Category Archives: Travel

Breeding time for the grey seals at Horsey

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 1

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 2

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 3

  • Seals at Horsey

    Seals 4

The grey seal colony at Blakeney in north Norfolk starred in the BBC’s Winterwatch the other day. Television cameras arrived to news that 2,426 pups were born there during the breeding season that began in November and has just about run its course.

I missed the TV programme but was lucky enough before Christmas to see and take a few photographs (see gallery above) of the smaller colony at Horsey beach, further round the coast towards Great Yarmouth. The rookery, or haul-out as the breeding site is known, stretched as far as the eye could see along the beach.

Volunteer wardens from the admirable Friends of Horsey Seals have taken over the work of Natural England, who apparently have other priorities, in roping off a walkway on the dunes at the back of the beach, themselves in need of careful management, and guiding visitors so that they can see the seals without disturbing them.

On the crisp, sunny day we visited there was a constant stream of people walking out to the beach and following the sensible advice, which includes keeping dogs firmly on a lead. Even so, there was the odd seal in the dunes to be skirted around. They do have a nasty bite and this is not the time to get up close and personal.

By now most of the pups will now have moulted their warm white birth coat for a mottled waterproof covering and, when they’ve exhausted the layers of fat they built up from their mothers’ milk, will have to take to the sea and learn how to fish for themselves.

The cycle will be repeated next year, which is necessary as more than half the pups will not survive their first year. The bulls turn up after the females have given birth and there can be a lot of aggression as they seek the best territory for mating.

For more information, see the Friends of Horsey Seals website: http://friendsofhorseyseals.co.uk/index.htm

 

 

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.

 

 

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!