Author Archives: paulnettleton

Back to the Mani, and the magic is still there

  • The church of Odigitraea – ‘Our Lady who shows the way’ – in the shadows of a Deep Mani cliff. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • The church of Odigitraea or Agritria comes more clearly into view. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • The entrance to a cave can be seen behind the church. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Fresco of the Archangel Michael. The pen and scrap of paper are for recording donations. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • A view past the church north towards Tigani and Areopolis. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

There’s a moment on the road from Kalamata to Areopolis when you drive round yet another hairpin bend after a seemingly endless climb upwards and then catch your breath at the view ahead.

Laid out before you to the left are the Taygetos mountains, stretching south as far as the eye can see. And below, on the coastal plain where a mountain gorge reaches the sea, is the village of Kardamyli where the war hero and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor made his home.

Beyond, the resort of Stoupa and fishing village of Agios Nikolaos nestle in their respective bays. Other villages cling to the mountain sides or among the olive groves of the foothills.

This is the Mani peninsula in the Greek Peloponnese and I wrote here earlier this year how the place was drawing me back after an absence of two summers. So is this still a magic place? My answer is an unequivocal yes.

The economic and political crisis in the country meant change was inevitable. But there has also been a gradual passing on of family businesses to the next generation. In Stoupa that means the ice cream at the Koumoundouros family-run Gelateria is now made by daughter Katerina in succession to her father Dimitrios. She is also selling locally made preserves and other craft foodstuffs, with an evident pride in the regional produce.

That pride is also in evidence at Elaia, a seafront café bar featuring local specialities which has replaced a jewellery shop after the succession from mother to daughter.

‘The austerity’

In what local people call ‘the austerity’ the main complaint seems, justifiably, to be about spending cuts to refuse collection. Overflowing bins were being cleared, eventually, but fly-tipping of old window frames, builder’s rubble, mattresses and more seems to be a bad habit which the situation has exacerbated. There again, it’s the same at home in Epping Forest.

One discovery of this visit was finally to find the way to a Byzantine church that captures something of the Maniot zeal for mastering the tough natural environment.

For that, thanks to this year’s edition of Inside the Mani magazine. Printed in a smaller format to cut costs and advertising rates, this edition gives directions to the Deep Mani church of Odigitraea – ‘Our Lady who shows the way’ – which is also known as Agitria, I learn from John Chapman’s invaluable web guide to Mani history.

You have to venture south of Areopolis for this trip. The well worn Taygetos range here looks like a good setting for a moussaka western. The main road continues south to Gerolimenas, worth a stop in its own, where the harbour is set against a steep cliff.

But we must turn west at the sign for Stavri and the Tsitsiris Castle hotel on a minor road that can take you on a circuit below the Cavo Grosso escarpment and a possible clifftop site for ancient Hippola. Follow the road through Stavri village and past the hotel towards the Tigani causeway. Ahead you can see and (if the day is not too hot) walk out to a frying pan shaped promontory that was fortified by Guillame de Villehardouin, prince of Achaea, and may be the site of the Castle of Maina, a possible source for the name Mani.

You can take a car much of the way towards the church on a dirt track, though we walked from a road junction closer to Stavri. Instead of heading to Tigani and the castle remnants, turn left at a broken signpost {chances are it will remain broken for now] to reach the coastal path that leads to the church.

The setting is spectacular, though the small church may be hard to spot against the similarly coloured cliff behind. It perches above a sheer drop to the sea, with the Cavo Grosso looming beyond.

The church was built in front of caves said once to have been lived in by hermit monks. I clambered up and found the ceilings of the caves blackened by age-old soot.

The church itself is unlocked and inside there are faded frescoes and the trappings of occasional worship. It’s beautiful, though clearly has been battered by the elements over the years.

The peace of this place and the warmth of the welcome in the Mani was so at odds with what has followed since with the murder in Athens of the anti-fascist hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas. Greece is being battered by events, but is still beautiful. If mainstream society is now waking up to the threat of Golden Dawn, then there is hope that it will remain so.

Footnotes

Peter Eastland is a photographer living in the Mani who has captured the land and its people in a way I cannot. His website is at www.manieye.com.

While swimming at Delfini Bay, a favourite beach outside Stoupa, there were more jellyfish than usual. They were Cotylorhiza tuberculata,whose sting, I read , is harmless to humans. Here’s a link to some video of this medusa:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/65892295 ]

 

 

East Ruston Vicarage Gardens bring colour to a grey day

  • Roses at East Ruston Vicarage Gardens. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Succulents are big at East Ruston Vicarage Gardens. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Plants on sale at East Ruston Vicarage Gardens. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Intense colour catches the eye. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • The desert garden. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • The wildflower meadow. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • A glimpse of the vicarage. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Poppies in the walled garden. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Flowering now at East Ruston. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • In bloom at East Ruston. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

I’m hardly green fingered, a matter of regret given my father’s pride in his garden and memories of the vegetables and salad crops he used to grow when I was young.

 But I can appreciate the skill of the plantsman in choosing what to grow, the dedication to carving something out of unpromising ground and the architectural skill that goes into planning so that there’s always something to catch the eye or nose.

 So East Ruston Vicarage Garden was a joy to discover on a grey day when East Anglia was blanketed under low cloud and drizzle while the rest of the country still basked in the sun.

 It was my umpteenth visit to Norfolk but my friends live closer to the gardens now so it was a natural alternative to sailing on Barton Broad in the rain. And there was the promise of tea and cake too.

 Alan Gray (you might have seen him on TV) and Graham Robeson took on the 1913 Arts & Crafts style vicarage set in open fields in 1988. It’s only a mile and a half from the North Sea, so the maritime influence protects it from frost and evergreen shelter belts shield the gardens, planted as a series of rooms that are larger the further you get from the house, from the winds.

 Work in progress

I’ll leave the discovery of each themed garden room for you to stumble upon during a visit that I can heartily recommend. There’s a lot of information on the website but it can only whet the appetite. Work is always in progress somewhere in the gardens. Two years ago, I was told by another enthusiastic visitor, the new walled gardens were bare. Now there’s a profusion of colour.

 From a desert garden where a deep gravel mulch permits the survival of Californian species you can peer across a hedgerow to a wildflower meadow.

 My own photographs can capture only a little of what’s to be seen at the moment. And the little visual surprises (ask any accompanying children to watch out for Happisburgh lighthouse) suffered in the poor visibility.

What about the cake? You’ll need more tea, Vicar, for such generous portions.

Appleby serves up a tasty slice of history

  • Looking across the River Eden at the Sands in Appl

    Looking across the River Eden at the Sands in Appleby. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • I told you it would rain: advice to a Brougham Hal

    I told you it would rain: advice to a Brougham Hall apprentice. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • A walk around Haweswater

    A walk around Haweswater. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Last train of the day passes a trackside crane at

    Last train of the day passes a trackside crane at Ormside. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

The street names of Appleby-in-Westmorland say it all really. Battlebarrow, Doomgate, Shaw’s Wiend, Castle View Road are all names that conjure up the Medieval past. The Sands, Bridge Street and Mill Hill remind you that this is a place where the River Eden is crossed or has been harnessed to power human industry.

The A66 bypasses the town, for stretches built on the course of a Roman road. Then there’s the station on the Settle to Carlisle railway line, one of the few in the town it serves as the Victorian entrepreneurs and their engineers were more intent on driving an alternative route to Scotland than serving the farmers of the Pennines and the Eden Valley.

This piece could turn in to a ‘what we did on our holidays’ bore, but I’ll just try to give you just a taste that might tempt you to tarry a while in a town that rightly claims to be the ideal base for a touring holiday – whether by car or, increasingly likely, bicycle or on foot. Sustainable tourism is a growth industry here.

Horse fair

The county town that lost its status with the creation of Cumbria in 1974 is perhaps best known for the annual shenanigans of the travellers’ horse fair, but once that’s over each June it settles in to serving the tastes of rather more middle class visitors.

So there’s original art at the Courtyard Gallery half way uphill on the delightful Boroughgate, with a good number of the paintings or ceramics reminding you of the deserved reputation of Cumbria College of Art and Design (now the University of Cumbria’s arts faculty), or yummy Eden Valley Organic Brie made at the Appleby Creamery and sold at the Appleby Bakery alongside their own bread, cakes and pies. Cafes, pubs and hotels serve locally sourced food and beer with pride.

The riverside walks are clearly a “good thing” to counter the calories. Or head out of town to follow geological trails in the Pennines or take a road less travelled than many in the Lake District, and walk around Haweswater. We saw two crows chasing off a bird of prey big enough to have been England’s only golden eagle, a lone male whose mate has died. There were also deer and rabbits in the woodland and red squirrels in the garden of the Haweswater Hotel (yours in all its Art Deco glory for £1,195,000). Two-thirds of the way into a walk around the reservoir that was created in the flooded Mardale valley, a pint of lager and a scone have never tasted so good.

Nature is softening the lines of the reservoir but water company signs warn of dangerous currents, pumping machinery and chemicals. The villages of Measand and Mardale Green, and with them one of author and fell walker Alfred Wainwright’s favourite views, were sacrificed to supply water to Manchester.

Lady Anne Clifford

Worth mentioning is Brougham Hall, where restoration today of a house linked to Lady Anne Clifford, is a vehicle for transmitting old craft skills to young apprentices. It’s strange to enter the grounds, then discover modern housing has been built on part of the site.

In the 17th century, the daugher of the Earl of Cumberland began the  restoration of her father’s estates, including castles from Skipton in Yorkshire north to the nearby Brougham Castle. Her remarkable life is being celebrated all month in the Eden Valley. 

Then, close to the M6 at Penrith, there’s the Rheged centre. Those historical place names again, this one apparently borrowing from one of the kingdoms of the old north.

It’s the singular creation of the Dunning family, the farmers who changed the face of the British motorway service station when they opened Tebay services on the M6 in 1972. Sarah Dunning, daughter of John and Barbara Dunning, now runs Westmorland Ltd, the company they set up.

We arrived before the Art of Wallace and Gromit, the summer’s headline attraction, opened at what looks from the glass doorway like an arts centre cum shopping mall buried in a hillside but unfolds under a glass roof with waterfalls and rock outside the windows into something much more attractive that celebrates regional produce and the great outdoors, hosts exhibitions and theatre and shows films on a giant 3D screen. There are three cafes so it never feels too crowded.

Red squirrels

Rheged is handy for those days when the heavens open, which they too often do in Cumbria. But even then, the views that unfold when the clouds roll back can take the breath away, as one day just south of Great Orton where Kennedys Chocolates, working in the former village school, prove that the art of the chocolatier is not confined to Belgium or France. Not too far away from here is Churchmouse Cheeses at Kirkby Lonsdale, for more variety of cheesy comestibles and excellent wine.

We stayed, final plug, in a barn conversion located along a single track road leading past an Eco House that featured in Grand Designs and is, like Rheged, buried in the landscape. So unobtrusively, in fact, that we missed it at first as we watched for red squirrels and rabbits and admired the profusion of wild flowers in the hedgerows, dry stone walls and verges.

When we visited there was a steady procession of trucks carrying material along the road (10mph limit past the few houses) to rebuild an embankment that had given way, south of the Helm Tunnel, on the Settle to Carlisle line. From the rear window of the barn we missed the weekly steam train that sets the pulse of railway enthusiasts beating, but the more prosaic two or four car diesel units that provide the regular service were a reminder of the survival of the line against all attempts to close it down.

The barn is called Sycamore Cottage, at The Heights, Ormside, and we booked through absolute-escapes.com. Thanks Mrs Braithwaite.

 

 

Which way to go in Epping Forest?

  • Road closure at High Beach but there\\\'s no through road to the right. The single signpost is hidden in the shade of the trees. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • The leaning No Through Road sign of Epping Forest. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

The closure for three weeks of Cross Roads at High Beach in Epping Forest, to permit the installation of cattle grids that was strenuously opposed by horse riders, has been baffling motorists trying to reach the A104 Epping New Road and head south towards London.

Running parallel with the A104 is Fairmead Road, which appears on Google Maps, for example, to join the main road a kilometre or so to the south. Cars do inch along this rutted route, now given over to forest users, to reach a couple of car parks.

Unfortunately for motorists seeking a way out of the woods, the southern exit is gated and closed to all except walkers, riders and cyclists. Doubtless motorcyclists might squeeze past the single traffic cone, that was today sporting a very temporary City of London Corporation sign stating there is no way through, and over the hump of earth that blocks the old road just before the gate.

Many a car driver or a white van man, though, will be faced with a lengthy diversion north to the A121 and on to Epping New Road at Wake Arms Roundabout (where for baffled tourists there is no longer a pub of that name, but a steak restaurant). Some have tried their luck, and risked their suspension, by driving down Fairmead Road at speeds that raise choking clouds of dust, before turning round in frustration and heading back to the official diversion.

The only indication on the ground that Fairmead Road is a dead end is a No Through Road sign leaning at a tipsy angle in the shade of trees to the right of the junction. You’d have thought the responsible authorities might have realised the confusion likely to reign for the next three weeks and at least put the sign back on an even keel. Photographs: Paul Nettleton

Update, 14 June: I checked and there’s now a freestanding metal sign to indicate that Fairmead Road is a dead end. The No Through Road sign under the trees is still leaning at a crazy angle. Oh, and is that asbestos corrugated roofing material that’s been flytipped at the end of the road? It’s been taped off, so the authorities must be aware.

Croatia puts on a Battersea fair

 

Gaz in the Brijuni archipelago off the south-west coat of Istria in Croatia. Photograph: Renco Korinozic/Croatian Tourist Board

Gaz in the Brijuni archipelago off the south-west coat of Istria in Croatia. Photograph: Renco Korinozic/Croatian Tourist Board

 

In a hall at Battersea Arts Centre, just round the corner from Clapham Junction, the European Union’s latest recruit was showing off its wares.

While Europe continues to divide the Conservative party and define Ukip by what it opposes, here were businesses keen to make deals in the single market.

Croatia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and later part of Marshall Tito’s communist federation of Yugoslavia. It declared independence in 1991 and cleared occupying Serb armies by 1995. Now a member of Nato, Croatia signed the EU treaty of accession in 2011 and will become a member on 1 July.

Stalls at a trade fair organised by the British Croation Business Club were festooned with products that will be familiar to tourists who venture further south to Greece or Turkey – many the products of the olive tree. Olive oil, olive oil soap infused with medicinal herbs, olive tapenade.

Neb Chupin of Hermes International was promoting the Taste Dalmatia range of conserves. There were bitesize samples of tapenade, sour cherry or organic fig spread, the latter an explosion of flavour when married with a little cheese.

A British couple, Tim and Paula Batson-Jones, were explaining how they are involved at every stage of producing their 100% extra virgin olive oil. They help harvest the native Oblica olives from their own groves on Brač, near Split, oversee its pressing and bottling, then drive back to Bristol and sell mail order through their website, croatianimports.co.uk.

Gold medal

Sounds small scale. Yes, but they recently saw off 200 rivals to win a gold medal for the quality of their oil. That sounds like a recipe for success.

Tim sounds a little concerned for Croatia’s future in the EU. It’s perfect as it is, he reckons. Small, you feel, is beautiful for many of the stallholders. It’s explained to me that while much business is carried out in euros, the country will be retaining its own currency, the kuna. It means marten in Croatian and is based on the medieval use of pelts as units of trading value. There are 100 lipa (linden or lime trees) to the kuna.

Another British enthusiast for the country, Sarah Driver of Walk Croatia, can hardly wait to accompany the first group of the summer to go wine tasting along the Pelješac peninsula, north of Dubrovnik. It’s not just the wine or the walking, but the oysters of Mali Ston Bay, the only successful breeding ground of the European flat oyster, Ostrea edulis. The company offers island-hopping walking and sailing holidays in the Dubrovnik region.

 Empty beaches

You don’t have to go far to find historical sites, islands with empty beaches or rugged mountain scenery in a country where the climate is a mix of the Mediterranean and continental.

There were bigger companies represented, among them Croatia Airlines, patrt of the Star Alliance, and Valamar Hotels & Resorts with 39 properties along the Adriatic coast. They represent the modern face of Croatian corporate business, with glossy bilingual inflight magazines and brochures.

There was tradition too, in the cheeses of Paska Sirana, a company from the island of Pag. Layers of sea salt swept in by the winter winds cover the grasses and herbs of this rocky island. Paški Sir, the hard cheese made from the milk of sheep that graze this land, has protected geographical origin and a unique taste. Eat as an appetiser if young, and a dessert if old.

But I was most taken by the enthusiasm of Hrvoje Subat, a young committee member of the British Croatian Business Club who lives in London and energetically promotes his home country as a place to invest in property; of wine importer Mislav Kapetanovic, shepherding tastings of fresh, green appley Grasevina whites, a modern take on native grapes from the Danube valley bottled by vintner Vina Belje, alongside more traditional reds including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

It made for a heartening contrast to the blinkered British cynicism about Europe and all its works. And it made me add Croatia to my must-see list of countries.

Stoupa casts a lasting spell for this visitor to Greece

  • Stoupa

    Stoupa with the Taygetos mountains behind. The new church is next to its predecessor. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Agios

    The small fishing harbour at Agios Nikolaos. Picturesque in summer, it provides little shelter in bad weather. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Kardamyli

    Roadside reading in Kardamyli. But the peace can be broken when coaches and trucks carrying quarried stone try to pass through the main street. Photogrpah: Paul Nettleton

  • Taygetos

    The mountain road across the Taygetos looking back to the highest peak, Profitis Ilias. The surface is not always so smooth. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Limeni

    Limeni boasts a locally famous fish taverna. It was the home of the Mavromichalis clan, who helped Greece win independence. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Areopoli

    Behind the blue door in Areopoli, capital of the Mani, is a hotel in a restored tower house. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Stoupa sunset

    Sunset over the Bay of Kalamata at Stoupa. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

For a gallery of images please click on the photograph above

 

The pull of the place has proved too much. Rival places in the summer sun have been considered and cast aside. Two years is too long to have stayed away from this Greek gem. Stoupa it is, then, for the holidays.

Kardamyli, a few kilometres to the north on the west coast of the Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese, may have more cachet. Stephen Fry was tweeting from there last month, at the house of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor. It is to be converted to a writer’s retreat after being left to the Benaki Museum. Though budget cuts have reportedly delayed this prospect, Before Midnight, the recent film by Richard Linklater, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, was shot there.

The ashes of an earlier literary pilgrim to the house, Bruce Chatwin, were scattered near a tiny church in the foothills of the Taygetos mountain ridge that rises behind the town, at a spot that will be blanketed in wild flowers about now. Mountain roads lead up into the Vassiliki forest and across the spine of the peninsula. A trek by 4×4 is worth the early start to make a late lunch in the port of Gythio, though when I made the journey I passed a British couple making the trip by mountain bike.

Perhaps trendier is Itilo Bay, to the south below Areopoli, the capital of the Mani. Its boutique hotels pop up regularly in the travel pages of the “better” newspapers and magazines. Here the mountain backdrop is more lunar, a stony hint of the stark rocky landscape further to the south. Last time we passed through there was fresh growth poking through the ashes of brush fires that had threatened to jump the coast road and reach a popular fish taverna at Limeni.

The Rough Guide has always been dismissive of Stoupa, deemed too touristy by half since the village was discovered by package holiday companies. And today there are many more lights at night in the hinterland among the olive groves after a house-building boom – perhaps not a property bubble, but the collapse of the Greek economy means there are bargains to be had on the site of house-hunters such as Susan Shimmin.

‘ On the house’

Still, it remains a place where it is possible to instantly relax, where the setting sun plays across a bay fringed by a sandy town beach, tiny harbour and a variety of tavernas competing, but not too intrusively, for your trade. Here, previous visitors are welcomed back with a glance of recognition, a few warm words and sometimes a little something “on the house”. Get to know the owner and there is catching up to be done since last time you talked.

Or stroll around the headland to Kalogria Bay, even quieter at night despite bustling during the day with beach volleyball and bat and ball games and Greek family groups occupying rows of sun loungers arranged under ranks of matching parasols.

At both beaches the sand slopes gently enough into the sea for young children to splash about during the day and into the evening, when the sometimes fierce sun mellows. Just occasionally there’ll be a few breakers to bring some added excitement. Swim out or take a snorkel tube to explore the rocks, and there are the swirls of the icy cold springs that one day the engineers hope to tap for fresh water.

Look back to the land as you swim and the ring of mountains beyond the village, where the tallest building is a new church built alongside its predecessor, adds a dramatic backdrop to the scene.

 Wild tortoises

If those clouds billowing up stay over the mountains, local weather lore has it, the rain will stay away. Over the sea the clouds can herald a short, sharp thunderstorm that cools the air, washes away the dust and brings out the wild tortoises for a stroll.

A mile or two south is Agios Nikolaos, a picture postcard Greek fishing village where the catch is sold from a slab each day. The harbour wall here offers little protection from winter storms and most of the boats are removed when the summer is over.

There’s history to be explored in and around the Mani – Byzantine churches of all sizes, caves at Diros where the boatmen on the underground river have a firm way with tourists. Investigation of the Neolithic settlements here continues. The ruins of Mystras and Ancient Messine are within driving distance. And the landscape of the inner or deep Mani towards Cape Matapan or Tainaron, the southernmost point of mainland Greece, can take your breath away.

Here there are tower houses in largely deserted villages such as Vathia where rival clans fought their battles in quite recent history. These are being aped by builders further north who use the abundant local stone to construct holiday homes with fake crumbling battlements, which does Greek architecture a disservice.

The fortunes of Stoupa have doubtless taken a knock as Greece hit the rocks but over the years changes have often been dictated by corporate whim in London. The stickers of holiday brands long since swallowed by Thomson or Thomas Cook can still be seen outside travel agencies, shops or tavernas.

Fashion in the tourist trade has moved towards no-frills airlines and self-booked hotels. Since the collapse of the British charter airline XL, independent tour operators have resorted to obscure airlines that have not lasted more than a season or two.

EasyJet launched a service to Kalamata from London Gatwick this year, promptly to have Thomas Cook buy up many of the seats for the summer. Olympic Holidays, with whom w’re travelling, are using the little known Germania as well as EasyJet. Ryanair last year flew to Araxos, near Patras, but has cancelled the route. A recently completed motorway from Athens now reaches Kalamata for those willing to drive or take the coach from the capital.

The hardworking local families are changing with the times as is Stoupa. Where once there were a few phone kiosks, mobile phones are ubiquitous and broadband service with attendant wi-fi has arrived. Websites are springing up to advertise individual apartments and hotels. But the number of ATMs has taken a tumble along with the economy.

Inside the Mani, a guidebook to the Mani by Matthew Dean and Bob Barrow, British writers and long-term residents, sprang out of an annual magazine and website for visitors that showcases the work of artists inspired by the region, explores its history and promotes local businesses.

Stephan Bartholomä, who runs Zorbas.de travel agency, hosts four webcams and a bulletin board on his website, which can be a fount of information to newcomers.

When specialist UK travel firm Greek Options ceased trading after 17 years, their agents in Stoupa set up a new company, Greek Options – Stoupa, knowing that much of their trade came from repeat business. They cannot yet offer flights but are trying to fill the gap in the market serving those who return year after year.

The spell cast by Stoupa is strong, and it’s pulling me back this year. Yammas!

How I (just) beat the debit card skimmers

The skimming device retrieved from a NatWest Bank ATM in Grays Inn Road, London.

The skimming device retrieved from a NatWest Bank ATM in Grays Inn Road, London. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

This is the crude, but effective, device that was designed to part me from my debit card.

Too late to avoid a week of inconvenience while a new one is despatched by my bank, I only realised something was wrong when my card was not returned and my requested £60 failed to pop out of the machine.

It was late evening in Grays Inn Road, London, and I’d hopped off the bus to use the NatWest ATM before heading home on the tube from Chancery Lane.

The machine is not well lit, shaded from the street lighting by a tree and now a hole in the wall outside a branch of Pret a Manger where once there was a bank branch.

I’d made a cursory swipe across the card slot before I used the machine, as always, but not felt anything was wrong. So I keyed in my pin and cash request. The machine whirred and appeared to be trying to serve me, but nothing appeared. It dawned on me that all was not right.

 Fault message

The machine whirred again and then a fault message came up on the screen, advising users not to re-enter their pin numbers and to consult a smartphone app to find the nearest alternative.

Not much point with my card apparently swallowed. Better phone my bank, I decided. A quick search for the number and I rang the Co-operative Bank’s 24-hour card loss service.

The phone signal was poor but I managed to identify myself as the rightful customer and explain the problem. That the £60 had been deducted from my account increased my suspicion that there was more than a faulty ATM here.

So I felt around the fascia more carefully and realised I could get my nail under a grey piece of plastic beneath the card slot. I pulled and it came away, revealing that it had been attached with double-sided sticky tape. Embedded in the tape were a piece of card that looks, in daylight, as if it had been cut from a tube ticket and then a rectangle of sprung metal, The assembly had been painted metallic grey to match the ATM. A skimming device.

Now I was asking if I should call the police, but took the impression that they’d take little interest in this fraud and my £60.

 Cancelled card

I’d already cancelled my card and pin by this time, but could see the end of the card tantalisingly within reach. No point in retrieving it, was the advice, and I didn’t have a tool with which to prise it out. So I pushed it in further, determined that however useless the card now was the thieves would not have the satisfaction of getting their mitts on it.

I imagine the skimmers weren’t far away. Possibly it was even the youngish man who queued for a bit behind me, then left, then came back, then left again. But that’s my suspicious mind.

Now I have to wait for a new card, new pin and to see if the Link company will return the £60 I never received. I’ll report back when I hear if they try to claim I must have taken it.

I’m not sure the cash dispensing slot hadn’t been tampered with too, but nothing came off in my hands. And, despite having read about these crimes, I forgot to search for the tiny camera that might have been recording my fingers as they keyed in the pin.

 Modern life

I’ll be avoiding this ATM in future. On reflection, the surroundings are just too dark for customers to see if it’s ok to use. But more generally, had I not been able to search for my bank’s contact details on my phone browser, I’d have quite likely left the scene – and given the skimmers access to my card and my account.

Surely ATMs should display at the very least contact information and instructions to follow if you suspect a crime, and perhaps even a button to press (clearly marked “Panic”) to speak to a control centre.

I take some comfort that my phone wasn’t expensive enough to attract the attention of any lurking muggers. But that’s another risk of modern life.

A growing controversy over the Lee Valley’s glasshouses

  • Tied up

    Narrow boats on the Lee Navigation near Cheshunt. All photographs: Paul Nettleton

  • Quality time

    A family of swans in the Lee Valley

  • Milk ripe

    Berries ripening in the Lee Valley sun

  • Nesting time

    Arranging the eggs

  • Power in the park

    The National Grid electricity sub-station in the Lee Valley park

  • Growth industry?

    Glasshouses seen across the Lee

  • A bit Wind in the Willows

    Aerating a pond in the Lee Valley

For a gallery of images please click on the photograph above

My favourite way in to the River Lee Country Park is to drive up the Crooked Mile from Waltham Abbey and turn left into Fishers Green Lane before parking up and taking a walk or a bicycle ride around the Seventy Acres Lake. Striking out south brings you to the Royal Gunpowder Mills museum, north to more gravel pits and Nazeing Marsh.

It all sounds a bit Wind in the Willows and there are plenty of people messing around in boats – whether it be on the Lee Navigation, where there is a steady traffic of pleasure seekers in narrow boats along the canalised waterway, or at Holyfield Lake. Here the members of Fishers Green sailing club must steer clear of the weirs.

The park draws walkers and anglers and birdwatchers and photographers in all weathers, to watch the comings and goings of the wildfowl and the march of the seasons.

After rain, the Horsemill Stream and the Cornmill Stream and the Small River Lea (the alternative spelling), all part of the flood relief system, can run swift and powerfully. Even when the waters appear placid there’s plenty going on under the surface.

 Invasive species

Invasive virile crayfish have been found in the river, where in the 80s the signal crayfish wiped out the native white clawed crayfish. There are also terrapins, bought as pets during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fad and released into wild after their owners tired of their growing size and appetites.

Then there are the human battles, for the future of salad growers in and around the regional park. And, with local authority budgets cut, there is political pressure on the authority to become self-financing.

Their glasshouses are, say the growers, too small to secure the long-term viability of the valley’s traditional market gardening. They say they are being squeezed between the demands of supermarket buyers for year-round supply and cheaper produce, and the park’s opposition to expansion of the area under glass.

The park is not a planning authority but has to be consulted by Epping Forest district council, where most of the growers are located. It has no remit to support horticulture, rather seeing production as a secondary function (pdf).

The river has a long history of quarrying and industry which has shaped the valley’s post-industrial landscape alongside farming and the glasshouses which have been in operation for more than a century.

Today, to the east of Cheshunt, there’s a mainline railway running within earshot of the river and electricity pylons march along the valley floor and across the former gravel pits to a substation. National Grid wants to upgrade the overhead lines to carry 400kV instead of the current 275kV. Consent is being sought for the work, with a decision expected by 2014.

The park’s boundaries skirt the extensive industrial estate on the west bank through Brimsdown, and the vast Sainsbury’s distribution centre by the M25 at Waltham Abbey. The jobs they provide are essential. There are pockets of deprivation in the town and it is not so far from Tottenham, which is seeking its own economic recovery after the London riots.

The authority wants the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games, with the momentum they generated for regeneration of brownfield sites and the watercourses around Stratford, to be a world class park for Londoners and a tourist draw in the green belt of Essex and Hertfordshire.

Hectare upon hectare of glasshouses, especially built taller and perhaps making more use of artificial lighting to extend the growing season and range of crops, are not seen as an attractive landscape feature. Nor are heavy lorries welcomed to narrow local roads.

A report by consultants to Epping Forest council (pdf) in 2012 set out in considerable detail the challenges for the growers and the dilemma for the councillors, who also have to contend with the pressures on the forest itself as another “green lung” for London.

Among the report’s conclusions were proposals to increase the area designated for protected cropping in glasshouses to head off increasing competition. This comes from abroad and also from Thanet Earth, the development of vast glasshouses in Kent where Combined Heat and Power technology means waste heat is used to warm the crops while electricity is produced for the grid.

 Cucumber festival

When the shelves of the city’s supermarkets boast of locally-sourced or “East Anglian” produce, they are likely to mean cucumbers grown by members of the Lea Valley Growers Association alongside tomatoes and peppers.

For the past two years they even held a Great British Cucumber Festival to celebrate the fact that the valley produces 75% of all UK cucumbers – about 1.2 million a week. There’s no event this year but “Cue Fest” is due to return in 2014.

The Epping Forest report painted a picture of an ageing generation of farmers running businesses on a knife edge of viability, needing to invest to thrive and grow, but hemmed in by physical and planning constraints. The need is for largely level sites, suitable for glasshouses which are regarded as temporary structures, and sufficient energy.

On national salad day last month, David Heath, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was asked in the Commons by Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, if he was aware of the concentration of salad growers in his consituency around the villages of Roydon and Nazeing.

 Halfon asked his Conservative colleague: “Will the government place more weight on food production in the planning system to help the Lee Valley growers and glasshouse industry in my constituency?”

Hansard records the reply: “There clearly needs to be proper accommodation for growing food stuffs in this country through the planning system, but it is equally right the government are clear on this that local planning decisions need to be taken locally. Central government have continually to remind our colleagues in local government, however, that having sustainable food production in this country is a top priority. We have an increasing population to feed, and we must ensure that we can do so in a sustainable way.”

A reminder perhaps to the park authority that the coalition made transforming the economy a priority for all parts of government, or as David Cameron put it in his first major speech as prime minister in May 2010, a big part of our strategy for growth is getting out of the way of business.”

The views into the LeeValley from High Beach in Epping Forest are striking. A study of Google Earth or Maps gives you an idea of the extensive area under glass, but its hardly on the scale of the Netherlands. My own view is that there is room for more glasshouses without throwing stones at the park’s leisure remit.

 

Coniston and Stratford: honest shops forge an unexpected link

Coniston Institute; self-improvement a speciality

Coniston Institute: self-improvement a speciality. Photographs: Paul Nettleton

There can hardly be two places in England as different as Coniston in the Lake District and Stratford in east London.

One is a village nestling beneath the Old Man peak, squeezed between a ring of Cumbrian fells and Coniston Water; the other has been an industrial suburb of the capital, and is now entering a post-industrial future after hosting the London 2012 Olympics on a brownfield site by the River Lea.

Coniston has lost its copper mines, though there’s still a working slate quarry, while Stratford no longer has a railway works though it remains an important hub.

Yet there is a link, with a nod to that industrial heritage, through art, crafts and architecture.

Walk north along Yewdale Road from the bridge across Church Beck and on the left is the Coniston Institute, which was opened in 1878 after energetic fundraising by John Ruskin, who lived across the lake at Brantwood. It was a new home for the lifelong learning promoted from its foundation in 1852 by the Coniston Mechanics Institute and Literary Society.

In extended premises at the rear of the institute is a museum devoted to Ruskin with exhibits also relating to the copper mines and slate, local geology, lace, farming and Donald Campbell. The museum’s website has some great Coniston links to explore.

There’s a public library and function rooms for hire. And since 2012  there has also been the Honest Shop, stocking local produce and craft. It’s this which provides the link to Stratford.

The use value of art

You can’t go far in this part of Cumbria without coming across the activities and influence of Grizedale Arts, which emphasises the use value of art, and promotes the functions of art and artists in practical and effective roles, as a central tenet of wider culture and society”. 

Grizedale Arts has been working with residents on the renovation and development of the institute. Archtitect Liam Gillick has designed a new self-service library and An Endless Supply, a design studio and run by Harry Blackett and Robin Kirkham, was commissioned to design the interior of the shop “a defibrillator-in-disguise for the UK economy”. There’s a touch of these austere times about the interior.

Goods on display at the Honest Shop in Coniston

Goods on display at the Honest Shop in Coniston

As their website explains, the shop is unstaffed and customers pay for what they take in the honesty box (Grizedale Arts confess that: “Typically for a haven of visitor experience tranquility, the money tin was stolen on day two.”) Profits go to the sellers and are ploughed back into the upkeep of Coniston Institute.

The shop was featured on the BBC’s Countryfile programme. John Craven bought an apricot loaf. We plumped for eccles cakes and a carrot cake with orange frosting.

About 280 miles away (more if you take a scenic route across the Pennines) in London, there’s not yet so much choice at the Honesty Stall situated at the gates to Abbey Gardens in Bakers Row, Stratford, a step away from Abbey Road station on the Docklands Light Railway, where a sign helpfully redirects tourists and Beatles fans looking for a certain zebra crossing to the other Abbey Road in St John’s Wood.

It’s only a stone’s throw from Stratford and West Ham on the London Underground and national rail.

There are railway cottages across the road, and the remains of others within the grounds of this open access community garden (visitors welcome from dawn to dusk when the gates are open). Long before the coming of the railway and the nearby India rubber works and other heavy industry, there had been a 12th century Cistercian abbey on the site, complete with kitchen garden and a gatehouse here.

Public realm

The Friends of Abbey Gardens has been working to reverse years of neglect since 2006. It initiated work on the garden, which has been designed by artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie of Somewhere, a multi-disciplinary, non-profit creative company.

The site had to be cleared of contaminated soil before planting for food could begin. Arsenic, lead and benzoapyrene were among the chemicals found in a survey.

Now there’s a sign on a brick wall that asks What will the harvest be? The answer is whatever the regular gardeners agree and there are thousands of wonderful photos on Flickr capturing the activity at the gardens. And some of what’s grown is also sold on the mobile Honesty Stall designed for Abbey Gardens by Andreas Lang.

Work in progress at Abbey Gardens, Stratford, east London

Work in progress at Abbey Gardens, Stratford

One afternoon this week, with a touch of spring finally in the air, preparation and planting in the raised beds and greenhouse with guidance from gardening club leader Hamish Liddle came to a halt while a dunnock sang his heart out from an ivy branch shooting above the wall, attracting a second bird – a possible partner or rival was unclear.

Lang is a key link between Coniston and Stratford through the International Village Shop, a network of trading places for locally rooted goods. A founder of Public Works, he trained at Central St Martins school of art and at the Architectural Association, London. As with Grizedale Arts, Public Works “projects address the question how the public realm is shaped by its various users.

 This spring and summer, both projects are well worth a visit. Don’t forget to put your money in the honesty box.

Cumbria Day: Rory Stewart and the let’s work together ethic

A train crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Carlisle to Settle line. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

A train crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Carlisle to Settle line. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

Politicians have a job on their hands to win back the trust of voters after the expenses scandal.

Chris Huhne’s conviction for persuading his wife to claim she was at the wheel when his car was caught speeding on the M11 didn’t help.

Then there are the Lib Dem and police inquiries into allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by Lord Rennard, that are said to have blighted the political careers of some promising female candidates.

And I’ve watched with some horror, but also some understanding of the frustrations of electors, the growing protest vote for Ukip, a party defined like the National Front and BNP by what it hates and fears rather than what it cherishes and supports.

So it was with genuine pleasure that I read on Rory Stewart’s blog about Cumbria Day at Westminster in which all six of the county’s MPs recently put party difference to one side to support a showcase for local businesses.

These ranged from Cranstons, purveyors of fine food and meat since 1914 (that’s the Cumberland sausage and pies sorted) through a trio of small breweries (Ulverston, Hard Knott and Coniston to wash them down) to the Lake District Cheese Company, Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company, New Balance Trainers and Stobart Air. Tourism, a key local industry, was also well represented.

Stewart, who is Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border, said: “It has been a wonderful opportunity for all MPs to work together on a cross-party basis for a county we all love. It has put Cumbria, its products and our beautiful landscape in a much-needed spotlight.”

His belief that there should be more cross-party work was echoed by the other MPs, representing a part of Britain where the Boundary Commission recently defied common sense and geography in its proposal to cut the number of constituencies.

The attention – and even the prime minister popped in – was much needed because one of the first acts of the Coalition was to wind up the North West Development Agency in the public spending cuts and snatch away vital funding for projects such as the £100m Barrow marina village, now being kept on life support by £3.25m of capital spending from the borough council.

The government’s meager replacement appears to be £900,000 from the Big Lottery and Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government under the Coastal Communities Fund grant scheme.

I sense on my visits north that there’s a growing belief that if you want something done, you’d better do it yourself, if only because the siren voice of London mayor Boris Johnson is heard more loudly at Westminster.

Faster, faster broadband

Stewart’s support for trying to make something of the Big Society in the Eden Valley and in particular his campaigning for rural high speed broadband have found echoes in Arkholme, to the south in Lancashire, where residents are laying their own fibre network rather than wait for BT’s engineers.

In Rails in the Fells (Peco, 1973), David Jenkinson writes about the Settle and Carlisle Railway, then under threat of closure after escaping the axe in 1963 under the Beeching Plan. He points to the irony of the entrepreneurial Midland Railway providing a local service as an accident of building a through route to Scotland, while its state-owned successor sought to justify closure despite the hardships it threatened to bring rural communities with little alternative public transport.

Today, Cumbria’s people and MPs share a can-do attitude that puts the government and BT to shame for past failure to invest in today’s equivalent of the Victorian railways. Remember all that talk of the information superhighway and its power to transform the economy.

Now, even the Connecting Cumbria project will justify its success when:

    •  At least 90% of properties in Cumbria have access to a connection of at least 25 megabits per second by 2015;
  • Where a 25mbps connection is not available, access to an internet connection of at least 2Mbps.

Hardly ambitious by, say, South Korean standards, where the average peak connection is a reported 48.8Mbps. You can see why Cumbria’s MPs feel the need to work together to have the county’s voice heard in the corridors of power.