London Museum (mini) Challenge, 2014 edition

October 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Remember how last year I set myself the task of visiting 23 London museums (and historic houses and gardens) that I’d never made it to before… and succeeded?

Well, I have a confession to make. There were a handful of places that I wish I’d added to the list but didn’t think of until it was far too late (and one of them I hadn’t even heard of until last week… that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!). So I’ve decided to set myself a miniature version of the original challenge, because 1. it’s always nice to tie up loose ends; 2. the weather lately hasn’t exactly been conducive to hiking and 3. in a couple of weeks I’ll have to send my passport off into the ether (well, actually the Home Office) to get my visa renewed and the knowledge that I won’t be able to travel makes me deeply anxious, so going on a few local voyages seems like a good distraction.

So here are the candidates this time:

Foundling Museum

London Canal Museum

London Jewish Museum

Pitzhanger Manor

…and the deadline is 15 December – I’d better get started!

The 10 best works of erotic art: a response to Jonathan Jones

October 12, 2014 § 2 Comments

I have never before written a blog post in anger. But there’s a first time for everything.

So what’s got me so het up?

A week ago I came across a column by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian on the ten best works of erotic art.

Now what you need to know about me and Jonathan Jones is that even on a good day, he infuriates me, to the point that I generally avoid reading him because I don’t particularly enjoy getting pointlessly angry. His criticism is, for the most part, lazy, pompous and ignorant. Much of it perfectly illustrates Barthes’s definition of ‘blind and dumb criticism’. His exhibition reviews often read as if he didn’t actually see the show but just decided to write about what he imagined it was like, and it always conforms to his prejudices; his writing in general reads like that of someone who hasn’t cracked an art history book in years and – an even worse sin, in my view – someone who does not look at art with sensitivity, curiosity and a desire to understand, with open eyes and open mind. (I have never understood why the Guardian, which boasts a fleet of thoughtful theatre, music, literary and architecture critics, can’t find someone to do similar justice to the visual arts.)

So now you know why I normally give Jones a wide berth. But then the other week I was innocently perusing the Guardian and clicked the link to the fatal article before I realised what I was doing. And, much as you can’t look away from a car crash, I kept reading.

By the time I got to the end, I was seeing red – as an art historian, as a woman, as a feminist, as a thinking person who doesn’t like to have my intelligence insulted. Where to begin? The blatant sexism? (Not a single one of the artists Jones chose was a woman.) The blatant heterosexism? (Yes, two of the works he chose ostensibly depict pairs of female lovers, but if Jones had bothered to do his research he would have known that the drawing by Egon Schiele actually shows a woman and… a doll. Well hey, JJ, if that’s what floats your boat…) The ham-fisted interpretation of his choices? (How on earth can he plausibly argue that Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven is erotic? Cheap, nasty, cynical, yes – erotic, hell no.) Or maybe more than anything, the extreme narrowness of his definition of what makes an erotic work of art, which, based on his list, is a naked man and woman (or two women, but – perish the thought – never two men) very graphically getting it on. What a sad and limited way to look at one of the richest and most complicated aspects of human experience!

But rather than simply get mad at Jones, I decided to get even. Top 10 lists are by their very nature reductive, but with that caveat in mind I put together a riposte to his. (I did actually agree with a handful of his picks, as you’ll see below, but not always for the same reasons.) Here it is, in no particular order – comments, additions and disagreements welcome and no disingenuous attacks of the vapours please – you should have known what to expect…

 

Utamaro, Lovers in an upstairs room

1. Kitagawa Utamaro, Lovers in an upstairs room, from Poem of the Pillow (1788)

One of the most extraordinary shows I’ve seen in recent memory was the British Museum’s 2013 exhibition of shunga (Japanese erotic prints): hundreds of gorgeously realised images of couples making love with a lack of shame or inhibition that one seldom finds in western art before 1900 (although there are obviously some exceptions to that rule, some of them included here). The majority of them are quite explicit, sometimes comically so, but to my mind some of the most powerfully sensual shunga are those that hide more than they reveal (quite literally, in this case – the way the woman’s leg is veiled by a swathe of gauzy fabric is stunning) – and Utamaro’s Poem of the Pillow just might be the best of all.

 

Raimondi after Giulio Romano, I Modi

2. Marcantonio Raimondi after Giulio Romano, I Modi (The Positions) (1524)

I Modi was one of the most scandalous sets of prints ever produced – a set of sixteen engravings illustrating different sexual positions. So scandalous, in fact, that the entire original edition was destroyed by the Church, and of the second edition, only these nine fragments survive.

This is another overlap between Jones’s list and mine, but I’ve chosen I Modi for a different reason: I would argue that the fragmentary, censored version is probably a lot more erotic than the original. Rather than spelling everything out, the fragments force your imagination to try to fill in the missing pieces. And isn’t the imagination the most potent erotic force of all?

 

The Chamber Idyll 1831 by Edward Calvert 1799-1883

3. Edward Calvert, The Chamber Idyll (1831)

William Blake may have written eloquently (and radically, for his age) about sexuality throwing off the shackles of religious and societal guilt but it was his follower Edward Calvert (one of the artists who called themselves the Ancients) who gave it the most perfect visual expression: a young man and woman undressing for bed on their wedding night, the cottage interior (not least the overflowing basket of apples) and the surrounding pastoral landscape echoing and underscoring the innocent sensuousness of the pair. The most surprising thing about this exquisite print? It’s tiny – a mere 4 x 7.5 cm. And the small scale, which forces you to look very closely in order to take in every detail, heightens the intimacy of the scene.

The Chamber Idyll is not only Calvert’s masterpiece, it’s also the last print he ever made. Perhaps he feared – or realised – that he would never be able to surpass it.

 

Caravaggio_(Michelangelo_Merisi)_-_Saint_John_the_Baptist_-_Google_Art_Project

4. Caravaggio, John the Baptist (1602)

Caravaggio isn’t the first artist to transform John the Baptist from ascetic saint to object of desire (Leonardo got there before him) but he may be the most audacious. He stripped away anything that might have indicated that we’re meant to read this figure as a desert prophet (indeed, the painting is also known simply as ‘Youth with a Ram’) and left a Roman urchin revelling in his own nakedness and blasting us with an impish, knowing grin. Even the traditional lamb has been swapped for a ram – an ancient symbol of lust. And you can practically feel the heat of Caravaggio’s gaze on his flesh.

(Honourable mentions: the Warren Cup, which didn’t make the cut because doubts have been raised about its authenticity; any number of Greek vases, because I had no idea where to begin narrowing down the choice…)

 

Rembrandt French Bed

5. Rembrandt, The French Bed (1646)

Despite the trouble Marcantonio Raimondi landed in with I Modi, sex was far from being a rare subject for art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – it’s just that it was usually given a mythological cloak of erudition and respectability. If you saw a man and woman entangled in bed, it was likely to be Mars and Venus entrapped by Vulcan.

That’s what makes Rembrandt’s etching so effective – and affecting: it’s not a couple of randy gods, it’s two ordinary people you could meet in the street, people who aren’t divinely beautiful and who have to contend with everyday annoyances (in this case, a cold room – they’re still half-dressed). There’s some speculation that the couple are Rembrandt himself and his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels, but I don’t feel it matters – surely the point is that they could be anyone. They could be us.

 

Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70)

Sometimes less is more, and if Rossetti isn’t the first artist whom one thinks of as exemplifying restraint, maybe he should be. Beata Beatrix is an elegy to his recently-deceased wife (and fellow artist) Elizabeth Siddal, depicted in the guise of Dante’s beloved Beatrice at the moment of death. But it’s a highly symbolic death – she’s seated in a garden flanked by Dante and an angel, a bird dropping a poppy into her open hands. She’s usually described as being in spiritual ecstasy, and yes, her expression is ecstatic: closed eyes, open lips, straining throat… does Rossetti mean to show us the moment of death or ‘little death’?

Proof positive that a fully clothed figure can be every bit as erotic as a nude, and then some. (And a great example of Rossetti turning his limits to his advantage – Venus Verticordia, his one major attempt at a nude, is more ridiculous than sexy. No wonder Ruskin directed his ire at the flowers instead.)

(Honourable mention – Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca.)

 

Vuillard, Nape of Misia's Neck

7. Edouard Vuillard, The Nape of Misia’s Neck (c. 1897-99)

Right, now you’re probably wondering if I’ve gone off the deep end. No, I haven’t. Admittedly, a large part of what makes this seemingly chaste and restrained little painting so erotic is the story behind it. The Misia to whom the neck belongs was Misia Godebska, a Polish-Belgian pianist married to Thadée Natanson, patron and promoter of the Nabis. She was beautiful, witty, capricious and often cruel, had a genius for friendship with anyone who was anyone in the avant-garde, and Vuillard was hopelessly, unrequitedly in love with her. (He was also terminally shy, and I think it’s fair to speculate that even if Misia hadn’t been married to his chief patron he probably would still have been unable to make a move.) According to Misia’s memoir (which is a cracking read, as long as you take most of it with a grain of salt), around the time he painted this picture, she and Vuillard were strolling through a beet field near her country house and after helping her over an errant tree root, he suddenly halted and burst into tears. ‘It was,’ she wrote, ‘the most beautiful declaration of love I have ever received.’

Vuillard had plenty of worthy antecedents in eroticising the nape of a woman’s neck – think of the many women with their backs turned in Watteau’s fêtes galantes, or the beauties in the Japanese prints he and his fellow Nabis so admired. But knowing the emotion underpinning this small, private painting – all that intense, unrealisable desire concentrated on one small, innocent part of his beloved’s person – gives it a charge arguably far greater than any of them.

 

Schiele Girl seen in a dream

8. Egon Schiele, Girl seen in a dream (1911)

I wanted to include something by Schiele here (one that didn’t involve a doll), but it was unexpectedly difficult choosing one. The thing about Schiele is that although sexuality is very much at the heart of his art, and his treatment of the nude still looks radical today, his figures often aren’t actually that erotic – despair or angst or alienation (and often all three) tends to take the upper hand.

All the same, there are examples of tenderness in Schiele’s oeuvre, and I could have chosen a drawing or a painting of an embracing couple – but I went for Girl seen in a dream instead, in part because Jones’s only pick representing solo sex was so lame (Dalí? Really, you couldn’t do better than that?). What I find so compelling about Schiele’s drawing is that, despite being searingly explicit, it also acknowledges how private and mysterious and ultimately unknowable a person’s sexuality is. Yes, Schiele may have given us a girl at her most (physically) naked – but we don’t know exactly what plunged her into her erotic reverie, and we never will.

Camille Claudel, Sakountala

9. Camille Claudel, Sakountala (1886-1905)

I admit it – I’d first been considering Rodin’s The Kiss for this slot. But then an even better candidate sprang to mind. Claudel started working on Sakountala when she was just 22 and it, and iterations thereof, occupied her for much of the remainder of her brutally shortened career. The subject is the denouement of an ancient Sanskrit play, in which the eponymous heroine and her husband, who have endured years of separation and numerous trials, are finally reunited… but even without that background knowledge Sakountala is one of the sexiest and most moving depictions of an embrace in any medium, the pair melting into each other with pure abandon (indeed, Claudel called a later version simply L’Abandon).

 

Pipilotti Rist, Pickelporno

10. Pipilotti Rist, Pickelporno (Pimple-Porno) (1992)

Despite the (very tongue-in-cheek) title, Rist’s video piece is definitely not porn – if anything, it turns the conventions thereof on their head. She’s filmed a couple apparently making love, but with a tiny fish-eye camera and in extreme close-up. Far from being voyeuristic and cheap, it evokes – and celebrates – the inherent strangeness of the body (both man and woman come across almost as alien landscapes) and what a messy, awkward, joyous experience sex can be.

Quite unusually for the work of an acclaimed video artist, you can actually watch Pickelporno on YouTube (although you’ll have to sign in and swear on the head of your firstborn (okay, not really) that you’re over 18). Watching it on a small screen won’t really do it justice – like most of Rist’s work, a lot of its power resides in the overwhelmingly immersive experience of seeing it full-size in a large gallery – but it will at least give a taste of what sets Pickelporno apart – it’s erotic art with a generous, contagious sense of humour.

And couldn’t the world do with a bit more of that?

Waterloo Sunset

October 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

30 September 2014

29 September 2014

One of my favourite views in all of London is the one from Waterloo Bridge, looking upriver. And I get to see it twice a day, five days a week, on the way to and from work. Even after nine and a half years in London, I still feel a brief burst of gratitude every time I cross the bridge, wow, I can’t believe my luck, I live HERE!

And yet I’ve never, not once, taken a photo of the view. Until two days ago, anyway. This is that all-too-brief golden time of the year when the sun is just beginning to set when I leave work. So here are three Waterloo sunsets… just because I can.

30 September 2014

30 September 2014

2 October 2014 (1)

2 October 2014 (1)

2 October 2014 (2)

2 October 2014 (2)

The Kinks definitely had it right…

Florilegium (2)

September 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Columbia Road 1

Something rather wonderful has happened since my last post – I gained my hundredth follower!

I have to admit I am not brilliant at interacting with you all – I am, and always have been, a bit of a post-and-run blogger. But please know that I appreciate all of you, and it means a lot to me that you’re reading what I write, whether you’re in the UK, the US, Australia, Russia, Romania, or anywhere else under the sun.

So, as thanks, I offer you some flowers – not a bouquet, a whole market full. (Columbia Road Market, in case you’re wondering.) Plus some singers and a cat.

Columbia Road 2

Columbia Road 3

Columbia Road 4

Columbia Road 5

Columbia Road 6

Columbia Road 8

Columbia Road 9

Columbia Road 9

Columbia Road 10

Columbia Road 11

Colubmia Road 12

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, standard lens, 200 colour slide film, cross-processed)

Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 6)

September 20, 2014 § 2 Comments

Fermoyle Strand

Fermoyle Strand

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

Part 4 is here

Part 5 is here

Day 8: Cloghane to Castlegregory

Distance covered: 29 km; total ascent: 50 m

This morning I awaken in the grip of very mixed emotions – of which the most salient are elation and sadness. Today is the last leg of the Dingle Way.* Part of me is excited to see the end in sight… another part of me doesn’t want it to end.

All packed up and breakfast eaten, I’m standing before the mirror in my room putting on sun cream when I catch sight of a stranger. She’s bronzed and strong and looks tremendously calm. It takes a second – an endless one – to realise that the stranger is me. Have I really changed that much in the last eight days?

*

The last part of the Dingle Way is, in its own way, as much a challenge as the crossing of Mount Brandon. It’s almost entirely on the flat, but it represents the longest distance I will ever have walked on a single day. That said, 29 km on flat ground, more than a third of which is a beach hike, doesn’t seem beyond my powers – certainly not after what I’ve been doing for the past week.

I quickly leave Cloghane behind as the trail winds along empty roads. Mount Brandon is at my back and the sky is full of billowing clouds. The first road sign I see outside of Cloghane is bilingual – I’m officially out of the Gaeltacht (where all signs are in Irish only) – and that wave of elation mixed with sadness assails me again. I really am on the home stretch now.

Fermoyle Strand 2

In no time at all I’ve reached the gap in the dunes that leads out onto Fermoyle Strand, the longest beach in Ireland – 12 km of golden sand curving in a gentle bow around Brandon Bay. Normally I love beach hiking –it was one of a handful of things that kept me sane during my year and a half of exile in a small and deadly dull town in southern California – but the sky looks foreboding, and the memory of that miserable slog along Smerwick Strand two days ago is still fresh in my mind. Casting one beseeching look at the sky, I step onto the sand and head east.

Fermoyle Strand 3

The wind is fierce, but – true to the old Irish blessing – it is at my back (let it stay that way). The main source of disappointment is the clouds. I’ve seen countless photos of Fermoyle Strand spread beneath a blue sky, the sea an even deeper blue. Now it’s a near-monochrome canvas of greys and duns, but it’s got its own melancholy beauty.

About twenty minutes in, I feel the first raindrops. This time I’m a lot faster getting my waterproof on, and I manage to get the hood over my head before my bandanna gets soaked. The one downside to the hood is that, with the force of the wind, the rain pings against it like an endless hail of bullets.

Fermoyle Strand 4

Luck seems to be smiling on me today, though. After about ten minutes of marching in the rain (which isn’t heavy, but made worse by the wind), it begins to let up. The wind doesn’t stop blowing, but cracks begin to appear in the clouds. The sun breaks through. I turn back and see Mount Brandon dappled in sun and shadow and – oh, glorious! – the sky reflected in a pearly blur in the wet sand.

Fermoyle Strand 5

Fermoyle Strand reflection 1

Fermoyle Strand reflection 2

Fermoyle Strand reflection 3

Fermoyle Strand 6Fermoyle Strand teems with life. There are gulls everywhere, and flocks of chattering oystercatchers gathered at the tideline. The sand is dotted with the siphon holes of razor clams – and, although this couldn’t strictly be considered ‘life’, a lot of stranded jellyfish. Most of them are the same transparent, colourless blobs that littered Clogher Strand, but every now and then I come across a larger, more interesting one, its bell streaked with blood red and peach, feathery dark tentacles trailing away.

jellyfish

The strand keeps unspooling, and I keep going, buoyed by that feeling of being able to walk forever that overcame me the day before after I came down the mountain. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel relieved when I notice the end of the beach drawing closer and closer. When I reach the end, I will have walked, in one morning, about the same distance I walked the entire first day.

I come off the strand just before it ends and the road takes me into the village of Fahamore. There’s a pub overlooking the beach and I gratefully plunk myself down at a table and order a pot of tea. After I’ve finished it (and I wasn’t exactly drinking it quickly), it takes an age to find anyone to bring me the bill, and the wait is dangerous – I feel as if I stay there one minute longer, I would be content to sit there forever and never rise again. And I still have 12 km to go before I reach Castlegregory.

I do eventually succeed in leaving Fahamore. The trail cuts through windswept pasture and the sea is ever-present (I’m now at the tip of the peninsula) but I manage to find a bit of wall sheltered enough to sit on and eat my lunch. After the morning’s walk I’m ravenous, but halfway through I realise how heartily tired I am of trail mix and oatcakes. All right, maybe I have been on this hike just long enough….

Naomhóg, Scraggane Bay

Naomhóg, Scraggane Bay

The trail cuts right to the end of the peninsula and I find myself on another beach, Scraggane Strand. This is one of the only places in Ireland where naomhógs are still made, and sure enough, outside a cottage I see one lying upturned in the grass. The beach itself is as lovely as Fermoyle Strand but the wind, if anything, is even fiercer, and now it’s blowing me sideways, so I don’t linger and just push on across the sand. I end up in Kilshannig, another village on the other side, and spend a few cold and precarious minutes hunting around its tiny, weather-beaten churchyard for a seventh-century grave marker carved with a Chi-Rho. (To anyone planning to do the same, a friendly tip – walk clockwise once you go through the gate, you’ll save time and frustration.)

Chi-Rho stone, Kilshannig cemetery

Chi-Rho stone, Kilshannig cemetery

I pass quickly through Kilshannig and soon I’m overlooking another beach. For the time being, the trail isn’t on the sand but on the machair above it – just as well as the wind is brutal, many times worse than on Fermoyle Strand. The clouds have closed in again. Tralee Bay is a glowering grey-green, seething with whitecaps, and every few minutes I find myself pulling my hood back on against a burst of rain.

Tralee Bay

Unluckily for me, the stretch of trail eventually dips down onto the beach itself and this is where the going gets really rough. I’m walking directly into one of the most merciless winds I’ve ever experienced – so much so that I feel as if I must be expending roughly half my energy on pushing against it. The rain has stopped – who knows for how long? – but I still hear and feel that hail of bullets peppering my hood and my left cheek. It takes me longer than it ought to to realise what it is… sand. (Am I going to end the hike with half my face sandblasted?) To make matters worse, the beach here, in contrast to the broad expanse of Fermoyle Strand, is a thin ribbon of sand… and it could be my imagination, but as I bend my head into the wind and trudge on, it looks as if it’s getting thinner.

No, it’s definitely not my imagination. The tide’s coming in.

I push against the wind for all I’m worth, ignoring the protests of my Achilles tendon (which hasn’t really recovered from yesterday) and spurred by the sight of the tide licking steadily further into the sand and rocks. Just when I think I won’t be able to last much longer, the beach curves into an inlet and I see a waymarker directing me up, into the dunes. I want to cheer. Castlegregory can’t be far now.

Once out of the dunes, I’m onto a road, and much as I would normally prefer to be walking on earth or turf or sand, at the moment I’m not inclined to complain. There are cheering numbers of road signs pointing toward Castlegregory, and I’m starting to feel smug when I see another waymarker that is pointing, indisputably, back down to the beach. That can’t be right.

I consult my guidebook. ‘Return to the beach for two kilometres,’ it says. No getting out of it, then.

The last 2 km are another trial by wind, but at least this time I know (despite my trust of the guidebook being in tatters) that this really is the last of it. One final push, and I turn onto a road that takes me into Castlegregory.

As luck would have it, my B&B in Castlegregory is very nearly as absurdly luxurious as the one in Feohanagh, with a similarly lovely and hospitable owner who hustles me off to my room with the promise of tea and cake in the sitting room once I’ve cleaned up.

It’s only then, when I’m slumped in a huge armchair with the tea tray next to me, that it hits me.

I’ve done it.

* 27.8.14 Castlegregory

Later that evening, after an appropriately celebratory dinner in Castlegregory’s nicest restaurant (which is called Pisces – no prizes for guessing what they specialise in), I’m curled up in bed with Around the World in Eighty Days, feeling drowsily content and my mind anywhere but on the book.

Tomorrow morning I’ll board a bus back to Tralee (the first vehicle of any sort I will have ridden in over a week – a record for me) and, several hours after that, I’ll be back in London. And in some ways, I’m glad. There are some aspects of London I’ve missed – the familiarity of my flat, sleeping in my own bed, good coffee, cooking, elegant dresses and pretty, impractical shoes. My friends, of course.

In other ways, I’ll be sad to leave Ireland. I’ll miss the quiet. I’ll miss being able to lose myself in nature, with the comfort of knowing that the next village isn’t really that far away. I’ll miss the easy friendliness I encountered everywhere. (Not a single person has asked me why I was walking the Dingle Way alone – the usual reaction was just one of surprise and admiration – and I feel grateful for their discretion and for not having once had to explain myself.) I hope I can take a large measure of the calm and contentedness I found on the trail back to London with me – and hold onto it for as long as possible.

Mark Twain once said (and I think I’ve quoted him here before), ‘I’m glad I did it, partly because it was worth it, but mostly because I shall never have to do it again.’ Only half of that applies to my journey along the Dingle Way. It was well worth doing, to put it mildly. And although I very much hope that next summer I won’t be taking my holiday alone, would I do it again?

Yes. A thousand times yes.

*

Total distance walked: 162 km (including walking done around Tralee on Day 1: 166 km)

Total ascent: 2000 m

Weight of blackberries eaten: 58 kg**

 

*There is actually one further section of trail – from Castlegregory to Tralee – but most hikers who have walked the Dingle Way clockwise don’t do it as the route, apart from the 6 km between Castlegregory and Camp, is identical to the first day’s section.

**Just kidding, I obviously did not eat my own weight in blackberries.

Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 5)

September 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

If it's good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it's good enough for me.

If it’s good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it’s good enough for me.

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

Part 4 is here

Day 7: Feohanagh to Cloghane

Distance covered: 21 km; total ascent: 650 m

It’s D-Day.

This is the day I have been both anticipating and dreading ever since I decided to hike the Dingle Way: the day I go over Mount Brandon.

Mount Brandon is the second highest mountain in Ireland. It has multiple peaks, however, and I won’t be climbing the highest one (952 m); the Dingle Way passes over it via a col between two of the lower peaks, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór (names which to me look as if they came straight out of The Lord of the Rings). At 650 m, it will be the highest I’ve ever climbed.

I’ve added something extra to my usual trail rations: a tin of Kendal Mint Cake. I’m sure I’ll need the extra energy, and reason that if it’s good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it should be good enough for me.

Over breakfast (which is every bit as absurdly splendid as yesterday’s dinner), the Englishman tells me he’s checked the forecast for today and it’s meant to be sunny, apart from some fog on the mountaintops.

‘Oh, that’s fine,’ I remark airily, gesturing to the window to my left. ‘Brandon looks totally clear.’

He bursts out laughing. ‘That’s Ballydavid Head you’re looking at,’ he says. ‘Brandon’s the other side of the house.’

I spring up and go to the far window and that’s when my jaw nearly hits the floor. A massive hulk of a mountain rises in green majesty, completely blocking out the horizon, its slopes splashed with sunshine. The highest of the peaks are cloaked in fog.

‘…Thanks for clearing that up,’ I mumble weakly.

Breakfast finished, we part ways (the English couple are off to Waterford; the Irish couple are hoping to visit Great Blasket) and they all wish me luck. I finish packing, thank my hostess profusely for having restored me to myself, pluck my pole out of the umbrella stand in the front hall and soon I’m on the trail again, the sun so gloriously warm that I almost immediately discard my hoodie and roll up the sleeves of my t-shirt (I’m wearing the bird one again, for good luck).

Mount Brandon 1

The first several kilometres of the trail are gentle, passing through farmland, mostly on the flat. Mount Brandon unfolds before me in a breathtaking combination of sun and cloud shadow. As I get closer, I realise that the gradient of the lower slopes, at least, looks fairly gentle. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

Mount Brandon 2

Mount Brandon fog

The trail crosses a small car park and goes through a gate and just like that, I’m climbing the mountain.

Mount Brandon trail

The ascent is easy at first. I pass two hikers, a middle-aged American couple; apart from them my only companions are the ever-present sheep. The sun is warm and the ground, despite two days of rain, isn’t particularly muddy. After I’ve gone what feels a decent distance, I stop for lunch, perching on a bit of old stone wall. (For something that looks like a bar of soap, the mint cake is surprisingly tasty, although not so much that I’m likely to add it my daily diet.)

Ballydavid Head seen from Mount Brandon

Ballydavid Head seen from Mount Brandon

Ballydavid Head 2

The trail continues to climb, following the remnants of an unfinished British military road. It’s getting stiffer, but is still entirely within my abilities, and the reward for stopping to rest is spectacular views – behind me, Ballydavid Head and the Three Sisters; ahead of me, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór, the former bathed in sunlight, the latter buried in fog. The col looks clear. And I’m rapidly approaching the top.

One more push and you’re there, I tell myself. I redouble my efforts and stride up to the crest.

Something’s wrong. The stone pillar with the Ogham carving that’s supposed to stand at the summit is nowhere to be seen. All I can see is the mountain rising higher and higher… into the fog.

I consult my map again and realise it’s missing a vital bit of information. The peak to my left that I took for Más an Tiompán is apparently a peak too minor to merit inclusion. No, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór are the two peaks buried under a huge cloud.

I’m going to be scaling Mount Brandon in the fog.

I find myself thinking things about the guidebook that, if I were to spell them out here, would make this blog thoroughly NSFW. But cursing out a useless guidebook will only get you so far. So I shove it back in my rucksack and consider my options:

  1. Turn and walk back to Feohanagh with my tail between my legs and beg the B&B owner to book me a taxi to Cloghane;
  2. Press on.

Option #1 is considered for about two seconds and thrown out. I wade into the fog. After I’ve gone about 100 metres I glance back over my shoulder. Ballydavid Head has disappeared from view. It’s just me and the mountain now.

There are times when I find myself rather regretting my atheism and this is one of them. It would be very comforting to be able to pray, to place my trust in some higher power – but I can’t. Moreover, surrendering my trust to something external is probably the very worst thing I can do right now.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and wait for my pulse to stop thundering so loudly in my ears. You can do this, I remind myself. With the sleeves of my t-shirt rolled up over my shoulders and the bandanna knotted over my hair, I reckon I look a bit like Rosie the Riveter. It’s a cheering thought, even if Rosie probably never would have worn hiking boots and a walking pole isn’t exactly the same thing as a riveting gun.

Luckily, the good people who maintain the Dingle Way are obviously aware of the problem heavy fog poses on Mount Brandon, and there are many extra waymarkers here – white posts, each placed about 10 m apart. With current visibility conditions I can see two white posts ahead of me. I keep my eyes fastened on them and strike off.

If I thought the trail between Tralee and Camp was boggy and rough, now I realise that was a mere warm-up for Brandon. Every third step I find myself squelching through boggy ground or mud. The ground is so watery that not infrequently sections of trail are, essentially, streams. My boots, which hadn’t entirely dried out from the last two days’ worth of rain anyway, are soon waterlogged. The air’s chill and damp, the fog swirled by wind, but I’m so warm with exertion that I give no thought to putting a jacket back on.

The world has narrowed to this: fog, boggy ground, the sharply-rising mountainside, and the line of white waymarkers that I tick off like beads on a chain. The only other living creatures I’m aware of are a few sheep cropping grass with supreme unconcern. I won’t deny feeling a bit frightened, but I also know I’ve rarely felt so focused in my life. One foot in front of the other. One more waymarker down.

After I’ve been battling my way up for what seems an eternity, I hear voices ahead of me. I can’t seen their owners but it sounds like several men and women, laughing and shouting to each other in German. For the first time on this walk I’m actually glad beyond belief to discover other hikers on the trail. If they’re ahead of me, it means that 1. the trail is passable and 2. I’m not as alone as I thought I was.

Ogham stone, Mount Brandon

Ogham stone, Mount Brandon

At long last the ground begins to flatten under my feet, and through the fog I see a pile of boulders at what I think must now be the crest of the col. Five bright jackets are huddled around the boulders, and as I draw closer I see the German hikers perched on the rocks unwrapping their lunch. Ahead of me is a tall, narrow slab of red stone, slightly curved at the top: the famous Ogham stone.* I stop just long enough to snap a couple of photos and catch my breath, but I don’t spend too long congratulating myself. Everything I’ve read about the Dingle Way suggests that the descent of Brandon is much tougher than the ascent.

I press forward, searching for the next waymarker. I can just pick out one of the usual black ones with the little yellow hiker at the top, but ahead of it – nothing. Perhaps I should go right instead? I timidly venture in that direction but now there are no waymarkers of any description. I try my torch. It’s useless in the fog. I head back to the last waymarker and then realise my mistake.

I was looking ahead of me for the next one. I should have been looking straight down.

Suddenly I’m grateful for the fog. I’m sure that if I were actually able to see the descent in its entirety, I’d be paralysed with fear. As it is, I can see just far enough ahead of me to – I hope – avoid falls and obstacles.

I start down the steepest descent I’ve ever done in my life, keeping as close to the ground as I can, relying on my pole and on grabbing hold of chunks of turf and rocks to keep me from falling. It’s inglorious and graceless but nobody can see me and frankly, I’d rather make it down alive than die gracefully.

The trail on the ascent was boggy but the descent is worse – mud, mud, mud as far as the eye can see. It cakes my boots and makes every step treacherous, but it does at least have the advantage of slowing me down, of helping me fight gravity…

Or so I think. Just when the gradient is starting to lessen, I take one false step. Before I can blink I’ve landed in the mud. Right on my bum.

Shock gives way immediately to laughter. It’s undignified, I’m covered with mud but I’m safe. I haven’t fallen off the mountain. And I sit there in the mud for a moment, shaken by peals of relieved and merry laughter, before I pick myself up and continue on my way.

Mount Brandon descent 1

The gradient gradually becomes gentler, even if the trail is still ankle-twisting and rough, and the fog begins to lift. When I turn back I see Más an Tiompán soaring upward into the fog, its slopes littered with boulders and I gasp. I came down that?

Mount Brandon descent 2

Mount Brandon descent 3

Finally the trail comes to a junction with a gravel road. I stop to catch my breath again and gaze back at the mountain, its peak still hidden by the fog.

I’m exhausted. I’m pouring sweat. I’m liberally coated with mud. My right Achilles tendon is thoroughly unhappy with me.

I feel like the Queen of the Universe.

*

The rest of the descent from Brandon is surprisingly gentle and entirely over roads, first gravel and then paved, with majestic views of the mountain towering above a river valley. I pass two other hikers going the opposite direction but apart from that I’m on my own and glad of it again. The sheep on Brandon seem to be a more phlegmatic breed than the ones in the Emlagh Valley: none of them bolts as I pass, they just stare after me, no doubt thinking what are you, strange two-legged creature?

Pub cat, Brandon village

Pub cat, Brandon village

The trail winds gently down to Brandon village, which is small, charming, full of blackberry-laden hedgerows (I regale myself shamelessly, especially as they’re the first ones I’ve encountered today) and, most important, two pubs. The first one, O’Shea’s, looks shut (although I make friends with its cat) but this turns out to be a blessing – the other one, Murphy’s, is perched above the harbour and has plenty of outdoor tables. I’m not usually one to have a drink before the end of a hike but today of all days I think I’ve earned it. I order a glass of cider and drink it at a table overlooking the pier, watching the fishing boats come and go and feeling utterly contented.

Brandon harbour

Brandon harbour

The remaining 6 km to Cloghane are easy, over quiet lanes and minor roads, and I feel as if I’m floating, as if I could keep going forever. The guidebook describes the final descent to Cloghane as ‘rather steep’ and I have to laugh, because compared to the descent from Brandon the description is comical. All the same, it’s quite muddy and I go carefully, not really wanting a repeat of my earlier fall.

Ruined church, Cloghane

Ruined church, Cloghane

Cloghane is tiny and pretty and if my B&B is nowhere near as splendid as where I stayed the night before – it’s just rooms above a pub – I’m too exhausted to care, fatigue finally falling on me like a great weight now that I know I don’t have to go any further today.

26.8.14 Cloghane

As I’m drifting off to sleep, I realise something startling.

My knee hasn’t bothered me at all today. Not once.

 

*The inscription reads ‘of the priest Ronan, son of Comgán’. The purpose of the stone is unknown but it’s thought to be a memorial of some sort.

Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 4)

September 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

Fifty shades of grey: Dingle Bay in the rain

Fifty shades of grey: Dingle Bay in the rain

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

Day 5: Dingle to Dunquin

Distance covered: 20 km 22 km (approx.); total ascent: 370 m

My room in Dingle is right under the roof, and I’m awakened in the small hours by the drumming of rain on the skylight. I lie awake listening to it, torn between hope that it will stop and resignation (this is Ireland, after all) before drifting back to sleep. I dream that I’m wandering the galleries of the Hunterian Museum and in each specimen jar is a small mermaid, very much alive, each one with a tail the colour of a half-ripe blackberry and beating her hands against the wall of the jar. Let us out! Let us out!

When I wake up properly, it’s still raining.

At breakfast I have a pleasant chat with the owner of the B&B, a retired fisherman whose first language is Irish and whose sister lives in… you guessed it, Chicago. Once I’ve sorted out with him the transfer of my big rucksack to my next B&B, I venture to ask him about the weather.

‘It’s meant to rain all day,’ he says. At my disappointed sign, he offers to give me a lift to Dunquin. I recoil as if stung. This is like someone offering Bradley Wiggins a lift to the Champs Elysées on the last day of the Tour – unthinkable. I get hold of myself quickly enough to refuse politely.

The rain, as I head out of Dingle toward Ventry, isn’t terrible – a light, steady drizzle. It’s not enough to drive away the birds, and I enjoy watching the herons gathered in Milltown Creek. The trail itself is more of a problem – it follows the main road, and there’s no verge.

I heave a sigh of relief when the trail branches off into an arc bending inland, but my relief is short-lived: the first part is on a small paved road, but soon I’m tramping along unpaved boreens that are really little more than cattle tracks. They’re all mud, as far as the eye can see, churned by countless hooves. I suppose it’s lucky that the scenery here isn’t especially spectacular, because I’ve no choice but to put my head down and grimly plod on.

Ventry Harbour

Ventry Harbour

At last the boreen spills out onto a paved road at the top of a hill, and I can see the lovely curve of Ventry Harbour spread out below. No doubt even lovelier in the sun, with sparkling water contrasting with golden sand – today I have to make do with a more muted palette of greys, duns and greens.

Ventry Harbour 2

Ventry rider

This is where I had hoped to go swimming. Now all I can do is walk along it in the rain. If ever I had a hard lesson in the importance of seizing the moment, this is it.

The trail winds inland again and uphill and I eventually find myself on the road to Slea Head – another place I travelled on my first trip. The weather had been as grey then as it is now and I’d been hoping that this time I would see the end of the peninsula, dramatic Dunmore Head with the waves crashing against its flanks, in the sun. It looks as if I’m going to see it the same way I did before.

Dingle Bay from Mount Eagle

Dingle Bay from Mount Eagle

My first proper mountain is ahead of me. The trail passes around and over the shoulder of Mount Eagle – nowhere near as high as Brandon (which looms closer and closer in my itinerary – I’m two days off from it now) but the ground is steep and uneven and sown with rocks that jut out of the ground like the earth’s bones. My feelings about the sheep grazing along the mountainside turn from respect to fierce envy as I lurch and stumble along the uneven ground – even more so when I lose my footing in a bank of ferns made slick with rain and land on my knees.

My knees. Oh god no….

I pick myself up and press on, but sure enough, the pain in the outside of the left one begins to make itself known again. I grit my teeth and keep going. I refuse to give in.

Clocháns, Mount Eagle

Clocháns, Mount Eagle

I forget about the pain when I glance down and see something amazing – dozens and dozens of clocháns (beehive huts) studding the mountainside in various states of ruin. All these ruined houses at the edge of the world. What would it have been like to live in them?

Clocháns 2

Not long past the clocháns, the rain stops and the fog lifts enough that I can finally see Dunmore Head – the westernmost point in Ireland and in Europe – with the Blasket Islands anchored off the tip. And – hallelujah! – the trail is about to descend.

Dunmore Head and the Blasket Islands

Dunmore Head and the Blasket Islands

My jubilation quickly turns to dismay. My knee wants nothing less than to make the steep descent. Every step becomes torture. I pick my ginger way down, my normally quick pace reduced to a hobble, leaning on my hiking pole. The physical pain is outweighed by burgeoning fear. How can I possibly tackle Mount Brandon in this state?

Dunmore Head

At last I make it to the bottom and, once on a paved road, the pain fades into abeyance again. Also, as the road swings round toward Dunmore Head, something extremely welcome appears in my line of sight.

A café.

I stumble in, toss my streaming jacket on a chair near the window, and order a scone and a pot of tea. The motherly proprietress brings them to me along with, unasked for, a jug of water, ‘because you’ll have got so thirsty walking from Dingle you’ll be wanting to lick the water off the rocks.’ I drink my tea at the edge of the world and watch the waves crashing against the cliffs with the comforting rise and fall of conversations in Irish and English in the background, and feel somewhat restored.

The Dingle Way itself doesn’t go out onto Dunmore Head, but a path does lead well out on it and, given that one of my frustrations with that coach tour was the fact that we got to stop there for a grand total of five minutes, I decide to take a stroll out there – maybe not all the way to the end but enough to get a good view of the Blaskets.

The wind is so violent that I’ve barely walked a hundred metres before it rips my bandanna (which was pinned into my hair) clean off my head. I only just rescue it from being blown into the sea.

Okay then. Maybe today’s not the day for a little cliff-top walk.

The sea from Dunmore Head

It rains and blows all the way to Dunquin, but the views are gorgeous and I find shelter near the end of the day’s trail in, of all places, a museum: the Blasket Centre. (Is this the westernmost museum in Europe?) I’d read a bit about the Blaskets before I arrived in Ireland so I had a general sense of their history and their desertion in the 1950s, but the display is not only highly informative but also very poignant. I make a mental note to put Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s Islandman on my reading list as soon as I get home.

House at the edge of the world

I have to backtrack about 2 km to find my B&B in Dunquin, only to learn when I arrive that there’s nowhere nearby to eat. The owner offers to book me a taxi to a restaurant a few villages over, but I decline. I’m too cold, wet and tired to face going out again. So, trail mix for dinner (grim perhaps, but I’m so hungry that almost anything would taste good) and once I’ve changed into dry clothes, I curl up in a chair in the conservatory with a book and my camera, hoping to catch the sunset over Inishtooskert.

No such luck. It’s a cloudset.

I fall asleep to the sound of rain against the windows.

 

Sybil Point and the Three Sisters

Sybil Point and the Three Sisters

Day 6: Dunquin to Feohanagh

Distance covered: 22 km 26 km; total ascent: 100 m

It’s cloudy when I wake up, and there’s fog lying heavy on the tops of the mountains, but it’s not raining. After yesterday, I’ll happily take clouds and fog. The air feels soft and there are a few encouraging cracks in the clouds so I set off with a sense of hope. Maybe it’ll clear up.

The trail starts out gentle and easy, a gravel round looping around headlands, and I soon come upon a fatal distraction – Louis Mulcahy’s pottery. I end up whiling away a very pleasant hour there; if I weren’t hiking I probably would have come out very much poorer, since the wares are extremely beautiful, but I know there’s little sense in buying a vase or a mug only to have it break in my rucksack within minutes or hours. Ah well.

Clogher Strand

Clogher Strand

The trail descends to Clogher Strand, another perfect little beach in the same mould as the cove below Minard Castle, but unlike that glass-smooth cove it’s sandwiched between two dramatic headlands, the black rocks jutting diagonally out of the sea. There’s clearly not meant to be any swimming here, but I enjoy exploring the rocks as far as I can go. Actually, given the vast numbers of jellyfish washed up on the sand, clear as glass and the size of my fist, not being able to swim is probably no bad thing.

Rocks near Clogher Strand

The trail continues uphill and along the edge of some cliffs, and when it spills out onto a road the first raindrops strike. This isn’t a ‘fine Irish mist’, it’s almost violent, and I don’t manage to get my waterproof on in time. The hood and cuffs of my hoodie get soaked and within moments my trousers are sodden as well. I sneak a quick look at my map before shoving it back into my rucksack and curse under my breath. I have some 16 km to go, most of it exposed.

There’s nothing for it but to carry on. There’s nowhere I can take shelter and wait it out, and in any case the rain looks as if it means business.

I reach the head of Smerwick Strand. I have a more than 3 km walk along a beach. I was, believe it or not, looking forward to this – when I thought the good weather would hold. But now… it’s raining so hard that the sand is pitted with it. The wind is blowing sideways as I struggle along the beach. The sense of peace and contentment that carried me from Tralee to Dingle is a distant memory. I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m miserable and for the first time in six days, I find myself not enjoying being alone. I never imagined I would feel this way, but right now I would give just about anything for company.

I suppose every hike has to have its nadir. I think this is mine.

After what feels an eternity, I finally reach the end of the beach. A little lane leads up to a road below the village of Murreagh. The waymarker at its head points left… and another sign across the road points right, toward Gallarus Oratory. It’s 2 km in the opposite direction.

I weigh an extra 4 km in wind and pelting rain against missing seeing the most perfectly preserved early Christian church in Ireland. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) how that turns out.

I strike off toward Gallarus.

The road goes along the flat but in the rain it seems endless and, worryingly, there are no further signs for the oratory. Just when the rain starts to get the better of me, a sign for the turnoff appears ahead.

Gallarus Oratory

Gallarus Oratory

Gallarus Oratory 2

Gallarus Oratory 3

Gallarus Oratory 4

Gallarus turns out to have been entirely worth the detour. The church is like an upturned boat made of stone, no roof but just walls curving up to meet each other at the top. It looks so perfect that just walking around it and standing in its dark (and miraculously dry) chamber fills me with the peace that’s been notably absent for much of today.

Gallarus’s other attraction is less… well, less exalted. It has a café. A warm, dry café with food and tea. I check my watch for the first time since morning and see that it’s after 3 o’clock. I’ve been walking without break for more than four hours, without food for six (nowhere to stop and eat). No wonder I’ve been feeling so downhearted.

A pot of tea and a ploughman’s sandwich later, I feel slightly more human and ready to hit the trail again. The walk back to rejoin the trail at Murreagh seems to take less than half the time of the outward journey. It helps a bit that the rain has let up to a light drizzle.

Ballydavid Head

Ballydavid Head

Soon the trail takes me out onto Ballydavid Head, onto beetling black cliffs with the Atlantic whipping itself to foam at their base. The views are breathtaking, but the rain has redoubled in force, as has the wind, which makes stopping to admire the view a less tempting (and often risky) proposition. The path passes perilously close to the edge in places, and it’s all I can do to avoid looking down into the void.

This is where I come across the funniest waymarker on the entire length of the Dingle Way.

It points straight on.

It’s at a place where, if you don’t go straight on, you will end up in the sea.

Full points for Stating the Bloomin’ Obvious. (I would have taken a photo if it weren’t so close to the cliff edge, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)

Just when I begin to think I’m never going to see the end of these cliffs, the trail blessedly turns inland. Soon I’m back on paved road heading toward Feohanagh, where I’ll be spending the night.

I straggle my drenched, exhausted way uphill in the rain and then, when I don’t think I can go any further, I see my El Dorado, a grey stone farmhouse called An Riasc.

I knock on the door and a young woman with a round, pleasant face and curly ginger hair opens it. ‘My goodness!’ she gasps. I must present quite a picture – tendrils of wet hair plastering my face, streaming clothes, boots caked with mud. I think the only dry places on me are whatever is covered by my waterproof (bar the wet bits of hoodie) and the couple of inches of sock and boot covered by my gaiters. ‘Please, let me take your wet things!’ Her accent is unusual, a hint of a brogue overlaying something… eastern European? (I later learn she’s Hungarian and has been living here for five years.)

In no time at all she and the lady of the house have divested me of jacket, boots and pole and sent me up to my room with the promise of tea and cake after I’ve dried off. I don’t think a hot shower has ever felt so good, nor have I ever been so grateful to put on dry clothes.

Fifteen minutes later I’m in the sitting room, at last transformed from Drenched Hiker into something resembling a normal human being, with a steaming pot of tea and a saucerful of squares of freshly baked chocolate tiffin. And, even more important, agreeable company. A lovely older couple from County Cork had arrived just behind me, and we’re chatting pleasantly when a second couple joins us – two doctors from Northamptonshire. I like them too, but they’re ever so slightly more abrasive than the Irish couple, and I might be imagining it but I do sense a certain tension building between the two. I also sense that my presence may be slightly defusing things – I’m American enough for the Irish couple and British enough for the English couple (they all remark on my ‘interesting’ accent, which has, all along the Way, been a source of confusion – I’ve had a lot of people guessing that I’m Australian!). While we’re having our tea, something glorious and unexpected happens.

The sky clears. Sunlight pours in the windows. The B&B owner, a woman with a lovely smile, tells us when she comes in to clear the tea things that the good weather is expected to continue tomorrow. I want to shout with joy. Tomorrow is the most fearsome section of the trail. Doing it in weather like today’s just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Tea turns into a lavish dinner that more than makes up for the previous evening’s and we end up lingering around the table chatting away over tea and coffee. The dining room faces west and the sun is setting over Ballydavid Head and the Three Sisters, the sky ablaze with yellow, orange and lime green. A perfect end to a far from perfect day.

Feohanagh sunset

25.8.14 Feohanagh

Sleep takes me the instant my head hits the pillow but it isn’t peaceful. I dream that I’m about to sit a math exam and I haven’t cracked the textbook for the entire year. It’s a classic anxiety dream and when I wake up I know exactly why I had it.

Tomorrow I’ll be facing something a lot more demanding than a math exam.

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