshly-laid frost, wrapped up warm.

It’s rare for me to feel truly bored at this time of year – I have a ‘things to watch’ list that’d rival Santa’s presents list – but being stuck inside the house, unable to walk further than our garden, I’ve had some extra time to think.

Take them or leave them, but I thought I would share some activity ideas and recommendations, for those of you still in holiday mode, furloughed / locked-down or just plain needing a distraction. And this being Kate on her travels, most are on a travel theme.

Wherever you are and however you’re spending these fledging days of a new year, here’s hoping things can only get better from here…

1. Board Games, games, games within games

Harry Potter Cluedo

Christmas holidays in the Crowther household without board games would be like a pen without its ink, sandwiches without a filling, a novel without words. Doesn’t work.

I write this sitting alongside a coffee table stuffed underneath with board game adventures to Florence, Brugge, Mexico, Paris, The Roman Empire and Middle Earth. But our vintage games are probably my favourites because of all the memories of playing growing up.

There are however more ways to game than with a board, and given the current/ recent postal system problems in the UK, I know the chance of buying games isn’t open to everyone, so I’ve included some easy to organise alternatives too.

GO!

1960s GO! Board game

One of my all time favourite board games. In fact we played it the other night and I won! Thus ending a very long Christmas losing streak…

The premise of GO! is simple. You travel on a route of your choosing with the aim of collecting a souvenir in each country you visit, with the person who races back to London with the right number of souvenirs first the winner. My winning route was quite the enviable itinerary: London – Casablanca – Cairo – Cape Town – Buenos Aires – Rio de Janeiro – New York – London.

Count yourself lucky if you don’t end up diverted to Christmas Island, in quarantine (seriously) or losing a precious souvenir on your travels. The game came out in the 1960s so European mainland currencies like the Italian Lire and French Francs no longer exist, which adds to the vintage glamour of the game. If you’re interested, there are pre-owned versions available on eBay.

I’ll take the Silk Road

Marco Polo base game

Anyone who knows me may have heard me mention playing an epic board game called Marco Polo.

A few years back we decided we needed to try some new games, not always rely on the vintage games or our love of any Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter tie-ins. And Marco Polo was the game that spawned a whole new age of board gaming for us.

We even took it with us to Canada and Alaska, playing in the dim light of our tent in Banff National Park and on multi-day train and ferry journeys to British Columbia and Alaska. (Guess who ended up having it in their rucksack…)

The conceit is simple: you play as different historical figures related to the Silk Route, bartering goods like silk, gold, jade and spice and building up a camel train to travel the world in search of humble riches, which translate into victory points needed to win the game.

It’s probably not for the casual game player as it takes quite a bit of time to set up and get going, but its complexity and strapping sense of adventure and history is what makes it so fascinating. Every time you play you tend to be a new character with different benefits which keeps it varied, and there are very good expansions once you’ve mastered the original.

Permit one plug

The tile game Carcassonne Amazonas

We love board games so much we ended up selling them too, on eBay and on greenzinkgames.com. My brother and my mum are involved, and it all stemmed from us getting into the popular Carcassonne series, a game originating in Germany but easily playable anywhere as there are no words in the playing of it, just imagery.

In 2017, when my mum took to eBay to feed her habit for it and realised there were lots of other like-minded people looking for expansions, a lightbulb lit in all our minds.

Carcassonne is a tile-based game where you earn points for building castles, abbeys, roads. It began as European/ Medieval themed but now covers more themes than you can shake a cudgel at, including an animal Safari edition and Amazonas (pictured), where you build and travel down the Amazon river, scoring points for creating settlements and floating along tributaries as you go. It’s been out a

Everything is going quizzingly

The Lonely Planet Travel Quiz book

The pandemic revealed to everyone in the UK especially how much we love a good quiz. So you don’t need me to give you advice on setting up your own.

However, my brother and I enjoyed testing each other’s travel and geography boffiness each week with the Lonely Planet website’s Friday Quiz, usually compiled by the writer Annemarie McCarthy. It was a test actually finding the quiz sometimes, so below I’ve included all those we found.

Being a publisher at heart (at one point in time, at least), Lonely Planet have a quiz book too, with over 2,000 brain teasers, from easy to hard. Most of the questions are general knowledge but there are also sections covering food and drink, sports, museums, space, islands. All the good stuff.

But for now, here are all their free quizzes, best viewed on desktop I’ve found:

Capital cities

Sports of the World

Foodie trivia

Flags of the World

Where in the World…? (A picture quiz)

Drinks of the World

Sizing up countries

Words of the World

Ultimate travel quiz

And for a bonus non-Lonely Planet quiz, try these 12 questions about polar bears.

Don’t be clueless

Some clues for my recently masterminded treasure hunt around the house

The past week I’ve taken the NHS app’s orders not to venture further than the garden to heart. I masterminded a treasure hunt for my brother to do around the house and our very frosty garden, as an extension of his Christmas presents.

Clues were hidden in or written on a miniature hot air balloon, giant map of the world, favourite stuffed animal (shout out to Beaver the Beaver), envelopes, board game boxes, the shed, an empty jam jar.

The main aim of the clues was to find the next clue, but I also included letters that had to be unscrambled at the end to provide a keyword, and each object was itself a clue to the experiences my brother could choose as a present; a tiny bottle of (fake) whisky in a jar representing a visit to the Dartmoor Whisky Distillery, or an air balloon in the clouds suggesting a visit to our nearest night sky observatory.

There are loads of ways to have a treasure hunt, and it is a guaranteed good way to look at where you live differently, despite all the time you’ll have spent inside this past year. And no-one is too old to take part, before you play that card.

Call on the search

James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hamilton

Not got the energy for the above? Get a free Amazon Prime trial instead and watch this year’s Grand Tour Christmas special, A Massive Hunt, which sees a gung-ho Richard Hammond, an overtaxed James May and a reluctant Jeremy Clarkson search (in cars, need you ask) for the much-searched-for buried treasure of the real life French pirate La Buse (‘The Buzzard’), on Madagascar.

We watched it recently and I laughed all the way through with complete abandon.

Animals are crossing

Tom Nook and his co-workers Timmy and Tommy, of Animal Crossing

If you own a Nintendo Switch but you haven’t played Animal Crossing yet, it is completely worth the dosh! We were lucky and ordered it before the pandemic – then everyone went mad for it and it sold out everywhere.

The craze has subsided a bit, but it remains a brilliant form of escapism. An island that you create, inhabit and adventure on and from (with a bit of help from businessman and Japanese raccoon dog Tom Nook – pictured above with co-workers Timmy and Tommy), that changes with the seasons.

The seasonality is one of its biggest strengths. Right now, for example, snow is on the ground, you can catch snowflakes in your nets, there are rooms to make cosy with furniture you’ve made and there are new species of sea creatures, plants and insects to learn about or donate to the local owl-run natural history museum.

There’s so much to discover and do, plus you can visit other islands if you want. You’re very welcome on our island, Pentecost Island, any time.

Have a rummage through your house

Spices and spice jars on a work surface

A further idea of something to do about the house is one specifically designed to be played with family and friends living elsewhere: a selfie scavenger hunt.

Elect someone in your group to be the judge who will set the different scenarios and objects each competitor has to find and photograph themselves using around the house and garden. All within a set time limit (the shorter, the more hilariously frantic), either using Zoom or by texting or emailing photos and videos to the judge as you go along.

My friend Poly arranged a scavenger hunt back in April and set 20 photo tasks, including asking us to photograph ourselves ‘ringing a bell’, ‘washing hands’, ‘with something stolen from work’. You get a point for every task you complete, and bonus points for the best photos of the bunch. I came last despite some very proficient beach photos and video hand-washing.

A lot of fun!

2. Music that will fly you to the moon

A while back, when I had no money to travel and needed to save up (nothing much has changed, really) I created my own mixtape playlists on Spotify to transport me somewhere, anywhere, far away.

They’ve kept me going at times in the past year too, so here they are:

  • If you’re craving relaxation, but you also want to feel the sun on your face, the sand in your toes, smell the perfume in the bazaar, sense the waves crashing below you. You will enjoy Travel Mixtape Vol. 1.
  • If you need to feel the headiness of being on the chaotic streets of a new city, of just making that once-a-week bus into the mountains, of dancing all night in harmony with perfect strangers (God I miss that), Travel Mixtape Vol. 2 will be your vibe.
  • And if you’re a time traveller wishing yourself away on a vintage vacation, I prescribe Travel Mixtape Vol 3.

3. Nine films and online streams that are a bit festive but a lot fantastic

Big Read’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Rome of the Ancient Mariner creative

This is much more than just a poetry recital. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Big Read is a digital work of art, three years in the making; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic 1798 poetic voyage around themes of isolation, loneliness and redemption.

The project features actors, artists, performers, poets, and writers collaborating across the 40-part series. When I first heard about it I assumed it was a really long piece but it’s a perfect length really – just over 40 minutes long!

Beginning with the timeless, Guinness, oak sound of Jeremy Irons’ voice and the fascinating face of artist Glenn Brown’s portrait The Shallow End, I’m hooked already…

Catch Me If You Can

Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can

Teenage con man with family issues who scrubs up nicely as a Pan Am pilot. Towards the end when Nat King Cole starts singing The Christmas Song and Tom Hanks finds Leonardo DiCaprio holed up in a paper factory in a small French village on Christmas Eve… it’s a shivery moment in the best sense of the word.

Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker

Marcelino Sambe and Anna Rose Sullivan in the Royal Ballet production of the The Nutcracker

The Royal Opera House have done their best this year to keep their dancers and singers training and rehearsing, but the pandemic has hit them hard. They managed three performances of their Covid-safe version of The Nutcracker before London went into Tier 4, and then everything had to be cancelled.

But you can watch a 2018 Royal Ballet performance of The Nutcracker on Netflix featuring a wonderful group of dancers, from rising stars Marcelino Sambé and Anna Rose O’Sullivan to company celebrities Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov.

You can also download and rent lots of wonderful opera and ballet concerts on the ROH website.

Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

A bittersweet and beguiling storyline set in snowy Manhattan. Mesmerising, hypnotic, graceful acting. With sound, music, lighting and cinematography that will leave you melting.

Shakespeare’s Globes Christmas at the Snow Globe

Sandi Toksvig at Shakespeare’s Globe

Staged in an unfamiliarly-empty Globe Theatre, watch Sandi Toksvig and a merry company turn it into a winter wonderland. Filmed earlier in the year and streaming until midnight on Twelfth Night (5th Jan), it comes complete with a song sheet for joining in (because it’s never too late for carols IMHO).

They’re asking for a £15 donation and once purchased you can watch it multiple times until midnight Tuesday. Otherwise, you can rent, stream, buy full length past productions on the Shakespeare’s Globe website.

Not much to help keep a phenomenal theatre operating.

Finding Neverland

A scene from Finding Neverland

If escapism and classic fantasy are what you’re after, then it is what you shall have in this delicate and wonderful film from 2004. Yes, there are sad bits but the real life story behind the creation of Peter Pan is told so eloquently and with such a memorable film score too.

Royal Geographical Society film collection on BFI Player

A scene from The Conquest of Everest

A great array of films, many digitised for the first time. And it’s all free! Visit the BFI Player website to start watching films including The Conquest of Everest, pictured.

Eastern Promises

Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises

Recently I’ve really been yearning to rewatch Eastern Promises, the 2007 film starring Viggo Mortensen and directed by David Cronenberg.

A violent film about the Russian mafia may not sound like spot-on ingredients for a festive film but it was shot in winter and it definitely counts as a redemptive fable, which is what this time of year calls for.

Plus, Viggo’s method acting talents really know no boundaries… in a break during filming he unwittingly scared some diners when he went for a meal in a Russian restaurant using his adopted Russian accent, still wearing his incredibly realistic mafia tattoos. The entire restaurant was silent for fear of him…

Gosford Park

The cast of characters in Gosford Park

The kind of dinner party / weekend away you fantasise about hosting, but with an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery thrown in. And what could be more festive than that?

4. Walk these ways

Some ways to get out and exercise somewhere new, even if you think you’ve walked EVERYWHERE near your house.

Worth prefacing this by saying that new lockdown rules state (in England anyway) that exercise is allowed but only once a day, close to home and with one person from another household max… nothing to stop you planning some bigger post-lockdown walks though!

Rights of Way map for Dorset
  • Find your local council’s Rights of Way map. It’s as easy as typing ‘rights of way map [name of council or area]’ into Google.
Slow Ways map of Britain
  • Be part of Slow Ways, the project to connect up walking routes between cities, towns and villages. They’re after volunteers to test routes but also for feedback on their soon-to-be-fully-launched website. I wrote about them in a recent blog.
Countryfile website
  • If you’re looking for bigger walks away from your local area (and it’s allowed), good website hubs with UK trail ideas include the National Trust walking website which has a great list of walks which cross their land, the Countryfile website too, and if you live in Scotland in particular, look up Walk Highlands if you’ve not heard of it. Their grading system for each walk is top notch.
  • Or if you’re near the sea (that’s everywhere in the UK, with the possible exception of Birmingham) look up your local coastal path website for a proper blowing away of the cobwebs.
Pansies in my garden
  • Equally, if you’re lucky and have a bit of garden or a nearby park, go out with an aim to spot something you might normally overlook. I went out into our frosty garden the other day and spotted some lovely yellow and white pansies, their petals looking beleaguered but ready to battle on through winter all the same.

5. Bake-up

Here are a few sweet and savoury recipes from around the world you could try if you feel like shutting yourself away in the kitchen with a glass of wine…

Korean walnut and cinnamon-stuffed ‘Hotteok’ pancakes

Korean walnut pancakes

Found this recipe in a November issue of the Waitrose newspaper, available online too. Hatteok are a popular type of Korean street food during the winter months. The name pancake is a bit deceptive, as they’re more like cinnamon buns crossed with English muffins in terms of taste and texture I’d say.

Very sweet and very delish!

Mezzeluna stuffed pasta

Mezzeluna pasta

Adapted from a recipe in Gennaro Contaldo’s Pasta Perfecto! book.

Serves 2-3

These are satisfying to make and look nice and dainty once you get the hang of working with the dough and folding your half moon shapes. (You can tell the ones I made first in the photo above!)

Make yourself a batch of fresh pasta (150g pasta flour, 50g semolina, mix then break two eggs in and form a dough using a fork, then knead until all the flour is well combined). After 30 mins in the fridge, roll the dough out very thinly (thinner than you think you need, because each shape will double onto itself) or use a thin setting on your pasta machine.

Filling idea: sauté 30g finely chopped pancetta for a few mins, then add chopped needles from a medium sprig of rosemary. Sweat half a finely chopped banana shallot for a few mins and then add 125g of cubed butternut squash (or a mix of winter veg like sprouts, turnip, swede, celeriac) and a few tbsps of water. Cook with a lid on for 12-15 mins then mash the mix so it’s quite smooth. Stir in 25g of cubed Taleggio (or a similar semi-soft cheese), 1/2 tbsp of breadcrumbs and 1/2 tbsp of flaked or chopped almonds. Season.

When you have your filling made, cut circles out in the dough using a stamp or a pastry cutter (around 6cm), brush them with beaten egg or water and fill with small blobs of your filling, before folding over into half moon shapes and pressing to seal the filling in. Remember fresh pasta can dry easily, so you might prefer to work in batches, keeping dough wrapped up until you need it.

They’ll take a minute or two max to cook in a pan of salted water. Meanwhile you could make a quick sage butter by melting 50g unsalted butter, adding 3 tbsp stock/ bouillon then 20g parmesan, stirring fast when it goes in to help the mixture gel. Add more butter or stock if needed. Pour over your pasta before devouring it in seconds.

Persian Lavash bread

Lavash bread

Makes 4 big breads. Adapted from a My Little Persian Kitchen recipe.

In a bowl mix 250ml of Greek yoghurt with 250g of self raising flour, 1/2 tsp of baking powder and 1 tsp of Nigella seeds (or else cumin seeds would work).
Mix and then knead for around 10 mins, until the dough is elastic. Divide into four balls and put back in the bowl, covering the top with cling film – or you could use a tea towel (held down with a board or a book.)

Leave for 15 mins then when you’re ready to cook, heat a little olive oil in a non stick pan on a medium heat. I use an old pastry brush to spread out the oil.

Flatten each ball of dough into a rough circle / oval shape on a lightly floured surface, using your fingertips and palms. Keep some parts of each bread a bit thicker if you want a chewier texture.

The bread will take a couple of minutes on each side to cook.

Vanilla lemon crescents

Crescent moon biscuits

Adapted from Vegan Cakes and Other Bakes, published by DK.

Continuing the lunar theme… These have various origins, but are particularly popular in Germany (where they are known as vanillekipferl) and Czechia (Vanilkové Rohlíčky).

If you don’t have any vanilla pods (as I didn’t), just add some vanilla essence and more lemon zest, and they’ll still taste great.

Combine 150g plain flour, 50g white caster sugar, 45g ground almonds and add the scraped seeds of 1 vanilla pod, or 1 1/2 tsps vanilla essence. Add a 1tsp of lemon juice and up to 1 1/2 tsp lemon zest, depending on how lemony you want them to be.

Then add 100g softened vegan margarine (i.e. Stork) and use your hands to combine the dough. It should start to breadcrumb a bit and then form a dough quite quickly. Combine well by kneading a little.

Wrap in cling film or beeswax wrap and put in the fridge for an hour. Oven goes on to 190°C / 170°C fan.

Grease a baking tray and then make your crescents, shaping little sausages of dough by bending them, tapering at both ends, and pressing down slightly in the middle.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on how fierce your oven is. Dust with icing sugar.

My favourite Irish soda bread

Irish soda bread

I love this recipe, the bread tastes so fantastic.

It’s borrowed from Val Warner’s book What to Eat Now. He in turn borrowed it from the Anglo-Irish artist Tom Halifax. It’s a knock out, just make sure you score your cross quite deeply in the bread, to give it the best rise and look.

Also, it calls for a 50/50 mix of white and brown flour but you can play around with that ratio and it will still come out great. You just might need a little more buttermilk if it’s all wholemeal flour.

For some more recipe inspiration, read my recent blog about the tagine, or a post from earlier in the year featuring a menu of dishes from around the world.

6. Rather interesting things to listen to and read

  • New travel podcast The First Mile de-mystifies travel journalism, featuring in-depth fascinating interviews with writers, explorers, photographers among others and immersing you in adventures from Nepal to New Zealand. I love it!
  • BBC World Service’s The Forum is the kind of radio series that leaves you feeling infinitely smarter after each episode. A satisfyingly wide range of topics from Kashmiri poets and the fall of the Roman Empire to Norse mythology, famous artists and the fight to defeat smallpox.

And if all else fails: try a virtual whisky tasting or go for broke and book a Hedonism private wine tasting.

Bottoms up, folks.

Featured

Christmas traditions from other countries

Fireworks

I don’t know about you, but I love learning about Christmas traditions in other countries. Read on for some of my favourites.

13th December: St Lucia, Scandinavia

The Saint Lucia ceremony on 13th December

Today is the feast day of St Lucia, or Saint Lucy. Unless you are from a Catholic country, are Scandinavian or have a particular interest in saints, you may not have heard of her. I hadn’t, until my brother moved to Stockholm. Lucy of Syracuse was executed by dagger during the Roman Empire persecution of Christians in 304 AD. When she became a saint, 13th December was named as her feast day.

St Lucia Day in Scandinavia is also a festival of light. That’s because the day used to coincide with the Winter Solstice, the pagan celebration of the shortest day of the year. The solstice falls a week later nowadays – 21st December this year – due to calendar changes.

Sweden and Norway celebrate St Lucia most of all, getting up early to celebrate the light and ‘break the spell’ of winter darkness. Totally understandable, given that at this time of year there are about 18 hours of darkness and six hours of light each day.

Today, though I’m sure most of the usual celebrations have been cut back, processions of people normally walk and sing together wearing white robes, holding candles and heralding the light of the day. Traditionally, a girl would lead the procession wearing a red sash (a nod to Saint Lucia’s martyrdom) and a crown set with real candles – steadily you’d hope. Nowadays, boys also take the lead role. After the processions are complete, candles collect together like carpets along pavements, staying lit in their glass holders until the wax is worked through and the wicks wane.

It sounds wonderful, and I hope to get to see all the blazing candles one day. But there is another element of the tradition that excites me more… freshly baked bread!

Buns called Lussebullar (‘Lucia buns’) are traditionally made for the celebrations. They are also known as saffransbullar because of all the saffron that goes into them. And some call them Lussekatter because they look a bit like curled up cats.

Naturally, I had to have a go at baking some myself today.

Ten freshly baked Lussebullar buns

And here’s how my Lussebullar have turned out. I’m quite pleased!

The taste? Like saffron brioche. Buttery and light, soft and delightfully full of savoury-sweet saffron flavour. Completely worth the effort.

If you fancy making a batch yourself, the recipe I followed is by the owner of Scandi Kitchen Brontë Aurell who wrote her recipe up for a recent issue of the Waitrose newspaper. (Two tips – use a teaspoon of saffron if you can’t measure 0.4g. And whisk then stir the mixture if you don’t have a dough hook).

More traditions

An advent calendar

As you might guess, it’s not just Nordic festivals of light that interest me at this time of year. Below are some other Christmas celebrations, events and traditions that take place around the world.

Want to share your own traditions? Comment underneath!

6th December: Sankt Nikolaus, Germany

My slipper filled with Sankt Nikolaus day treats
My slipper on 6th December

Going back in time to last Sunday, this is the point in the year when children (or big kids) leave out their shoes at night in the hope of waking up on 6th December to find them full of sweets, instead of coal.

We’ve carried out the shoes & sweets tradition of Sankt Nikolaus as a family for many years, and I can confirm that this year I received only sweets – phew. It’s also tradition (any time in December really) to eat Christmas biscuits, especially lebkuchen gingerbread.

Sankt Nikolaus / Saint Nicholas, from whom the Santa Claus narrative derives, was an actual early Christian bishop of Greek descent who hailed from the island of Patara, near Turkey. He was known by the fantastic nickname of Nicholas the Wonderworker, on account of the many miracles attributed to him. He is patron saint of all sorts of people, from sailors and merchants to prostitutes, the unmarried (hi), students and children. Though very little is known about him, he had a penchant for secret gift giving, so it’s him we should thank for getting roped into Secret Santa every year.

Germany doesn’t have a monopoly on St Nick; his feast day on 6th December is celebrated by Christians around the world and characters like the devilish Krampus in Austria add some extra drama. Plus we have The Netherlands to thank for the establishment of Santa Claus; when Dutch colonists built the settlement of New Amsterdam (now Lower Manhattan), they introduced their Sinterklaas traditions.

December up to Christmas Eve: Jólabókaflód, Iceland

A book with candy cane and drink

I love the romance of this Icelandic book-giving tradition, especially how lots of Icelanders spend their Christmas Eves.

Iceland is an island of serious book lovers – on average 1,300 books are published each year for a population of only about 300,000. Many of the books are published before Christmas. Hence the name of the tradition, Jólabókaflód, meaning ‘Christmas Book Flood’.

Each year every household receives a book ‘bulletin’ featuring all the soon-to-be-published book titles, and there is usually a book fair in Reykjavik as well as author interviews on TV.

Gifting books dates back to the Second World War when paper wasn’t rationed, making books commonly available.

It’s an over-romanticised view to expect every Icelander to do this, but on the most important day for most Scandinavians, Christmas Eve, after gifts are exchanged and big family meals take place, many Icelanders like to start reading the books they’ve received, often into the night, abs sometimes with a Christmassy glass of jolabland, made of beer and fizzy orange.

I love this idea so much that I’ve bought myself a book to open on Christmas Eve and a bottle of Guinness and Orangina for some DIY jolabland.

19th December: Giant Lantern Festival, Philippines

A tree lantern of lights in Manila

Small traditional lanterns called parols are made all around the Philippines around Christmas time, destined to decorate Filipino homes during the holidays.

But where this light festival gets seriously impressive is in the scale of the lanterns that decorate city streets and village roads. Competitions are popular, with Filipino craftspeople working on lanterns as big as 20 feet high, made of wire patterns and bulbs inside steel cylinders. The various styles of lanterns are usually designed to switch on and off to the sound of music, which must be an awesome sight and sound to behold.

24th December: le Réveillon de Noël, France

A bûche Noël

Another Christmas Eve tradition I can wholeheartedly get behind. Many French spend their Christmas Eves staying awake past midnight to enjoy an extravagant meal of luxury dishes, accompanied by various French wines.

Aware that once is never enough, there is also le Réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre, a night of extravagance on New Year’s Eve.

Lots of family and friends merrily together around the dining table is key to celebration, so it will all undoubtedly have be much more muted this Christmas, but I’m sure the food will be just as opulent – snails, oysters, lobster, chestnuts, truffles and the centrepiece, a Bûche de Noël chocolate log.

Kids aren’t left out of proceedings, as le Père Noël sneaks by if he can and places presents under the tree.

24th December: hiding your broom, Norway

A broom

Yep, as random as it sounds. A centuries-old tradition to avoid brooms being ridden by witches and evil spirits the night before Christmas. Crisis easily averted by simply hiding one’s broom somewhere safe about the house.

Slightly more fun-sounding, on the day before, 23rd December, Norwegians celebrate what’s called Little Christmas, carrying out family traditions like putting the tree up or making gingerbread.

24-25th December: fireworks, El Salvador

People letting off fireworks

On Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, Central American countries like El Salvador celebrate the season with fireworks galore. There aren’t restrictions on people using them so, from volcancitos fire crackers to Roman candles and classic fireworks, they’re everywhere.

Advent and New Year’s Day: la ribote, Martinique

A family eating dinner in their family home in Martinique
Courtesy Martinique Tourist Board

Families visit neighbours with favourite dishes of yams, pork stew, boudin creole (blood sausage) and pork pies style pastries called pâtés salés. After eating they’ll sing Creole versions of traditional carols into the early hours, in their houses or with the rest of their community.

5th January: Cider wassailing on Twelfth Night, UK

Wassailing in West Sussex

Wassailing on Twelfth Night is a very old tradition in Britain, said to date back to Saxon times. There are numerous local variations to the customs but essentially it’s based on a pagan tradition of blessing apple and pear orchards before the following year’s harvest.

This involves processions, singing in the orchards, blessing the trees, drinking from a cup of mulled cider (traditionally a ‘wassailing cup’) and making a ‘hullabaloo’ by banging pots and pans – all in the hope of encouraging a great future harvest.

What does the word ‘wassail’ actually mean? National Trust curator explains in an interesting article on the origins of wassailing that the word ‘is believed to be derived from the Old English “was hál’, meaning “be hale” or “good health”’

I would dearly love to take part in a nearby wassail in January, now that I live in Somerset, home of all good cider. Though something tells me we won’t all be drinking from a shared wassail cup this time around…

7th January: Eastern Orthodox Christmas

Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, and his granddaughter Snegurochka
Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, and his granddaughter Snegurochka

Most Orthodox Christians (with the exception of Greeks, Cypriots and Romanians) celebrate Christmas on 7th January rather than 25th December. This is simply because they use the Julian calendar which pre-dates the Gregorian calendar we use today, and doesn’t include its modifications.

In Eastern European countries and elsewhere, such as Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Israel and Egypt, Orthodox Christians have many traditions that are very distinctly their own.

In East Slavic countries (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Macedonia and others), their version of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus is Ded Moroz, or ‘Grandfather Frost’. Together with his granddaughter and helper Snegurochka (‘snow maiden’), they deliver presents on New Year’s Eve, which is often the start of the Christmas holidays for Orthodox Christians.

Elsewhere in the world, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate a mass on Christmas Eve (6th Jan) known as the gahad. The church service begins at 6pm and continues into the early hours of Christmas Day. And in Egypt, with a Coptic Orthodox Church that has upwards of 10 million members, 43 days of fasting take place from 25th November. Making Christmas Day lunch all the more enticing!

As for me

When it comes to it, in my mind, the heart of most Christmas traditions is family and community, lights amid the winter darkness and sharing food with friends and family.

That’s why, although I always like to borrow some Christmas traditions from further afield, I’ll still treasure the little things I’ve grown up doing; fishing through the myriad boxes of baubles with my mum and making the Christmas pudding on Stir-up Sunday; trying and failing to open my Christmas stocking at the same slow speed as my brother; getting my dad ever larger boxes of Turkish Delight, something he still loves despite his ailing health; Muppets and kids home alone and an unholy amount of board games. But not forgetting perhaps the best thing of all. Great company, from friends and family – online or otherwise.

Featured

Postcard from… snowy Iceland

‘A few feathery flakes are scattered widely through the air, and hover downward with uncertain flight, now almost alighting on the earth, now whirled again aloft into remote regions of the atmosphere.’

― Nathaniel Hawthorne

Has it snowed near you over the past few days? A dusting here, or a slick of frost there? In Somerset, sleet was forecast to fall on Friday – but if there was any, it certainly sneaked past me. Snow-spotting is such a national obsession, because you never know if you’ll get so much as a snowflake from one year to the next.

Iceland, though, is a country almost entirely blanketed by snow and enveloped in ice throughout winter’s months. They don’t need betting shops to place odds on whether there will be a White Christmas.

And if you’ve been to Iceland in midwinter you will know that it is a world of vanishing white horizons, of soft and newly-settled dazzling meringue peaks daubed over the landscape. Banks of thick slush, crystals glinting and grey on pathways. Threatful black ice lying in wait around car parks and geysers. For which sometimes there is no such thing as bad conditions, just bad shoes.

This postcard from snowy Iceland could have narrowed in on so many memories of our week-long escape to the land of Thor, ice, fire and aurora. They remain so vivid.

Early on in our trip, our hours of padding along the sloped edges of the famous Eyjafjallajökull glacier, finding volcanic ash souvenirs, picking up lost sunglasses, discovering remote hot spring swimming pools.

An impressive (and exhausting) day driving over tundra-vast landscapes, enveloped by mists as the mountains poked up in the distance, draped in snowfall; as we drove to our remote farmhouse in the north rather than flew. The pale orb of the sun growing stronger as the day wore on, carrying us along the seclusion of the Tröllaskagi Peninsula. The way the sun set into a world of rosy pinks, watery greens, melting mauve and faraway smudges of orange as we stopped the car to get out and look over at the beginnings of the Arctic Circle.

The half-frozen thundering of waterfalls and the deep blue and turquoise of ice floes as they escaped from underneath. The views from clifftop roofs out onto Iceland’s vast valleys and along basalt-studded beaches.

Or a jewel in our memories, one I recounted in a post written in 2017: the swishing mystery and awesome dance of the northern lights. Opening up around us as we walked up almost blindly (at last) to our isolated farmhouse, the roadway rammed with so much snow that our car couldn’t pass. A night spent as angels in the snow and the staring out from the front door in the morning at the jagged peaks of mountains that had absorbed the display from hours earlier.

Instead – pictured above is a place called Thingvellir.

It’s a historic national park so close to Reykjavik that you can drive there in 45 minutes. It is 1/3 of the attractions that are collectively called ‘The Golden Circle’,significant because it was the outdoor site of the world’s first democratic parliament, set up by the Vikings in 930AD.

It looms in my mind when I think about Iceland’s snowscapes, not because no-one ever visited but because we could feel so left alone in our explorations, despite everyone else who visited.

We encountered people as we rounded our way around a lake to Thingvallabaer, the historic remains of a farmhouse. As we entered Thingvallakirkja, one of Iceland’s oldest churches, we entered with strangers. We passed other people as we trundled down the epic passage of tectonic plates that forms the giant Almannagja fault line. Fewer people, but they were still other people.

Then at some point we took a turning, following a concealed trail that nobody else seemed to have used for some time.

We found ourselves in an entirely quiet, poetic wonderland. Whose sorbet snow was untrodden and whose columns of rocks and trees muffled our voices even from ourselves. We kept walking and chatting until we could each sense ourselves drifting away into thought. Eventually, even our thoughts meandered away like flurries of snowflakes. We were walking so deeply away from where we had been, and we felt so hidden in this ethereal panorama. Our tracks melted away behind us, until even birds might not have followed.

I will never forget how it felt to be so peacefully apart from everybody and everything else. So concentrated on the present that all we could hear was the snow and all we could see was the silence.

Featured

Gifts for travel lovers

Well, that’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday done and dusted for another year. Did you purchase anything or avoid it like the plague? I bought two gifts, showing a level of restraint that’s very unlike me. But I’m excited that today marks the beginning of Advent…

I find it’s around this time that I start reflecting on the weeks and months ahead, rather than just the months and weeks gone. For one thing, I realised that at the end of December I will be writing my 50th blog post. That’s not bad going, considering 25 of them will have been written this year alone. I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories, wanderings and wonderings.

And if you read last week’s post in particular, you’ll have discovered that I’m a big fan of Stanfords, the map and travel book shop that’s been in and around London’s Covent Garden since 1853. They recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to save themselves from closure.

They’re welcoming donations until 23rd December, but I thought I would do my bit to help them in other ways too. This week I’ve curated a Christmassy gift guide for travel lovers – and I’ve also launched a competition for a chance to win a stocking load of great travel prizes!

Festivities this year are going to be very different for a lot of us, even with the Christmas baubles bubbles we’re allowed to form from 23-27th December in the UK. We’re not going to be able to see all of our friends and family as normal, whether drunkenly in fairy light-laden bars or round a dinner table, board game or TV.

So I hope you’ll forgive the departure from my normal style of travel post. Whether you celebrate Christmas or just can’t wait to get travelling again in 2021, scroll on for a travel trove of top gift ideas, from stocking fillers and family fun to brilliant books and luxury presents.

And if you’d like to get straight to the business of entering to win some super Stanfords travel gifts (funded by me), head over to my Instagram page @kateonhertravels.

N.B. All the product links and images below will take you through to the Stanfords website. At the time of writing, all items were available online. Stanfords deliver internationally and across mainland UK. If you’re in the UK, there’s free delivery on orders over £30.

All product images courtesy Stanfords.co.uk
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Red globe bauble from Stanfords

Red globe bauble / Perfect for any discerning, wordly tree. £7.99

World luggage tag from Stanfords

World luggage tag / Show your luggage you mean business when you are next allowed out of the country. £8.99

Bag light from Stanfords

A handy tie on bag light / For those moments when you can’t for the life of you find anything in your damn bag. £3.99

map clothes bags from Stanfords

Around the world cloth travel bags set / Keep an eye on the world and your stuff tidy all in one go. £18.99

Everest notebook from Stanfords

Mount Everest A5 notebook / 192 pages in which to start planning your next trip. Based on the National Geographic Society’s map of Everest. £9.99

Stanfords book bag in teal

World map book bag / I consider myself enough of an expert in these matters to declare that this bag passes the tote test. A simple but delightful design printed on durable, 10oz cotton. Comes in teal, black or red. £12

Magnificent Maps Puzzle Book by the British Library

Magnificent Maps Puzzle Books / Featuring maps from the British Library’s collections. Scrutinise each map and answer a series of puzzling questions. £14.99

Rivers and mountains mug, from Stanfords

Mountains and rivers mug / Boff up on the world’s tallest mountains and longest rivers over a Darjeeling. £12.99

Globe in a box, from Stanfords

Globe in a box / Beats a jack. Based on a 1745 French globe design by Vaugondy (the globe-makers to King Louis XV) with as much detail as a bigger globe. £14.99

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The strongest memories from that first trip, and from every trip since, are from my encounters with us, with our inspiring, intriguing, long-suffering, comic, clever and caring fellow humans… Meaningful encounters with other people in a strange part of the world are the real experiences to treasure.

Simon Reeve, Step by step
Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Around The World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh / This is the follow up to her 2016 book Around India in 80 Trains in which she visited 80 Indian cities by train over 4 months – the whole trip costing only £1,500! This time, the entire train adventure involved plotted a route covering 45,000 miles, twice the circumference of the Earth. I highly recommend listening to a fantastic interview with Monisha on new travel podcast The First Mile. £9.99

Step by Step by Simon Reeve

Step by Step by Simon Reeve / An honest, engrossing book from one of the most charismatic presenters on the BBC. Simon Reeve recounts the depression and misguidedness he felt as a teenager and the luck and hard graft that led him to the successful career he has today. It’s been out for a little while now, but it remains a very charismatic read. Well-worth your time. £9.99

A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough

A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough / Whether you’ve seen the accompanying Netflix film yet or not, this book is a must-read. David Attenborough draws on key moments from a life charting the natural world, pulling from his own experiences and from scientific data a vision for the future and the survival of our planet. £20

Red Sands by Caroline Eden

Red Sands by Caroline Eden / An exploration of Central Asia, with food as the starting point. Featuring human stories, forgotten histories and tales of adventure. And recipes! I’m very excited to read this and hope to find it under the tree (hint hint). £26

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux / This is one of the travel books I’ll be starting over Christmas, It’s been on my list for some time! Paul Theroux charts an ambitious adventure by train, boat and cattle truck from Egypt to South Africa, along the way he revisits old friends and recounts memories from his time as a teacher in Malawi 40 years before. £10.99

Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts / This is the other travel book I’ll be starting at Christmas. At a Royal Geographical Society event Sophy Roberts confessed that she would have loved to have been a full-on war reporter, and she often reports from remote parts of the world. In this award-winning book she uses musical culture as a way to tell the story of Siberia and the Russian Far East. £18.99

When the Last Lion Roars by Sara Evans

When the Last Lion Roars by Sara Evans / A truly fascinating book considering the terrible plight of Africa’s lions. Sara Evans first saw wild lions in the Madikwe Game Reserve in North West South Africa, an experience that led her on a path to investigating the historic rise and fall of the king of the beasts. £16.99

Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy

Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy / In 1940s Ireland as a child, Dervla Murphy dreamed of taking her bicycle around the world. 21 years later she did just that, cycling from Ireland to India in 1963. A startlingly bold adventure, even by today’s standards. £12.99

Encounters by Levison Wood

Encounters by Levison Wood / Explorer, presenter and photographer Levison Wood left the army a decade ago with no formal training as a writer or a photographer, but with the ambition to publish three books in five years and win awards for his photography. This is book number eight, featuring 15 years of photography from across his expeditions. £30 (signed copies while stocks last).

Great Diaries book

The world’s most remarkable diaries / Bringing together more than 80 historical and literary diaries, artists’ sketchbooks, explorers’ journals, and scientists’ notebooks. A fascinating collection, whether you keep your own diary religiously, or have never kept one. £20

The lions we have left are remnants… a ragged tapestry, once rich and golden, now fading before our eyes. The bright flame of an iconic species is burning out.

Sara Evans, When the Last Lion Roars
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Terrestrial globe from Stanfords

Navigator’s Terrestial Globe / An exact replica of the 16th Century Mercator globe, a projection made in 1569 by Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Marcator that became the standard for navigation. £160

Cartographic map featuring the Western and Eastern Hemispheres

Eastern and Western Hemispheres map / A beautiful reproduction of an 1877 map from the Edward Stanford Cartographic Collection Archive.

Looks neat too. £49.99-£69.99

Reproduction compass from Lewis & Clark expeditions, from Stanfords

Lewis & Clark compass / A reproduction of a compass used by American explorer William Clark on expeditions with Meriweather Lewis. The real compass is on display at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. £29.99

Route map of the Earth luxury tote from Stanfords

Route map of the Earth luxury tote bag / Features Stanfords’ beautiful route map of the world, printed in full onto premium weight cotton before the bag is sewn. £45

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Rainbow coloured 13cm model of an air balloon from Stanfords

Your very own air balloon / I love the design and attention to detail of this 13cm-tall air balloon. It’s the desk buddy you didn’t know you needed. £17.99

Giant World Map from Stanfords

Create your own giant map of the world / have a lot of fun creating a big wall map of the world, with activities along the way. £10.99

Kids doodling on a Doodle World Map

Doodle World map tablecloth / probably the only time it’s acceptable to draw on a dining table cloth. £22.99

The card game Mapominoes: Europe from Stanfords

Mapominoes: Europe / the Mapominoes series is a firm favourite in our house. As the name suggests, it’s a bit like dominoes except you’ve got to match up countries. Top tip: play on the biggest table you have, or on the floor! £12.99

Kids' map of Great Britain from Stanfords

Great British Map of Wonders / A ginormous map filled with 1,000 of the funnest things to do across Great Britain. Features games, a colouring map on the back and space to make notes. £14.99

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Haiku poetry and woodcut art 2021 wall calendar from Stanfords

Haiku art and poetry wall calendar / Each month displays an elegant seasonal woodcut painting and an accompanying 17 syllable haiku presented in Japanese calligraphy with English translation. £10.99

British Library antique maps wall calendar from Stanfords

2021 British Library antique maps wall calendar / Features a dozen gorgeous antique world map and country map reproductions – all from the British Library’s cartographic collection. £10.99

Ski the World 2021 wall calendar from Stanfords

Ski The World wall calendar / Because, let’s face it, this might be the closest we get to the slopes this winter season. 12 boldly-coloured vintage ski posters, best viewed through ski goggles. £10.99

Orange Moleskine 2021 pocket diary from Stanfords

Moleskine 2021 daily pocket diary / I love using Moleskine notebooks and diaries, for noting appointments and writing my own diary each day. Yes, most of 2020 has been spent on the sofa, but perhaps it’s time to make bold plans! £17.99

World map designed 2021 diary by Cavellini, available at Stanfords

Vintage Maps 2021 Weekly Planner / Printed on Italian paper and featuring a weeks-at-a-glance layout. Includes transport maps for London, Paris, New York and sections for addresses and notes. £10.99

Featured

Saving Stanfords

In what has been a calamitous year on our high streets, I thought I would shine a spotlight on one of my favourite shops in the whole world: Stanfords.

This temple to travel has sold maps and books to record-beating explorers and award-winning authors, curious travellers, the world’s governments and geographers alike since 1853. And a few weeks ago, staff forecast that they could not last until spring.

In October Stanfords announced the grave threat of closure they faced after 167 years trading – if they didn’t act fast. You might have seen that they began a crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise £120,000, the amount they estimated they would need in order to avoid shutting up shop.

I, like thousands of other travel lovers, could not sit idly by and watch them fail because of causes outside of their control. So I clicked through and donated. They had raised £63,000 at that point. It was looking good, I thought, but they’ve got a way to go yet.

Stanfords’ story

Inside Stanfords HQ, 12-14 Long Acre
Courtesy of Stanfords.co.uk

Stanfords has always been situated in and around Covent Garden, ever since a young Edward Stanford took over the Charing Cross Road premises of Trelawney Saunders, a seller of maps, charts and stationary. He had risen fast in that company’s ranks and seized the opportunity in 1853 to become sole proprietor after the partnership he’d been promised had dissolved.

Edward Stanford’s company became the only map maker in London, partnering with a man named John Bolton who ended up as Chief Cartographer for 67 years. His 1862 Library Map of London was described by the Royal Geographical Society at the time as ‘the most perfect map of London that has ever been issued.‘ I’m glad to be able to say that as a teenager smart phones weren’t around and I’m pretty sure I used maps similar to this one to navigate my way round London!

Such was Stanfords’ success, in 1873 they needed new premises, moving the shop to 55 Charing Cross and the printing press to 12-14 Long Acre. By 1885, Edward Stanford was able to retire and pass the business on to his son (give you one guess as to his name).

Under Edward Stanford II, the company achieved a royal warrant as official cartographer to Queen Victoria. The Long Acre address became a flagship shop with all enterprises under one roof from 1900. Some of their customers? Florence Nightingale, Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott. That’s what I call a good fanbase. I could go on and on about their illustrious history, but you can read the full story on the Stanfords website.

In 1997, the only shop outside of London was opened, in Bristol. You’ll also find a Stanfords concession store inside the Royal Geographical Society building in Kensington Gore. In Covent Garden, the Stanfords flagship remained on Long Acre until January 2019 when they moved 100m across the road to a purpose-built two-floor shop on nearby Mercer Street.

David versus Goliath?

A graphic showing a small shop and a big shop building

I have to be honest here and admit that I preferred Stanfords’ old Long Acre site more than the current address. It was across more floors and suited wandering about at will, which I’m a big fan of in shops.

The new site is indeed a third smaller in size, a deliberate choice so it turns out. As CEO Vivienne Godfrey said in this BBC Business interview last year, ‘some of our regular customers were disappointed. But when I, or members of staff, explained to them that it was a question of either remaining and going out of business, or leaving and thriving, everyone understood’. With everything in the business no longer under one roof on Long Acre, the building had become too big for its purpose.

I had prepared to sound the drum for supporting independent businesses due to their losing fight against chains. However, it’s not all gloom as business forecasts for independent shops during the pandemic compared to chains has been surprisingly promising in the UK, according to a new study. They have shown themselves to be more resilient in adapting than big high street names, perhaps because changes haven’t need to be rolled out so widely or signed off by big boards.

That’s not to say that many indy shops aren’t shutting down or hanging by a single thread – they are. The high street is by no means a level playing field. After the lockdown began and all non-essential businesses were asked to close again, many independents and their associations pointed out in dismay that some big chains like Rymans and Carpetright are keeping open despite being non-essential and supermarkets such as Tesco and M&S are breaking rules by allowing sales of non-essential items such as books and clothes. It has seemed to be one rule for the chains and another for independent shops in this second lockdown.

Stanfords’ crowdfunding campaign was launched before the second lockdown was announced. When I checked on their progress this time last week I wondered if the £120,000 target would even be enough to save them. Donations had reached £94,000. Inching closer to their target, but needing more love.

I heart Stanfords

The globes on display in Stanfords, the world's biggest travel bookshop

Don’t worry, I won’t get soppy on you. I’ve actually racked my brain to recall the first time I stepped into Stanfords on Long Acre, but I can’t remember. Though I’m sure my brother and I visited with our dad on our numerous self-guided walking tours round London, in-between trips to Hamleys.

For me, it’s more that I just started popping in whenever I was passing. Then, I’d be killing time after work and make a beeline for its downstairs travel guides and travel classics table for a browse of curated picks. The huge fan was usually always whirring in one corner, lest your body as well as your mind be spirited across to the searing heat of the masai mara or the steaming humidity of an equatorial rainforest. Then, somewhere along the line, Stanfords graduated to being my number one destination not just for trip planning but whenever I was shopping for birthday and Christmas gifts, or wanted some inspiration for my own wish list.

This June, when ‘non-essential’ shops were allowed to open again, Stanfords was the first shop I revisited. I was excited to be back, though a bit glum to be the only shopper in there.

Some might say, ‘if they’re struggling to adapt, maybe let others fill in the gaps. That’s the beauty of capitalism.’

But ask yourself, where else in London would you find mini Tibetan flags, books on Captain Cook’s voyages, survival equipment and maps and globes of every size and for every need?

We would lose a lot more than just a shop if Stanfords was lost. We as travellers would be lost.

Early last week I checked the donations page again. Success! They had reached a tipping point and surpassed £120,000. At the time of writing, over 3,600 supporters have donated over £132,000.

It’s gratifying that so many people have supported a unique business like Stanfords. So much so, they decided to set a new target, £160,000, to enable them to future proof their website, digitise their archive and host bigger and better live events in the future. Perhaps you might consider a donation? Their optional rewards, from cartographic maps to signed books and tours are pretty awesome.

And look out next week for a special edition of my blog, featuring the chance to win some travel goodies, all from you-know-where.

So is that job done then?

Help an indy out

Shop front of bookshop.org, a website supporting independent bookshops

Nope!

However much better than expected indy shops have fared during the pandemic, businesses like Amazon and major supermarkets will still be in our faces and within easiest reach over Christmas.

What about other independent shops? The UK’s bookshops, fashion boutiques and all great little shops selling everything in-between. They face a rocky Christmas, particularly if they can’t reopen from 2nd December, though they do have a lot of supporters to their cause. And there are ways we can all do our bit to support our favourite independent businesses.

The recent expedited launch of bookshop.org – selling books in the UK on behalf of 130+ independent book shops – is a cause for celebration. It doesn’t cost bookshops anything to feature, they can create their own store fronts on the website and the Bookshop team commits to fulfilling deliveries. It was proving so popular in the US that Bookshop launched in the UK well ahead of schedule. Instead of getting blasted on Amazon by algorithm-fuelled choices that undercuts small business, on bookshop.com you’ll only find curated recommendations from booksellers and authors, and each participating bookshop receives full profits from each book sold. How great is that!

Retail consultant Mary Portas’s Adopt a Shop concept encourages the public to each pick three shops in our local area, commit to buying from them instead of usual big online retailers and encourage our friends to do the same. It is an easy and practical way to individually do our bit to keep the small shops we love open.

And, showing for some time that independent shopping can co-exist with big business, American Express’s Shop Small campaign will be returning for another Christmas. Amex relaunched the scheme during the spring lockdown too, showing that the small shops we love deserve to be here to stay, not just for Christmas.

Featured

Food travels: the tagine

Longer read

‘Marvelling at all that had befallen him, the fisherman returned towards the city and, coming to his house with the fish, filled an earthen pot with water and placed them in it. When they began to swim about in the water, he put the pot upon his head and walked with it to the palace…’

‘“Give us proof of your excellence with the cook pots and the luxury of your dishes…”’

‘Without further delay, he got together all of his household goods; his rugs, cushions, his cooking-pots, his cauldrons and mortars, his tables and mattresses, and sold them for fifty dirhams. With part of this money he hired an ass for the journey…’

‘”I have five pots for you” I answered, “all containing admirable foods”. “Ah master master!”, cried the barber, “delight me with the sight of all these wonderful things”’.

– Excerpts from various stories, One Thousand and One Nights

Chapter One: From Atlas Mountains to country kitchen

View from Kasba restaurant over the Atlas mountains

Journalist Hamish Bowles once described Morocco in May as ‘unseasonably tagine-hot’. Well, Hamish, spare a thought for 50°C in July…

It was 2016 and I was in Marrakech for a friend’s 30th. Specifically, and unusually for me, in a luxury villa, with our every whim and culinary desire catered for by a legion of really lovely live-in locals. As I say, it was unusual for me. They prepared for us feast after feast of traditional tagines and cous cous dishes. Even as a total glutton I couldn’t keep up.

On the third day, our host/driver-/fixer Sharif took a band of us quite high into the Atlas Mountains. I had been over the mountain range before, firing through almost without pausing, but this time we stopped to meet camels, admire houses and workshops full of handmade goods and sample some excellent Moroccan food.

Rugs outside a rug merchant's shop in the Atlas Mountains
A young camel in the Atlas Mountains
Kasba restaurant sign

We ate tagine, of course, at a restaurant called Kasba. I remember sitting on the panoramic terrace tucking in, as if it was this afternoon. The deep tang of citrus and the warmth of spice as I knocked mine back – chicken with preserved lemon and olives. It was one of the most glorious gastronomic experiences of my life. Two hours cooking on a fire, gone in minutes.

When it was time to wend our way back down to Marrakech, I spotted a potter’s shop off the road. Of course, Sharif knew the owners and sellers, as he knew everyone we’d met on our excursions.

I took my time shuffling past shelves and shelves of tagine pots. Glazed and painted, plain and not glazed, subtly daubed or garish. Soon enough, a wily old seller cornered me and we prepared to duel. Well, haggle. I love negotiating in souks, markets and shops. I’m an adrenaline junkie for it. It’s also considered rude not to barter on price.

In my broken French I had great fun batting away the man’s suggested prices and in his broken English he enjoyed the challenge of trying to sell me multiple pots.

‘Why one when you can buy four?’… ‘But I’ve only got one cabin bag!’

The final score? I came in with eyes on one, and left with bags for two. I paid around £10 in total so it was a bargain, but I’d have haggled more if time wasn’t so precious.

landscape image of two tagin pots in the Atlas Mountains

When I returned home, although I thought I might keep the more classic, glazed tagine, I decided it would travel better to South America and so kept the unglazed, pure clay pot. I researched how to ‘season’ your tagine pot ready for cooking (more on that later) and wrote up some instructions to take, but I did nothing to my own one.

Four years on, reader, I am slightly ashamed to tell you that for most of its former life, my unglazed, unseasoned tagine pot lay under my bed in Brixton, rarely-touched, wrapped in old newspaper and housed in a guardian newspaper-sponsored pink Glastonbury rucksack.

When I moved down to Somerset earlier this year, it remained wrapped thus, until a few weeks ago, when I organised some of my kitchen stuff. Our country kitchen was to gain yet more gadgets and souvenirs. I tore off the paper and plonked the tagine pot down on the table. It was not a eureka moment though, it merely sat there for a few days gathering a virgin layer of dust. Progress, but I made no attempt to research tagine ingredients or unearth instructions. Was the tagine headed for another four years of unloved obscurity?

Ding dong.

An unusual delivery, a small box labelled My Little Persian Kitchen… it wasn’t something I recalled ordering.

Contents of a My Little Persian Kitchen spice kit

Two of my former housemates had gifted me a belated birthday present – a three month ‘Arabian Nights’ spice subscription. The first recipe included? A blooming tagine. And not just any old tagine recipe, but one for chicken with lemon and olives!

Finally. I had a tagine pot to prepare, tiny pots of perfectly measured spices and a reason to persevere. It was time at last to recreate one of my tastiest travel memories.

Chapter Two: a potted history of the tagine

Graphic spelling the word tagine

Before I share how I got on… facts!

ETYMOLOGY.

The word tagine comes from the Moroccan Arabic طجين ṭažin, from the Berber word tajin which refers to a shallow earthenware cooking vessel. Though in Ancient Greek the word tágēnon means a frying pan or saucepan, the Berber people are the undoubted reason for the worldwide spread of tagine cooking. Who are they?

THE BERBER PEOPLE.

Two Berber in the dunes

Two thirds of Morocco’s population call themselves, or can trace their roots back to, Berber people. Berber are indigenous to North Africa with their own language that changes only slightly across neighbouring countries. Berber see themselves as Imazighen, which loosely means ‘free people’, a nod to the nomadic way of living that characterises them. They are unified by their shared language and free spiritedness, but also by a shared history of caring for livestock, their families and cultural traditions that stretch back at least 5,000 years.

Their cooking of tagines over open fires in the past few centuries are what has led the cuisine to be so widely revered across North Africa and the world. The origin of the tagine can be traced further back, however.

ROMANS?

Triumphal arch in Volubilis, Morocco
Triumphal Arch in Volubilis near Meknes in Morocco. It grew hugely under Roman occupation. Wikimedia Commons

The Roman occupation of North Africa began in the ruins of the city of Carthage in 146 BC and ended in the 7th Century (the Byzantine era) when the Umayyad Caliphate (Islamic Government) wrestled it from them. Roman ceramics were traded widely across the empire and pieces of ‘portable ovens’ similar to tagines have been found in digs around Hadrian’s Wall in England. It’s therefore plausible that the innovation caught on in North Africa from the Romans.

THE ISLAMIC GOLDEN AGE.

Map of the Abbasid empire
A map showing the Abbasid empire. Wikimedia Commons.

Whether inherited from the Romans or not, most food historians commonly date the use of tagines back to the time of Harun al-Rashid, who ruled as the fifth leader of the Abbasid Caliphate.

His name means ‘rightly guided’, and indeed he was caliph at a time in the 8th and 9th centuries known as the peak of the first Islamic Golden Age. Multiculturalism and relative religious freedoms were the perfect conditions for scholars to be translating Ancient Greek manuscripts from philosophers like Aristotle, and on medicine and other disciplines. Could this be why the word ‘tagine’ is similar to an Ancient Greek word?

In any case, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 AD and their empire extended (intake of breath) over modern day Iraq, Syria, Israel Palastine, Southern Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia. You can find out more about this fascinating empire in a really interesting BBC4 Radio episode of In Our Time.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the Abbasid empire might have collided with the Berber nomadic way of life to foster the growth of tagine cooking across North Africa.

ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS.

Rows of lamps in a souk
Courtesy Naomi Koelemans on Unsplash

What about the earliest recorded mention of tagines? You’ll recall that I began this post with quotes from One Thousand and One Nights, aka Arabian Nights. Neat fact, many of the stories are thought to originate in Persia, possibly India too, from the time of al-Rashid. One clue? He features in a lot of them.

I browsed an entire copy of the book online and couldn’t find one specific use of the word ‘tagine’, and indeed only one original fragment from the time of al-Rashid survives, but nevertheless a mouthwatering collection of food does feature, as do many feasts, kitchens, cooking methods and utensils.

Chapter Three: types of tagine

Stacks of clay tagine pots on display in Morocco
Wikimedia Commons.

Tagines are and were evidently popular far beyond Morocco’s borders.

Sephardic Jewish food culture, and that of Maghrebi Jews (who can trace their North African history back over 2,000 years) involves lots of tagine making, including for Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays. The styles prepared depend on country-specific traditions eg in Morocco using dried fruits is more common, while Tunisian stews often feature potatoes, carrots and courgettes, all diced.

I say ‘stew’ because if you ask for a ‘tajine’ in Tunisia the end result will apparently be something closer to an Italian frittata!

A traditional Berber style of tagine
A traditional Berber tagine. Wikimedia Commons.

The most popular tagines in North Africa, certainly that I’ve encountered or read about, include chicken, lemon and olive (scroll down for a recipe), lamb or beef with prune, chicken and apricot, fish with chermoula marinade, beef or lamb meatball and a classic Berber tagine, with a cone-shaped layer of different vegetables, usually over meat (above).

It all sounds big on meat, but of course vegetables are a huge part of North African cuisine and easily interchange with meat or fish. One of Morocco’s most traditional but popular dishes is cous cous with seven vegetables. Meat or no meat, the dish includes a mound of cous cous with a combination of carrot, cabbage, turnip, squash or pumpkin, courgette, sweet potato, onion.

In Persian cuisine, a khoresh is a generic word for stews from Iran and Afghanistan, often served with rice. They include aubergine and beef (Bademjan), herb stew (sabzi) and chicken with pomegranate and walnut (fesenjan).

Elsewhere, the Palestinian dish of Qidra – or Kidra – involves cooking a puree of onions in clarified butter, followed by lamb or chicken with chickpeas, rice and spices in a pot over a wood fire.

And in India and Pakistan, bursting with a kaleidoscope of regional cuisines as it is, Mughlai cuisine blends traditions of the old Mughal courts with Persian flavours.

The tagine has traditions that clearly date back many centuries and span empires. But, whether the Moroccan Berbers, Abbasid rulers or exalted characters from literature are the reason for its meteoric rise as the emperor of the one pot meal, the proof is always in the eating…

Chapter Four: a recipe for chicken, lemon and olive tagine

Excited to use the My Little Persian Kitchen spice subscription, and remembering the meal in the mountains, the first tagine I made with my prepared tagine pot was a classic using chicken, lemon and olive. It’s also known as Joojeh Khoresh in Persian cooking.

Serves 2. Prep time 30 mins & cooking time 2 hours.
(See the next chapter for how to season your tagine pot, if you’ve just bought one).

Equipment needed: a tagine pot (the size of mine or bigger), or else a cast iron cooking pot such as a Dutch oven. Or you can use a big roasting dish with a lid, or foil lid. Scales & frying pan.

Ingredient list

4-6 chicken thighs, depending on size
50g pancetta cubes or bacon, cut into pieces
1 medium brown onion, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, crushed and sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
75g green queen olives, or similar
1 large lemon, sliced width ways (unwaxed preferably)
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp saffron strands crushed slightly into 1/2 tsp sugar with a spoon
1 preserved lemon, quartered with flesh removed (look for the Belazu brand)
Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate & parsley or mint (optional)
(For a vegetarian alternative you could replace the chicken with thickly cut portions of any of the following: carrots, white cabbage, celeriac, onion, sweet potato, courgette, squash. Instead of bacon, add a tiny bit extra salt and brown the onion more)

Preheat the oven to 160°C (140°C fan, gas mark 2, 234°F)

  1. Make a dry rub for the chicken by mixing together all the spices and seasonings, except the saffron and sugar.
  2. Coat the chicken in the dry rub.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan or heavy-bottomed large pan and add the pancetta or bacon. Sauté for a few mins until the fat starts to turn brown.
  4. Add your marinated chicken to the pan and cook until golden, keeping turning.
  5. Meanwhile, add the sliced onions and garlic and stir, coating them as they cook for a few mins.
  6. Add your fresh lemon slices and 2 cups of water (you may not need as much if your tagine pot is slightly smaller).
  7. Add the olives and the preserved lemon. Stir and then transfer everything to your prepared tagine pot, or other vessel. Be careful that the lid fits back on properly.
  8. Pop into your preheated oven and cook for 2 hours.
  9. Meanwhile, crush the saffron together with the sugar, either in a pestle and mortar or with the back of a spoon in a ramekin. And a few teaspoons of hot water and set aside.
  10. You might like to make up some cous cous or bulgar wheat to go with the tagine. Follow packet instructions for amounts, and use chicken or vegetable stock instead of plain water, to give it extra flavour.
  11. It’s optional, but if you’ve got a pomegranate to hand, cut it in half (across, not down), hold half over a bowl and bash the skin with a heavy wooden spoon. That should loosen most of the seeds easily, but expect juice to spit! Put half the seeds and a snip of mint or parsley in your cous cous or bulgar wheat, if making.
  12. Take the tagine out of the oven, place carefully on a heat resistant surface, take the lid off and pour the saffron sugar water over. Sprinkle the remaining pomegranate seeds over the tagine, along with some snipped up parsley or mint, if you have it.

Hungry for more recipes?

I highly recommend checking Christine Benlafquih out over at The Spruce Eats. She is from Casablanca and features lots of tagine info and recipes. It is from her that I learned how best to prepare a tagine dish for cooking – read on for a step by step picture guide.

Chapter Five: Step-by-step picture guide for ‘seasoning’ a tagine pot

Tagine pot before it gets seasoned
My unseasoned tagine pot

To make a tagine style meal you don’t technically have to use a tagine pot, but for me personally it’s been a proper thrill to finally get to use mine, and I can’t wait to try another recipe soon.

All tagine pots have to go through what’s called seasoning before they can be used in cooking. This is to make the clay or ceramic more durable and it also removes any raw clay taste. It’s not complicated at all, but I recommend starting at least the day before you want to cook with it, to allow you enough time for each step.

The below guidelines are adapted from Christine Benlafquih over at The Spruce Eats, with some additional notes from me.

Preparing your new tagine pot

Tagine in water
  • Soak the lid and the base in a bucket or box of water for at least 2 hours, or overnight (which I opted for).
  • Drain the water and leave the tagine to dry for a short while.
Rubbing olive oil into the tagine pot
  • If your cookware is unglazed (like mine), rub the interior and exterior of the lid and base with olive oil – a clean sponge would work. If it’s glazed, it shouldn’t need the olive oil here. (You’ll see some kitchen paper in the picture above. Suffice it to say, a sponge won’t leave little bits of tissue behind…
The olive oil permeates into the clay
  • Leave until all the olive oil has permeated the clay.
The empty tagine in the oven
  • It’s time to get it into the oven – allow up to 4-5 hours for the following 3 steps.
  • Place your tagine pot, lid on, in a cold oven.
  • Turn the oven on to 150°C (130°C fan), and set the timer for 2 hours. Be careful not to have the oven any higher, as clay will crack if subjected to high heat.
  • After 2 hours, turn off the oven, and leave the tagine to cool completely in the oven.
  • Once cooled, wash the tagine by hand in warm water with a tiny bit of soap, using a non-scratch cloth or sponge.
  • Allow it to dry fully.