Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Cape Wrath 2013?

I'm an old curmudgeon. I don't really like it when people go on extreme expeditions to raise money for their pet charity. They sign up for some horrendous adventure, where they thrash themselves in some desert or ocean (whilst supported by a back-up team to look after them, and carry their bags) and expect the rest of us, the left-behinds, to hand over money as we listen to their boring stories about how hard it was.

I like cycling and walking, especially in remote places. But I don't do it because it's hard; I do it for beauty and peace and fun and fresh air and culture and exploration and a bit of physical exercise. I find long-distance cycling and backpacking very relaxing - the simple life away from it all. And in May 2011, I fancied getting away from it all. Since October 2008 Frank's diabetes has been stalking us every minute; it never sleeps, much like ourselves. 

At that time we'd done a 1000 days of care for Frank, visually checking him every 10 minutes during the day, and every few hours during the night. He'd had 3000 blood tests and 2500 injections up to that date. It's exhausting for us all, but I'm really not complaining, it's just how it is. And little Frank just accepts his lot in life.

In May 2011, I traveled solo towards Cape Wrath, accompanied only by my imaginary friend Fred Slattern, Colchester's slum poet. Fred plan was to take his "Message from Essex" show on the road, performing at various pubs and cafes along the route.

I carried my own tent and kit, taking a bike on the train to Plockton on the west coast, and cycled about 200 miles on some twisty switchback roads to the far north west. The destination was the north west corner of the island of Great Britain (click for wikipedia link) , a remote spot about 80 miles as the crow flies from the nearest city, Inverness, and about double that by road. It is about 11 miles along a track from the nearest main road, and that main road is only single lane. Oh yes, and there's a foot ferry to get you to the start of the track to Cape Wrath.

Along the way from Plockton were a few small settlements, but it's mainly sea inlets, open countryside, peat bogs and no trees in the north. When I get to the Cape I won't be touching the sea, as we're in the area of Great Britain's highest cliffs. I've always wanted to visit "because it is there".

And another fabulous thing about the Cape is the Ozone cafe at the lighthouse, and it's open for food 24/7/365. Yes, it's like diabetes, it never closes. Not that there's much round-the-clock custom in the cafe, as the ferry is only seasonal and available at the right time of the tide and in daylight. And why would Fred want to go there, apart from "because it's there"? Because if he gives a poetry performance, he can justify his claim to be Great Britain's most north-west poet. 

UPDATE: The 2011 poetry tour started well, but there was very poor weather, with a powerful headwind, and fairly incessant rain, sometimes very heavy. Poetry commitments honoured at The Old Inn at Gairloch, where a very successful and well received set was performed, I came home after four very tough days and 180 miles of cycling and camping in the highlands! The Cape itself was inaccessible, as the foot ferry wasn't running due to rough seas. The Cape will have to wait another year for Fred's visit............ 2013?

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Did dinosaurs walk through Prettygate?

"Did dinosaurs walk through Prettygate?" and other important questions were answered at "Fred Slattern's Celebration of the Suburbs" Jane's Walk on Friday 4 May 2012.

So, who wants to come for a walk through a pancake flat 1950s housing estate, at the end of a windswept and rainy week, after work on a Friday, to talk about urbanism? Have I gone deaf? Or is it "no one"! Fred's walk was one of a series of Jane's Walk events in Colchester, set up by "Walk Colchester", the UK leaders in the international movement celebrating the life of Jane Jacobs, encouraging local people to enjoy their own patch.

Eager to pull in the punters, Fred enticed them in with a rich mix of cod-history, faux-planning, psycho-geography and poetry. Yes, a couple of readings from his never-in-print book "Love, Hate and Prettygate".

Starting from The Prettygate pub, an audience of eighteen quickly got through the "Why is it called Prettygate?" question. (Answer: the estate is named after Prettygate Farm, which had a pretty gate incorporating various farm implements.)  The leader and audience had a grumble about the highway authority's ugly and people-unfriendly solution to the speeding-car problem at the local shops: fence-in the people on foot, rather than slow down the cars. Maybe next time round a more enlightened solution will be applied, as "20's Plenty" takes hold?

Stopping at the site of Prettygate Farm, and moving on to Baden Powell open space the audience heard Fred's piece "Fear and Loathing in Prettygate", a story recording how people's attitudes to their homes and community have changed in the 50 years since the houses were built. Fred then got into full swing history-buff mode, compressing over two thousand years of local history into a few five-minute vignettes in muddy glades on the fringes of the estate.

The planned three-mile ninety minute walk was going slowly as the individuals on the walk got to know each other, in true Jane's Walk style. Meanwhile Fred was telling tales of the armies that had passed through our suburb, from the 30,000 strong Roman invasion, through the 6,000 Royalists taking Colchester in the Civil war, and the regiments of the New Model Army's Siege of Colchester.

And the final answer was to the dinosaur question. The gravels six inches below the surface of Prettygate were laid down about 500,000 years ago, by an earlier version of the River Thames. So no dinosaurs passed over our fair estate, as they disappeared 65,000,000 years ago. The odd mammoth has probably walked our way though. As a final thought Fred proposed that we honour our heritage by renaming Prettygate as "Prettygate-on-Thames", but by then the Jane's Walkers had other forms of liquid on their mind, as they sloped into the pub.

And so, what on paper looked "worthy, but unpromising", turned out to be a celebration of localism (in a non-political sense), with everyone saying "more next year". Thanks to everyone who supported this Jane's Walk, see you again.


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