To travel again. My long awaited return to Europe.

How I psyched myself against travelling in these times.  Doubted, fretted, convinced that I would be caught up, caught out and banished before boarding.  Less than three weeks ago, I ventured towards the check in counter as if ready to go to court, ready to defend with enough documents and test results tucked under my arm, yet the nerves were more prickly than they usually are on a flying day.

Despite the extra expense of PCR tests, my trip to France went smoothly, flying out late with KLM to Schipol airport and onto Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.  In terms of documentation, South African Border Control asked for my Health Questionnaire and if I had done the PCR. Schipol Border Control wanted to know why I was going to Paris and to check I had a Vaccine app, and Paris said ‘Bonjour!’ – no security, no border control, and no suitcase.

This arrived two days later.

At no point in France was I grilled about being there.  The bateaux were thrilled with sightseers, parks filled with picnic baskets and students, camera clicking tourists all the way.  Hearing all the different accents, the smooth, romance of the french dialect.  Masks, as is the new fashion, gets hoiked up your arm above the elbow and only used to enter shops, places to eat and public galleries and museums. Walking around Versailles gardens for five hours, a reasonable distance from others, I thought it fine not to wear it and all those around seemed to agree. The rule seems to be keep your distance, be comfortable and use your common sense.  In no way did any of these rules detract from the experience of being there – heavenly, at one with the kings and queens, statues and turning leaves in the Tuilleries.

The difficult part lies squarely at the foot of the UK Border Control.  For months, the British government have employed rules and regulations befitting a psychedelic rave.  Draconian rules of which countries are Red, Amber and Green, which can change as quickly as the sucked colours of Smarties.  This leaves business and family travel (I hesitate to say leisure for fear of the ‘stay at home mate, this is a pandemic’ participants crawling onto the platform).  Family travel and business travel then – members of families who have been separated for too long, business travel that makes the world go around. More noteworthy, and I am flummoxed on this score – it seems as if there is more afoot that the sudden raising or lowering of country colours than meets the eye. Pressure maybe, politics sir, or just a little bit of profit involved methinks?

Your vaccine and my vaccine are the same vaccines but no, doesn’t count here.  Isolation required and again, some pretty serious money for all the tests, but this was something I knew and did willingly to return to my children.

Though I resent some of the rules, exempting the wealthy, sports events and such, I am delighted to be travelling again.  Invigorated by change, different destinations and cultures, different tastes – to stand before great art and light candles in a vast cathedral is deeply satisfying. Loved my quirky, yet charming hotel on the left bank, great dinner with friends and family and crossing France, and under the sea on the Eurostar was brilliant.  Wafting through the gardens of Giverny, the vast landscape of Versailles, deeply moving.

The nerves, the longing, the waiting is over.  The last of summer greets me in the morning, the red buses, cheery old friends.  Taking George for a walk in the park, chats face to face rather than zooming  and planning more.  Sadly any return to France would mean another session of isolation if returning to the UK, but I can wait … have been waiting for months now, and a few more will only make the journey more delicious again.

An autumn walk through the Jardin du Luxembourg.

‘It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnuts trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette.  The flower-women were arranging their daily stock.  Students went by going up to the law school, or down to the Sorbonne.’  Ernest Hemingway

Must have begun with the purchase of ‘A movable feast’ at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, but since that moment, Paris has become synonymous with Hemingway, particularly on the left bank in the 5th and 6th.  This is the place of writers for as long as writers met and wrote in Paris.

Small cafés smell of cigarettes and controversial ideas. A certain intimacy of bodies too close, prattling in the rolling sounds of their local language. The coffee is strong, papers crunch and smoke always hovering above. And I pass these on my way to the gardens, or the ‘luco’ as the locals call it. I cannot visit Paris and not spend time there, gorgeous, quirky, traditional and possibly the sexiest park in the world.

The oversized teddy bear is the lasting relic of a pandemic that locked the world in for over a year. Now children want to take it home, others simply pass it to the waiter and sit down. The world is opening again.

Entering the park, the men are planting, preparing for the winter, and possibly, next spring. I like to see workers in the parks, in this garden, it makes it real, all the planting, the mowing of grass and raking of pathways. One sees the work behind the perfect finish and often we forget the long term planting for the ideal display of colour, of compatible plants, of seasons.

It’s the crunching of fine gravel underfoot.  Puffs of stone and sand rising, covering my shoes. The last smell of summer lingers through the early, decaying leaves of the trees.  Lined trees, limed trees, clipped and straight, like soldiers guarding the Palace.  The Luxembourg Palace, once the Florentine inspired home of Maria Medici, wife of Henry IV, mother of King Louis XIII, was first commissioned by her in 1612.  She was tired of the Louvre and wanted a palace built in the fashion of the Pitti Palace in Florence, her childhood home.  It took five years to complete.  The initial garden was smaller, until extra land was bought to extend the gardens, designed by Jaques Boyceau de la Barauderie. Grand designs left to neglect by subsequent royalty and during the French Revolution the palace was used as a prison. The Germans turned the palace into a barracks during WWII. Fortunately now, all restored.

The grandeur is intoxicating.  Wide paths, the long basin to stroll around, children floating boats on the water.  Statues are dotted throughout the walkways, legendary characters mute and silent witnesses to passing love, war and betrayal, history and decades of weather. A few notable figures are Maria Medici and other French queens, Beethoven, Delacroix, Chopin and a smaller copy of the statue of Liberty. Like the language, I may not know them all, but this does not detract from gazing upon each one and wondering the life they must have led. They will be there when I return, I hope.

The Luxembourg gardens are not just for a casual flâneur or impromptu picnic but a modern. living space.  Tennis courts, chess games, very serious chess games if you judge by the concentration of players and spectators,  are played here.  Children from the local school run laps around the symmetrical green space to the whistle of their teacher. They run past us a few times as we feast, sitting on the grass in dappled sunlight. They leave clouds of dust in their wake.   Some of the trees are covered with a fine grey silt, washed away in the next rain storm. Though the gardens are large, each space feels quiet and secluded, reached via a winding path, through an alley of trees.

Before leaving, my favourite place in the gardens.  The Medici fountain, built in 1620.  It has changed over the many years, added too, moved about, but the gorgeousness and classical elegance is still there.  A grotto, a whimsical folly, watching the Giant Polyphemus spying on Acis and Galatea.  Many come just to sit by the water’s edge, watch the reflections in the liquid or meet up with friends.  A little taste of heaven in the heart of Paris.

This is one of my places of love, of nostalgia, a little melancholy, but also a sanctuary, a quiet space, a thing of beauty in a mixed up world.  For a garden lover, there are many splendid parks and gardens in Paris, and this one is unforgettable.  And yes, I see Hemingway here too …

 

 

 

 

Monet’s Garden at Giverny.

Thiébault-Sisson
From a meadow naked, without a tree, but watered by a babbling and winding arm of the river Epte, he created a true fairy garden, digging a large pond in the middle, planting at the edge of the pond exotic trees and willows whose branches felt in long tears along the bank, drawing all around the valley whose the arches of greenery, intertwining, gave the illusion of a big park, sowing galore, on the pond, thousands and thousands of water lilies whose rare and chosen species were coloured all the tints of the prism, from purple, red and orange until pink, lilac and mauve, planting finally on the Epte at its output of the pond, one of his little rustic, humped bridge, as we see in the gouaches of the eighteenth century and on toiles de Jouy.

An American accented guide, expert on the gardens of Giverny and life of Claude Monet, tried a little too hard it seemed, to convince his clients of his passion, not even five steps into the first scene. Only two, and a little more as I surreptitiously hovered close behind to fall into his dialogue.  A guide myself, I am attracted to other storytellers, we share a craving for knowledge and history, if only one were more attentive.

‘Darn. I should have brought my other camera.’ splitting words from the guide. Her eyes never left the screen of her phone, hand waving about like a conductor, only click, click … pausing to view the shots, never looking at the actual garden.

This was spoiling my experience and I drew away quietly, back to the beginning of the dream. The entrance.

The way to Giverny from Paris is a simple route. Regular trains from Gare Saint Lazare will stop at Vernon where a bus, for ten euros return, will deposit you at the road leading to Giverny.  The day had started well, a brisk walk through the Tuilleries, up past Maxim’s and the Madeleine Cathedral, fresh September morning. Serendipity would pop two lovely ladies on the train seats beside me.  Ronni and Barbara were from Israel, the former having lived in Paris for some time. Short questions turned to lovely conversations and we kept ‘hello again’ into each other in the garden.  We talk still. A perfect start to my dream walk, no matter how long it would take, but every petal would be important.

And it was so. Late September is the perfect time to visit any European garden, and in particular Giverny.  Any season will reveal the splendour of different colour and hue, vivid or gentle, but with the Spring and Summer, waves of tourists, bless them, descend and kill whatever poetry may lurk within this treasure.  It becomes single file, flashing photography, the want of quiet expelled, the pushing of photo opportunities on the bridge over the water lilies a travesty to anything sacred to the memory and artist within the green space. Not now.  Now there was a trickle of like minded souls, each stooped and pleasured by a crimson dahlia or the softest rose. Gardeners came to the garden.

Claude Monet was born in Normandy, where Giverny lies, in 1840. In 1858 he was  introduced to the idea of plain-air painting by Eugéne Boudin, whom he credits for his later success. Following a stint in the army, he joined a Paris studio at the age of twenty-two, run by Charles Gleyre, where he studied with August Renoir and Fredérc Bazille, the latter becoming one of his closest friends.

You can only imagine what times were like then, all these aspiring young artists, seeking a patron, approval, funds and sales. Success was being accepted into the Salon, yet these young artists were straining at the restrictive codes for entry and acceptance and over time (I am giving you a brief overview) artists like Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Rodin, Renoir and Degas joined together to exhibit their works independently from the Salon. This in the most liberal version of art history events, led to a new genre in art – Impressionism. Rather than the clarity of realism and the finite depiction of detail, these artists wanted to paint the idea, the impression of what they were seeing and experiencing in art.  Short, visible brush strokes, play with light and movement in nature, depicting natural, organic scenes in parks and small towns, common scenes, the everyman.

I only give you this soupçon of art history to place Monet and his desire for painting nature in the heart of Giverny, his garden, his paradise and place of colour and light. Monet was to live here for the last forty-three years of his life.  ‘My garden is my most beautiful work of art.’ – Monet

The planting for this time of year are the jewel colours, with the hint of Autumn in the air.  Crabapples and fruit trees begin the rusting of their leaves, roses left to form bright hips. The first ‘rooms’ have lawns with pods of purple and pink. As you meander, it is to the famous arches, now laced with nasturtiums that fall like curtains to the ground. Everyone wants this money shot, so synonymous with Giverny, and it is possible to linger and take it all in.

To the lily pond.  To understand the enormity of this scene is to visit the many galleries, mostly the Museé de l’Orangerie in Paris, where the larger than life paintings can only take your breath away.  Then you can begin to understand the singular passion Monet had for painting them. It is here that he planted, visited at all times of the day, to paint the light, the colour and the seasons of lilies, foliage, water and reflections and transfer them into art. I am in awe, I feel I understand the man here and why this garden became the centre point of his life and work.

Monet’s house completes the afternoon.  If only I could live in a house like this, big rooms, incredible views over the garden, bright and bold colours in every room.  The home of an artist, happy with his second wife, Alice and a brood of children.  A happy place to read, feast, sleep and be enveloped by the fragrance of his garden.  Monet would rise at five in the morning, take a walk through the garden, confer with his gardener about planting styles and seasonal choices, paint all day and in the evenings, read and rest, satisfied that his vocation has borne fruition of his greatest passions, painting and gardening.

Please refrain from only witnessing this garden through the lens of a camera – smell, touch and taste the passage.

I want to start the journey from the beginning, look for the American tour guide and hope that he managed to infuse and excite his clients about this magical story in Giverny.  Sadly it is time to leave, to have a glass of wine in a nearby cafe and plan my return journey. The romance of it all is intoxicating, the blessing of being able to immerse myself in this place, wonderful.  Simply wonderful.

A drive to the wild flowers through the past.

 

“The past is never where you think you left it.”
Katherine Anne Porter

‘We are going to the flowers.’

‘You too?’

‘Have to go, have to go, been every year.’

Never been. To the flowers then I say,  to that place where dry earth erupts with colour running into blue sea. Carpets of bloom await.  The trick is to leave early, go a little further and turn back as the flowers will only face the sun – slaves to her majesty. She must be out today for all rests upon the simple fact that she does.

Early means coffee stop at the local garage.  Winter bites, coffee stings on bloodless lips.  We are at the road trip, the childlike thrill of every adult here, and we are not disappointed.  Lego blocks of yellow canola fields curtained by snow capped mountains, miniature cattle in the distant, verdant fields. Isolated farm houses sleep in misty valleys, they are awake there I think, up with the purple dawn but there is no sound, no sense of labour yet. No feeling of sweat.

Passing through towns named after British places, cheeky taxis, little islands of puffiness and people honk and young men shout destinations to the already tired commuters, but I find it exhilarating. African rules. African roads. Potholes, dust and puddles of water from the night rain. Huge silos reach up to the sky, smothering wheat.

One town in particular calls for stopping.  Darling.  A town named Darling. Endearing name, this sleepy hollow speaks Afrikaans. Famed for a museum with all relics Apartheid, it is both history, and uncomfortable. People are living there, reminded of servitude, struggling to survive under present circumstances. How do I feel about the lamp base, the head of Verwoerd, all gilded and now, just a lamp base. But some industries thrive, a beer craft business, the local butchery where I find, for the first time rookwors, my mother came along for my joy of finding a dutch memory. The streets are wide and seem to lead somewhere, yet nowhere.

‘Ag man, dis my beurt.’ An abandoned building on the corner catches my eye. Massey Ferguson.

Place of tractors. Huge insects of the field, tyres bigger than my father’s car. Gone. I am struck by the memories of my childhood friend.  Her father worked his entire life at Massey Fergurson and how we thought him the absolute peach of a father’s friend – you see, every summer, the ultimate dream was to get one of those tractor tyres in the pool. He was our idol if he gave us one and see saw, making waves, trying not to get lanced by the single steel cap which often drew blood, Oom Dan was the making of a good summer.  Now gone, a lifetime of dedication to a company gone too. We had our turn – the building had me at summer at thirteen.

The rookwors and Oom Dan wrapped in a plastic bag in the boot, we stopped at Darling wines, then the Olive farm and followed the flowers to the West Coast National park.

You see one. You photograph it. Then another, stop to giggle in delight. Soon the rivers of flowers, the oranges, yellows and pinks weave, pop and thunder before you.

The ocean seems bluer against this background. Strips of white on turquoise frame the artists brush. Zebra and antelope graze undaunted by the gushing of tourists. It is but a day, some go further to the Cederberg, Baviaanskloof and fall amongst the petals.  Not for me this time.

Loving the scenery, bewildered by the natural beauty, my head is still in the museum, the stoeps and lace curtains of the small town.  The rookwors in the boot. Smatterings of scatterlings of my memories of childhood, making waves in the pool and watching the gardener watching us play. Everyone gardener was called ‘Boy’ or ‘John’ and I never learnt of their real names. I remember the dish of rookwors and hutspot before I remember their names. Except for Sam, my grandmother’s gardener, chauffeur and everything else. We were friends, sitting on the wall in the afternoons while he rolled his cigarette and hoped the sun would recharge the battery for his radio. Sam wore a cap when he drove the long, two toned saloon. I remember him then, and Dan, and the rookwors, and the tyre.

The flowers did their part. Vygies on our pavement found. Orange and yellow daisies struggling with the Free State clay were there, in abundance. The sea was not part of the memory.

A road trip, small towns, relics and rookwors. Wish I could have captured the flowers on film but my memory will suffice, unless I load up other pictures which are not mine, which I thought, not mine. Mine are good enough, unedited, unfiltered, untouched but for the memory of being there, with the rookwors and Oom Dan.

 

 

Seven months in beautiful South Africa.

The winter is back this afternoon, a last bite and bluster outside. An afternoon for being in the study, watching the rain from a cosy distance, although the one thing I shall remember, or had forgotten, is how cold my house is. Never here for the cold time, I have yet to invest in fireplaces or underfloor heating – sometimes it is warmer outside than in, but the summers suit the house so I just wrap another shawl around my shoulders and have been known to wear a beanie and gloves at the desk.

The trip was meant to be a few weeks.  Covid and cancellations, plus the dreaded HMP Boris of hotel quarantining resulted in months of being away from my children, work and London. Yet I have embraced being back, mainly because the natural light in this country is like no other.  The healing power of the sun, space, fresh air and nature is a wonderful combination – I have rested, received my vaccinations and spread the wings a little further this time, all deeply rewarding.

Armed with rolls of Sanderson wallpaper in my suitcase, the Fruit Orchard changed the walls of my bedroom into a dreamy space.  For years, this house was a rental, we were here once or twice and never bothered to show her some love, after all, how long do we keep her? The decision to wallpaper rooms, paint furniture and bring out our family history was a conscious choice – it doesn’t matter how long I shall be in one place or another, each moment should be owned, and cherished.  The house at the top of the hill, is now a personal sanctuary which brings more to my life that just being back in the country of my birth.  I am surrounded by my past.  My grandparents, parents, loved ones moved on, all have been taken lovingly from boxes to share this house.  The choices are deliberate – grief gone, no longer sentimental about every little memory but carefully choose the essence of the person and invite these items to join my present day.

The first was dealing with all things I did not love, but felt guilty about sending to new pastures.  Instead I selected one or two tapestries, had them made into cushions and donated the rest.  Stories of winter afternoons and my mother, needle in and needle out, comfort on the sofa in the living room.  Photos lingered over, many tears, but now less of a museum and conversations with the dead to inspire gratitude in the present. My children’s childhood favourites remain, yet I feel it is time for them to claim and mine to pass on. This is a European home, influenced by my Dutch heritage, the Delft vases showcasing the last of the iceberg roses beside the bookcase my grandfather carved.

There lives here now, a great sense of calm and sweet memory.

The silent months were not spent only between these walls, though I swear this is the longest I have had my own company.  Though cautious, I chose to get to know this Cape Province where I have touched but a few months in a decade, and explore more of her.  Here now lives my oldest friends, grow up, grazed knee, drive-in on a Friday night friends – all within a short distance of this house.  We joined a hiking group and it soon became a silent addiction.  I have yet to fully explain the joy of finding trails to end in views of God’s design, one cannot, only to say that being out there, with others like myself, has been a great joy.  New friends. Likewise with the gym – and I am not a ardent runner or anything ungainly like that, but joined the aqua group early each morning.  Forget the stereotype of ladies and men in swimming caps, the tactile thrill of moving through tepid swirls of water cleansed not only my body but washed my soul. Drives to sun drenched wine farms to wait until the last of the afternoon slipped behind pink mountains, to laundered waves crashing on beaches, spraying sea rain over penguins, cormorants and dassies more patient than I shall ever be. Nature here in Africa is strong, bold and unapologetic.

There are poems in the sleepy towns.  Ghosts of good and not so good, unmarked graves, slave bells and main street dirt. Driving with mountain ranges for guidance, whipped treacle cattle in butter yellow fields. These days has been the changing of me.

The rain is heavier now, lashing the window pane, making the ivy and rosemary dance. I am drinking a Milt Tart flavoured cappucino, decadently sweetened but where else would you find a Milt Tart flavoured cappucino and not be able to resist?  Daily walks to the finest food store in the world, Woollies for rusks, samosas, strong coffee and shopping here has me wanting to lie down on a bed of roses amongst the peppers and proteas, right next to the genuinely ripe avocados. Best evenings of wine on the ‘stoep’ at my friend’s house and pizza evenings with the neighbours. I have Mugged and Beaned, Spur worshipped and licked my fingers over Steer’s chips.  Even the biltong, for a not so much meat eater, has been the traditional choice for watching rugby. Every missed morsel, that I can only find in those sad South African stores in the city, looks brighter and happier to be here.

In two weeks time I fly back to London.  Back home to my family.  These seven months have been so lovely, yet my family are everything. The house will fall silent, the ghosts left to their own conversations and I am sure they shall have a lot to talk about.

 

 

Hiking – why it’s good for body and soul. Saved in the wrong shoes.

 

“A walk in nature walks the soul back home.” 

Mary Davis.

Stubbornness can be a particularly unattractive quality, at times, I admit and when I hear words like ‘senior’ or ‘elderly’ referring to me, I tend to kick my heels in.  My body, I believe, is still than of a marathon runner.  I have not run in forever.

So it came to be that i was very reluctant to join U3A.  U3A means University of the Third Age, a group of retiring men and women coming together now into their third stage of life. Not for me I reckoned, until a friend suggested I join her in a hiking group.  With little going on in my life of COVID, I agreed, already mentally preparing myself for the stereotype of hikers dressed in the proverbial gear, sticks and lanyards, whistles and water bottles, wearing name tags with emergency details attached.

All true. Defiantly I pitched up with trainers and gym pants. You won’t find me with long pants that can transform into shorts and thermo tops, my London beanie will do just fine thank you.

The initial hike consisted of a group of fabulous people, experienced businessmen and women who had travelled well, lived well, full of dreams for the future and engaging conversationalists. Over the past few weeks, we hiked up gentle slopes, along incredible shorelines and for me, fell in love with nature, perhaps for the first time.

The truth is, I have missed out on years of discovery.  Being so close to nature, trails into mountains and gorges that I would never have seen, stepping onto plateaus adorned with scarlet and white proteas, along rivers bursting from rain, I was transported to another dimension of views, of birdlife and fynbos.  Forests and rock pools, surf and silence in the face of God. My companions and I have met penguins, cormorants, whales and baboons in their natural habitat. To say I have been educated and enthralled is an understatement. A new addiction, but a healthy one to hiking for hours, sore legs but full heart, identifying flowers and plants along the way.

The physical and spiritual benefits of hiking are endless. Taking oneself out of the normal daily routine to engage with nature off the beaten track brings one to a complete oneness with the natural world. A breathing space far beyond daily living where we are simply spectators, receivers of gifts, observers, not takers for one leaves only footprints and respect.

The last hike was trying.  A route not meant to be taken, a massive climb on rock face, hanging, literally onto chains and washed away steps, it was terrifying. My trainers were useless on the cliff face, freezing cold in the unsuitable clothes, I was angry and feared falling down the mountain. This is not what I signed up for, get me down, and of course, it was a case of going back the same way, on my bum, not a pretty sight.  It was only when we reached the bottom and looked up that I realised we had climbed a mountain – friends with hip replacements, dodgy knees, a little extra weight and the smallest dictionary of what ‘elderly’ people own up too, and we began to laugh, proud and together.  We had done something incredible. Adrenaline rush, bursting pride.

Cannot wait to do it again. Hiking is a magnificent way to make new friends, be with old ones, out in the elements, pushing yourself to go further, do better, be silent and in awe. I have become stronger because of it, physically and mentally, grown as a person and most of all, appreciated nature as she should be seen. When I return to the UK I intend to explore the trails and wonders of mud island, and cannot wait to get back to the beautiful Cape to reunite and experience a new way of life, out in the open.

And I intend to be more prepared next time, so all hail to the hiking boots, the sticks, the thermo everything and going to hang onto the beanie who keeps me warm wherever I go.

PS. Find a local hiking group in your area and begin a journey that will make you genuinely happy.

The joy of growing up in a small town.

The word dropped into my heart.  One word, a simple, did I hear correctly, was it really, and she said it again.  The name of my hometown. Late afternoon, a thousand miles from there, quick decision to stop the car and a quick browse in an antique shop close to Franschoek, and like a blossom, this blossom word, drifted into my heart.

Hesitating I held back, stepped forward.  They were chatting on the patio, just outside the shop door. I didn’t recognise her, but it was there, the bond, the connection to a small, dusty Free State town. I left years ago, but it seems, never really left, so thrilled I was at just knowing someone who knew my hometown.  Would it be rude, I thought, to butt into the conversation – how terribly rude, but then, leaving would have been pure regret.

‘Did you mention …?’

‘Are you from …?’

Hello!  Yes, I know the street, no way, that was your grandparent’s house, at the circle … oh my, my grandmother lived across the road … do you remember the swings in the little park ?  Where did you go to school … where are you now, no way, Cambridge, I live in London … coffee sometime? A maybe coffee date on the other part of the world, and it felt trusting, and familiar, and that is what growing up in a small town is all about.

There was our butcher, remember him, and the jeweller. Mrs Ramsbottom, the Eisteddford costume maker.  One main street, a few schools and the same tennis teacher. Two garages, one tractor shop for the farmers and a handful of clothing and haberdashery shops.

My dad was this and your dad was that and there was no-one taking us to friends on the other side of town.  Your home, your family and your friends were all about crossing the road. Games were imagined” witchy witchy, lost in the woods, basically the same, but highly creative skills involved.

I hold those ‘next door friends’ as close to my life as always, for over sixty years.

Small towns, like the one we grew up on, die slowly on this landscape.  The young leave for University or better prospects in the city, the elderly fade alone.  Farmers struggle and companies leave for better climes.

It doesn’t matter – we had the childhood dream.  Lovelier still is the clutch of memories, strong enough to keep the sisterhood, or band of brothers going ‘yay, who would have thought, how funny, yes I remember … so glad we had this time to catch up.’

Good decision, good, good decision.

 

August at Babylonstoren. Spring incoming …

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. —Rachel Carson

One year to the day, I  was on a  flight back to London.  Separated from my children for months due to the pandemic, it was a struggle, but also a joy to discover the warmth, and rain, of winters in the Cape.  Huddled when it rained, sometimes really cold but desperate to be outside when the earth warmed to the sun and nature, washed, preparing for Spring.

It’s the natural light. God’s honey rays.  This is the time when the word ‘gentle’ comes to mind.  A year since, I am here for a few more weeks until I return again.  And again, at Babylonstoren, nestled between mountains, tucked behind vines in Simondium, neighbour to Paarl, Franschoek and a little further, Stellenbosch.  This is true wine land splendour.

Why do I return so often? Babylonstoren is more than just a working wine farm. She tells her history and her place in the world with art in nature, nature in action and a true sense of peace for all to share.

There is a new ticket office at the entrance, my annual pass quickly loaded onto the Candida app – here I can download useful information, including audio tours and plant identification. Nifty to have.

Believe me, it’s not just the children delighted to chat to the donkeys (no hands close please) or greet the many feathered family members.  Sounds of farmyard life, screeches and cock a doodle do’s sweeps the last of the city’s noise away.  Smells of dust, lemons and leaves offer the true sensopathic experience, and in this season, the oils, smells and colour of citrus, a dance through the garden.

This is not a walk to take lightly, or quickly, a flick and flit through maze and veggie patch. Every step offers something new, verdant tufts of carrots, plumpness of cactus, swathes of clivia, olives and rosemary, interspersed with water channels, bubbling delft poetry, quite repose beneath the trees.

What I also love at this time of the year, is the appreciation for landscaping and structure.  When leaves are waiting to bud, the many fruit trees, espaliered in so many different ways, low growing hedges all are clipped, pruned and reveal the actual design, bold and stark.  The garden design, brilliantly created by Patrice Taravella, is magnificent.  Rooms upon rooms of interest, crops, seasonal fare in a way to inspire any gardener.  You may have a small patch, but you take home so many ideas of how to make it both functional and beautiful.  Some of the trees were still dormant whilst others popped with early blossoms, a wedding white confetti dream.

Making my way from Insect Hotel to the Python walk, one is always close to a helpful member of staff working close by.  I have been on the garden tour, and recommend it highly, but of course, remember little of the genus names – I do remember the wonderful cutting from the original Kent apple tree; of Newton fame that rests quietly in a spot in the garden.  The fountain commissioned by Lady Barnard for the Cape Town Castle, an exhibition of rocks with delightful names to make you smile as I meander towards the cafe at the back of the property.   The setting reminds me of french courtyards and Petersham Nursery in Richmond – a time to rest and feast before exploring the Wellness garden. How many times have I slipped the menu into my bag, tried everything on offer and always regret the custom for I want to stay, rooted at my table for hours into the late afternoon.  People are waiting their turn and reluctantly I leave a favoured spot in the world.

The perfect ending is yet in sight.  Passing the fishes floating in a water tank, above the pond, I see children splashing about.  They splash and play with pebbles and sticks and drop leaves into streams (like pooh sticks?).  To the shop and deli I go, stocking up with sweet delights before making my way to the wine tasting shed, a little rosé perhaps, and then to the scents and perfection of soaps, linen water, creams and lavender.

How many times I have visited, I do not know.  How many times I have felt the majesty of the surrounding mountains, early morning and pink late afternoon, I cannot count.  How much I have learnt, stories I have heard and ultimately for me, felt part of the beautiful garden, not enough.

 

A late winter walk though Tulbagh.

The kiss of the winter sun is joyful.

There have been days of rain, and more rain -when I sit indoors with blankets wrapped around my legs and a prized water bottle tucked beneath, savouring winter soup and wondering how the months slipped away. But the South African winter also offers honey coloured days, warm and thick, gentle and gooey days when being outside, exploring, is a terribly good idea.

The Western Cape, where I find myself, is blessed with winter rainfall, and when the sun does come out, it is to reveal the lushest, verdant space topped by endless blue sky.  The cattle are washed, dirt roads pooled and challenging, and landscape at this time of the year, sings. As I get older, my love for nature grows more profound, or does it circle? Tadpole hunting as a child, now tadpole watching again.

 

Visiting Tulbagh begins with a beautiful drive through wine and wheat country.  This is Paarl and Wellington country, rising and falling between misty valleys, slipping down a gorge and up the other side;  tripping names that clicks on the tongue.  Afrikaans footprints.  Colonial drama. Obiqua history. And Tulbagh.

Tulbagh is known primarily for two reasons.  The first is the charming amble along the oldest part of town, Kerk Street, a visual feast of early Victorian, Edwardian and Dutch cottages … and the earthquake.

Love looking at old photos, don’t you?  Generations of people we tend to forget lived a really long time ago, with hardship, pioneering and discovery.  Without grand hospitals, schools – at times trekking, farming, feeding and raising families. Never to return to the country of their birth.

The tourism museum, which doubles as the Earthquake museum (you heard correctly), pays homage to the early settlers.  I wonder why they always have to look so glum? Even the children here are so serious. Glum must have been fashionable for formal portraits but rather sad, this strict sense of morality and duty. Life was basic, but I am hoping full of romance and laughter too.  Names like Retief, de Vos, de Bruyn, Marais – dutch settlers mainly who were given land to farm in 1699.

Tulbagh was discovered by Mr. Pieter Potter, surveyor for Jan van Riebeeck in 1658, and is the forth oldest town in South Africa.  Can you guess the other three?  Named after a former Dutch govenor, Ryk Tulbagh, the town prospered and officially called so in 1804.

The Earthquake and heritage museums are beside the Tourist information centre and a good starting point.  The staff are most helpful and a ‘pensioner’s’ ticket for R20 will give you access to the church and four museums along Kerk Street.  A poignant visit to the past, unexpected, loss of lives and property, one cannot help but feel for the townsfolk, the farming communities and all those affected by the quake.  This happened on the 29th September 1969, at precisely 10.09 pm –  you will see a clock, time suspended when the earthquake struck.

At the one end of Kerk street is the church and even before entering, I spy the ever important pineapple.  My fascination for pineapples in London and England is well know to many, but to see one here, in the middle of the Western Cape, in Tulbagh, had me at … colonisation.  In the 17th Century, it was the pineapple and tulip that signified wealth in Europe.  Built by the OVC, the Dutch East India company in 1795, the interiors are filled with heritage pieces, an original Bible and here for me, the reality of slavery most felt.  A separate gallery for slaves above the front door, the slave bell at the entrance and a receipt – the buying of a young girl for a few, meagre pounds.

This is why history is so important to preserve – we must never be allowed to forget, the good, and the bad and learn from it.

Camellias bloomed, blossoms pink as we wandered from number to number of house, down the entire street, some converted to art galleries, cafés and restaurants – some preserved in a delighted competition of the gables.  One begins to notice how they change in building style, the further we walked, the more elaborate the gables became.  Times were prospering then, the influence of simple Dutch, to Victorian, and later Edwardian architectural styles, carefully restored after the earthquake to their original form. The Dutch gabled house, so tied to the history of this land, is one of the iconic features in the houses down the road.

 

The walk should be a slow one, each numbered house has a sign with all the information about it, lovely to read before entering and guides to answer your questions. Appreciate the craftsmanship in wood and iron.  My family used to have a farm in the Free State, dating back to the 18th century with window sills exactly like these I found – the walls were so thick that each window offered a little bench to sit and watch the world go by.

Highly recommended and thank you to all who shared their pride in living there with us. To end the day, a glorious meal outside, under the trees, cows close, snow on the mountains and blossoms my kind of happy pink, for spring is on the way.

Discover South Africa, the mystery and magic will hold you close.

 

 

The Widow Bird.

Swirling, long black feathers whipped by the wind.

‘What is it? I asked.

A widow bird. The image remains.

A dance of grief in the air, round and round to quite still, high above the earth. Performing a dance of grief. Movement of pain. Rolling, crouching, arching, twisting. I know that sting of grief, like a cloying, soaked cape you cannot wrench aside.  Or dries and peels. A black sheath around your heart. Few escape the strangling grip of grief. Some get more than their share.

South Africa burned last week.  Hopeless desperation and opportunity erupted into looting, destruction of property amid a frenzy of hatred and entitlement. Told to stockpile, stay at home … oh God, again, and again, for how long again …and wait for a coup.

Unkindness on those streets. Every good person suffered. Everyone lost a little of their souls.

So I stayed home.

I became a widow to the country I live in.

I have been here before.  No stranger to violence, I shift away, step away a little, time steps between and I forget a little.  Africa is Africa I tell myself, take the rugged, brittle beauty of belonging and try not to fathom the rugged cruelty of poverty, hopelessness and fear. My children have left her shores, living, not a dream, not without deep loss, but thankful they are not here.

I am a widow to the closeness of family, together in the country of their birth.

Followed I have, returned I have … there is something about the pull of homeland that lies so deep within my breast, not the platitudes I read, or the quirky stories told, but it is this bloodied soil that I have stepped from, that holds me forever in spirit. The bloodied soil I gave up, yearn for and cannot hold onto.

The butcher bird impales its victims on thorns, twigs and barbed wire. I don’t like butcher birds, cruel little buggers. I cannot abide cruelty. Saw that so close.

And I think of that Widow bird, swirling over my beloved country.  I know the bird was doing what came naturally to it, but right now, I don’t really know what natural or real is at the moment, and when I saw this picture, taken many years ago, I was drawn – the widow bird.  I am a widow right now, to a country that raised me, and sort of died last week.

It only takes a few to murder so many dreams.