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The Lake District is, to quote a facebook friend of mine describing the Island of Iona recently, bonkers beautiful.

More about the much-lauded beauty in a minute. There are idiosyncrasies I will associate with my time in this area for ever. One of these is the endearing, baffling, sometimes downright infuriating lack of signage. We thought Eigg was subtle, with its vague system of coloured dots to indicate various walking tracks; they have nothing on the tracks around Buttermere. In an area that apparently hosts 15 million tourists every year, the only signage you are likely to find as you try to navigate your way around low lakes and high fells are old, sweetly carved wooden signs saying ‘Public Footpath’. Armed as we were with an ordinance survey map, and reasonably bush-savvy as at least one of us is, we managed to get everywhere we wanted to hike to, but it wasn’t easy. We wondered if it was a deliberate attempt to keep all but the keenest trekkers on the beaten track. We ask our host, John, a local, if this is policy and he chuckles. ‘I don’t think so,’ he says in his slow Cumbrian drawl. ‘I think it’s just idleness. I think they’re just too lazy to put anything up.’

Animals are another Lake District theme – they are everywhere. Of course sheep rule – sheep here are like cows in India; they saunter down the middle of the road or sunbake nonchalantly on a barely existent grassy verge beside the narrowest of roads. We have seen road signs asking us to beware of sheep, deer, red squirrels and badgers. Most of all, we are struck by the dogs, who seem to be the main danger to sheep if various gruesome posters are to be believed. Dogs are everywhere. In National Parks, off their leads as often as not. In pubs, lying happily under a table next to a roaring fire. In every outdoor equipment shop in Keswick (and there are about 20) there they are, sniffing the gortex, welcomed in by signs outside, in cafes, in food shops for goodness sake. Sitting at a pavement café in Keswick watching the passing parade was like finding myself in a Hairy Maclary book.

We were spoilt with a whole week in this heavenly patch of the earth. I picked a place to stay almost randomly, and it has been perfect for us. In Buttermere there is a church, two pubs, two cafes, a youth hostel, a couple of farms and not much else. Our rental cottage is part of a 17th century farmhouse, with a seriously uphill gradient between bathroom and bedroom and one coffee table on such a slant that I am worried about putting my mug of tea on it in case it should slip off. It’s warm and cosy and comfortable and we love it.

Buttermere village lies between Lake Buttermere and Crummock Water, and is surrounded by rugged mountains. The area is distinctive in that it is half bucolic, gently undulating, sheep-strewn, old-farmhouse-populated countryside and half mountains of the kind that are hard to climb up, harder to climb down and where you could die if you weren’t sensible. Then there are the Lakes themselves – big ones and little ones, a different colour every hour of every day, reflecting the glory of the hills around them. When we arrive, our host Vicki says that because it is a partly cloudy day, the shadows on the Fells are more beautiful, and she’s right. There’s more interest and contrast than on a day of pure sunshine.

We are grateful, however, for a day of almost pure sunshine when we do our big walk for the week –up the three big mountains on the south side of Lake Buttermere – Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag. I haven’t been so knackered since the last time I climbed the Staircase to the top of Mount Bogong, and it is like a staircase, relentlessly up a punishing gradient, much of which was loose scree which is, frankly, terrifying coming down for a middle-aged person with dodgy knees. When we get to the top of Red Pike we can see to the ocean and beyond it to Scotland, we can see Northern Ireland, land of my fathers, faint on the horizon. We can see endless vistas of grey, purple and blue – range upon range – stretching out seemingly forever. How can there be so much unpeopled wildness in such a tiny country?

On Sunday evening we go to church in a building of which no less a personage than William Wordsworth apparently said, ‘A man must be very unsensible who would not be touched at the sight of the chapel of Buttermere’. It is made of warm pinky-red stone, and is the first church I’ve seen where the stained glass windows behind the communion table are of Mary and Martha. Girl power! There is a little plaque to Alfred Wainwright, who walked and drew and wrote about these mountains, fittingly under a window looking out to Haystacks – his favourite mountain, where his ashes are scattered. As always, I am deeply moved by worshipping with people I have never met before and likely never will again (all eight of them!), singing alongside them ‘lustily and with good courage’, repeating the familiar, timeless liturgy, sharing the bread and the wine of Eucharist, being welcomed warmly by the vicar and her flock.

Every day the leaves have turned a little more autumnal, matching the red gold bracken that carpets so much of these hills. (A guidebook tells me that bracken is poisonous to sheep but that the farmers are subsidised not to get rid of it, as its colours are so beautiful and the tourists love it.) The forests are golden, with a thick carpet of moss so soft I want to lie down on it and never get up. I don’t know which I enjoy more – walking through the trees or clambering above the tree line to the wild, rocky moors with their breath-taking views of mountains and lakes. Every day we walk and walk. Sometimes we get in the car and walk somewhere a little further away, twice we even visit charming little towns, but the beauty of Buttermere is that there are a thousand enticing walks without having to drive anywhere.

The only way I can describe this country is that it is achingly beautiful. It literally makes my heart ache, or some place in my chest, it almost makes me weep. It gives me a deep nostalgia for many of the books of my childhood, my imaginary worlds, and most of my images of the life hereafter. I’ve taken photos with a sense of resignation that nothing that I and my little camera can capture could possible do justice to this place, but I will treasure those photos nonetheless, I will print them out and stick them in an old-fashioned album and pore over them when I am in need of consolation. Even without the photos, though, this landscape is part of me now, and no one can ever take it away.



On Eigg

To our surprise, the sun beams on us the entire way across Scotland from Edinburgh, where we catch the 7am train, to Glasgow, where the next leg of our journey begins at half past eight, all the way to Mallaig, a fishing village on the west coast, five hours later, and keeps shining as we catch the ferry to our final destination, the Island of Eigg. The trip from east to west coast is achingly beautiful – forests and mountains (how quickly, leaving the cities, you are in the Highlands!), lochs and, finally, the sea. I expect the other passengers – all Scots - to be blasé about the spectacular scenery we are passing through, but they are as excited as we are, running from side to side on the train, trying to get decent photos through the windows.

You could do this trip 100 times and not see a thing but mist and rain, so we are feeling blessed even before we are met at the pier on Eigg by George, one half of the farmer couple we are renting a ‘bothy’ (hut) from for five nights. I emailed an order of basic supplies to the Eigg Shop a few days back, and I ask George if he minds waiting while we pick it up. He’s a farmer, I bet he has a million things to do apart from wait around for tourists. ‘Sure, I’m just going to have a drink anyway, if you care to join me,’ he says affably, and by the time we have collected our cardboard cartons full of milk and marmalade and potatoes and sausages, he has taken our orders – beer and Guinness for the lads, a mug of tea for me – and has them waiting for us, on the picnic tables outside the bar which, like the shop/post office is right where the boats come and go.

Half the population of Eigg seems to be out there, enjoying a drink in the rare sunshine, and half of them seem to be related to George – his mum and dad are there, his sister, brother-in-law and nephew, and he tells us that the restaurant we have booked into (the only one on the island) for the next night belongs to his auntie. We sit for a while, chatting, and then pile into an ageing red Landrover Defender, along with Maggie, George’s seven-year-old, who perches on Paddy’s knee in the front seat. No seat belts are in evidence.

It's four miles to where we are staying, and we bounce along pot-holey, puddled roads as we cross to the other side of the island, which is where most of the community live.

Our wee bothy is perfect; Scottish island hut meets Scandi aesthetic. It’s tiny, it’s beautifully designed, it’s cosy, it has everything we need. When I ask George and Maggie if they ever come down for a sleep over when they don’t have guests, he says he can’t bear to, because it would make it that much harder to go back to their huge, draughty, 300-year-old house on the hill just behind. A short while after we arrive, Maggie’s mum Saira comes by with freshly home-baked bread, vegies from her garden and a dozen eggs from her hens.

We have a cup of tea on the wooden bench on the deck, looking over the water across to the Island of Rum, which is forbidding and mysterious looking, bare and mountainous and wild, with a wisp of cloud hovering over its peaks even on the sunniest day. The living area and master bedroom look straight out on Rum, and I look at it 100 times a day; the light on its rugged slopes is different every time. Between us and the white and grey sands of Laig Bay is nothing but a strip of grass, a dirt track and a lot of sheep, some of whom clop onto our deck and stare morosely in at us in bed in the morning.

If you’re not a local, there’s not much to do on Eigg except read, walk and gaze at endlessly changing pattern of cloud shadows on the mountains, which is why we chose it. We pile down to ‘our’ beach for a wander along to the far end where we find a well-maintained little Catholic Church. The next day, Al and I ride bikes and Paddy jogs into ‘town’ – all 7 ks, and from there we head up An Sgurr, which is the highest point on the island, a dramatic basalt monolith. From the village side, it is sheer rock, accessible only to rock climbers, but we’ve been told that if you walk right around to the other side, there’s a foot track to the very top.

The weather continues to smile on us, and when we reach the summit there are 360 degree views as far as the mainland, the Cuillin Mountains on Skye, even as far as Staffa. Close to the top are miles of rock, deep blue lochs, and everywhere the coppery russet of autumn bracken.

The walk up and back, bookended by the 7k bike ride wears me out utterly. It’s not the gradient or the distance that exhausts me so much as the trickiness of the terrain. With my dodgy middle-aged knees and ankles, I have to consider every single step – heather that looks to be on solid ground until you step on it and find it’s actually a hole, deep boggy bits that you don’t see till you are ankle deep in them, insecure rocks. We soon give up on trying to keep our feet dry and just embrace the mess and the mud, but my limbs rejoice to be back on the dirt track half way down the mountain.

We take long walks each day we are on Eigg, along silver beaches, through crevasses in seemingly impassable cliffs, squelching our way through boggy moorland, with wee burrrns chortling happily everywhere. Grulin is a haunting collection of ruined crofters’ huts, abandoned in the 1850s when locals were driven off their land so that the gentry could graze their sheep there. Kildonan, on the other side of the island has a ruined church and an ancient graveyard where the islanders are buried to this day. We start chatting to the farmer who invites us into their big kitchen warmed by a gleaming Aga, where his wife spoils us with rich coffee and the moistest toffee cake I’ve ever tasted. Turns out they are George’s parents. Another morning Al and Paddy have a coffee at the café/shop/post office – George’s 86-year-old Granny was in charge of the craft shop; one of his brother’s served the food.

Like most places, Eigg has a dramatic and often bloody history, including the massacre of all 375 of its inhabitants who were burnt to death in a cave by a warring clan in 1577. The population has waxed and waned; these days there are less than 100 inhabitants and five children in the school. (We get chatting to the teacher and his wife on the slopes of An Sgurr – a young couple climbing the mountain in their wellies, with a their little boy and baby girl in a back pack. They have been here nine months and say they love it.) These days, Eigg is the only one of the so-called ‘Small Isles’ that is owned by the islanders, who, among other impressive feats, produce all their own energy from wind, water and sun.

We lived in a town of 2000 for four years when we had our own first two babies. I loved it, but remember clearly the occasional claustrophobia, politics and limitations of living in a small, isolated community. I cannot imagine what it is like to live on Eigg, especially in the winter, when the ferry can’t always run and the days are short and bitter.

It’s easy to romanticise life on a small island, particularly one as stunningly lovely as Eigg. I do so hopelessly, I fall head over heels in love with Eigg, as I did with her sisters, Iona and Skye. I know my life lies on the other side of the world, in a big city that is the polar opposite of this quiet, wild place. All I can do is feel deeply grateful that in my life I have been able to immerse myself, for a short while, in such places, before I move on.



‘Drink it in,’ she said to me, ‘drink it in and store it up for the times ahead’. Or words to that effect. I was seven, and our family was on a picnic somewhere scenic in Northern Ireland. Mum was gazing wistfully at the view of misty blue mountains, something she missed terribly when we were in India. I remember gorse bushes in full golden flower.

Mum was a lover of beauty – whether it came in the form of music, poetry, literature, fabric or landscape. She created attractive homes wherever we lived, even when there wasn’t much to work with. I think of her words often, whenever I am exposed to something lovely, which is has been often, in my lucky life.

Three weeks in the south of France, in tiny, ancient villages, with gentle sun shining every day, I have felt gorged with beauty, almost more than I can absorb. One day, after driving to two particularly picture perfect villages, we gave the next three in the area a miss – we had experienced such a surfeit of beauty, we just had to go home for a cup of tea and a lie down.

We know what we are going home to, after this fantastic trip that we have planned and saved for for so long. There will be five months of cancer treatment for Al, some of which will be very unpleasant. And after that, we hope for a few more years for him.

So, as I wander each tiny, exquisite medieval village, in a daze of happiness and wonder, I am consciously storing it up for the tough times ahead.

The healing and restorative power of beauty is underestimated. My mum was onto something when she created beautiful homes for us (and having very little money never stopped her) in the many different places in which we lived.

I’m not exactly sure how I would define beauty, except to say what it is not – opulence and glamour.

One of the things I find hard about living in Australia is what architect Robin Boyd called ‘The Great Australian ugliness’. I know every country the world over has vast tracts of ugliness, some of which is an inevitable part of the lifestyle we enjoy. Everywhere there are industrial complexes and car sales yards and supermarkets and sewerage plants and dreary suburbs.

Australia seems to have more than its fair share though – maybe because we have so much space that the ugliness we inflict on our environment spreads further than in other places. All I know is that, when I have been in Europe and the UK, I am amazed at how much loveliness remains. Weren’t all these places utterly flattened in the war? I expect to see endless dreary post-war and modern high rises, but that’s rare.  Instead, everywhere I look, there are seriously old buildings, well maintained, cleverly modernised.

Maybe it’s because, like many Australians, I’m a sucker for old stuff. We have the oldest surviving culture on earth, but they haven’t left buildings behind, and so I crave old stuff and find it intrinsically appealing. Tell me something is medieval and I am predisposed to love it on sight.

Mostly what I am interested in is the dwelling places of ordinary people. Palaces and chateaux are all very well, but I’d rather poke around a cottage. What I loved about our sojourn in France was staying in these tiny, 14th century cottages that have been ingeniously modernized – flush toilets, electricity, a washing machine, systems for rubbish disposal – while retaining the essence of the building. Most people have a car, and somehow they keep them somewhere, even though the streets are too narrow, in some places, for a car to even fit. In Paris, the fine old buildings are full of people with electronic devices and dogs and children, but they manage to squeeze them in and live contemporary lives without pulling everything down and starting again, and spreading endless miles of ugliness, the way we seem to have done in Australia and the US.

So I have spent the last three weeks mooching around old places, stopped now and again for a cup of coffee or lunch at tiny cafes tucked away in alleyways in even the smallest town, basking in the sheer and simple happiness it gives me to experience all this wonder. Drinking in the physical beauty, soaking it in, keeping it in a deep well inside me from where, like the memories that Al and I are making every day, no one can take it away, no matter what lies ahead.


No McMansions in Mirepoix

No McMansions in Mirepoix – blog post

This is quite the quirkiest house I’ve ever slept in. For one thing, it’s all of 12 foot wide, except, that is, for the top floor/attic, which measures 14 feet. (I don’t even understand how that’s possible.) Everything is at interesting angles. You think the furniture is placed crookedly and then you realise that the walls aren’t at right angles to the floor, anywhere. The supporting beam is at a weird angle to the boards that make up the ceiling.

Strangest of all, this house is on seven levels. Technically it is a three-storey dwelling, but each storey has a kind of half-storey leading off it, if that makes sense. So that you come into a dining area straight off the street that leads into a kitchen from which five steps lead to a tiny laundry. Up 13 more steps and you’re in a long, slim, beautifully light living room with blue-shuttered windows looking straight down on the narrow street.

Up seven more steps to a bathroom and bunk room that back onto a judiciously placed light-well. Eight more and you are in the main bedroom which has the same proportions and outlook as the living area a floor below. Up nine more steps to an attic bedroom (two foot wider than any of the other areas in the house) and five more steps take you to a kind of mezzanine sleeping area where you could settle half a dozen kids if you needed to.

There’s no garden. It seems, wandering around, as I do most days, that there aren’t many gardens in this bit of town. Some places have a bit of land at the back – across the back wall from the attic room I get a glimpse of red autumn tomatoes and sunflowers just past their best – but all the houses open directly onto the street, so that you come out your front door and you’d be in the gutter if you had one. As we lie in bed having our cup of tea first thing, we hear church bells and French voices drifting up to us as people start their day; when we go for a walk we exchange pleasantries with ladies washing their windows or putting out the cat, or old people sunning themselves on a strategically placed bench. Life happens outside.

It has the feel of an Indian town – people living on top of each other and most of the life happening on the street. Also, although they may look like dolls’ houses, the tiny front doors of these residences lead into sizeable homes. Last year Hamish and I stayed in a guest house in the heart of Bikaner, Rajasthan. The street was only wide enough for pedestrians, bikes and rickshaws. The house opposite was almost close enough for us to reach out and touch the little girl who lived there who I used to wave to from the roof. The door into the establishment was so small you had to bend to get in, and we had a truck load of trouble finding it the first time around.

Once you got inside, however, it was a veritable Tardis. Room upon room opened out (we discovered they had eight rooms for paying guests); there was an open air dining and sitting area on the roof and then another flat roof above that. Each of the guest rooms had their own bathroom, and our hosts had their own quite spacious living quarters.

It feels like the polar opposite of an Australian McMansion, or even a normal Australian suburban home, with its massive rooms, multiple living areas (dad’s den, parents’ retreat, kids’ area), decks the size of something from the Queen Elizabeth II and acres of garden. In Europe and Asia, people go to a park if they need a dose of green open space. The gardens, such as they are, are communal.

Like most Aussies, I have grown accustomed to my big house and garden, and I enjoy it. But I still miss the street life of the city where I grew up in India. I still find empty gardens and pavements lonesome.

And when I venture into the outer burbs in Melbourne with their McMansions, it depresses me. Huge houses containing a couple, maybe one or two kids. Big empty rooms dominated by flat screen televisions that take up almost an entire wall. No one emerging from their domain to chat to the neighbours. There are more interesting and sustainable ways of housing people than either massive suburban dwellings or the dog box apartments for overseas students that have been attracting controversy in Melbourne over the last few years.

We live in a pretty big house by Brunswick standards. These days we rattle around in it, but for most of our 16 years there, every room in the place was used to within an inch of its life, and that’s the way it should be.

Of course I am romanticising France, and India too. (I’m allowed to do that, I’m on holiday.) Who knows how I would cope if I had to live in a medieval house on a medieval street, which is what this is? I like to think I would take to it like a duck to water. I’ll probably never have the chance to find out, but while I am here, having a taste of it – having three weeks in ancient dwelling places in antique towns, I plan to keep enjoying every minute.

Pic 1 - me in our little house. Ours is the one with the blue shutters, the big window on the ground floor belongs to next door.

Pic 2 - a little shop for sale just down the road




Our days in Gascony follow a certain pattern. A long walk in the morning, to beat the heat (it’s autumn, but some days still reach the mid-thirties) up and down the little hills, past fields full of just-past-their-prime sunflowers and right-in-their-prime corn. Further afield there are neat rows of vines, growing lush and strong to make the local wines and the aperitifs such as Floc and Armagnac. And the fields are punctuated by pockets of thick forest – trees that I think are chestnut and beech, and whose leaves are just beginning to turn.

We come home after eight or ten k’s, slick with sweat, shower and then head off in our hire car – a snappy little burnt orange Renault. My Favourite Travelling Companion (FTC) is the sole driver, bless him, and we zip around on country roads barely wide enough for two vehicles, our trusty GPS completely leaching the tension from the journey and rendering my job as navigator obsolete, a state of affairs about which I am perfectly content. How did we get about without these things? With my woeful sense of direction, Sat Nav is one technology I am happy never to have to do without, whether at home or in a country where they drive on the opposite side of the road. Our Sat Nav has a predilection for obscure back roads, and that’s fine by us. We are in no hurry.

It’s hard not to feel that the day revolves around eating, and that seems appropriate in France. We plan our days of sight-seeing around a restaurant that we’ve heard is particularly good. When I say ‘good’, it’s not Cordon Bleu I’m talking about, but simple, fresh, local fare – my favourite kind of repast. And it’s ridiculously cheap. €12-15 (AUD $20 or thereabouts) buys you four courses and a glass of wine, sometimes coffee too – in teeny tiny cups that look as though they come from a dolls’ tea set and are filled with coffee so hot and black and strong it’s like drinking a shot. There is soup, entrée of some kind – generally involving ham and salad, and a choice of two or three mains and deserts. I tend to go for the duck, because it’s something we don’t cook at home and because I see poultry in most farms we pass, so I reckon they are local and fresh. (This area, the guide book tells me, has more geese than people.) For dessert, it’s hard to go past the Crème Brulée, smooth and creamy (made with real vanilla beans) with that crusty, burnt sugar topping. The juxtaposition of the two textures – smooth and sharp, transports me to heaven.

I normally avoid drinking in the middle of the day – it sends me straight to sleep – but it’s the south of France, and the sun is shining, and we are on holiday. Usually they give you a glass of the house rouge or blanc; yesterday our genial host brought us an entire bottle of Rosé, and kept bringing us the unfinished bottles from the tables of all the patrons who left before us, disappointed, I suspect, in our lack of stamina.

In the evening, when we do for ourselves in our little medieval cottage with every mod con you could possibly need, we have salad or a boiled egg – our middle aged systems aren’t used to coping with a four course meal at midday.

There is more to it that the food, of course, although that makes a handy hook on which to hang the day’s activities. If you drive ten minutes in any direction here, you come across a picture postcard perfect village. The only way you know it’s not the year 1400 is the fact that there are cars and modern looking pharmacies with their trademark green flashing light.

There’s usually a canal, a river or pond – ducks and geese everywhere – a bunch of houses – stone or brick or wattle and daub, with shutters that are grey, brown or cream or, often, the most divine shades of blue.  Most villages have a central square, where there are still weekly markets. Many of the squares have deep arcades, like a stone version of Australian verandahs, providing welcome shelter from rain or scorching summer sun.

When we come upon a village we like the look of, we park and potter, just meandering around the streets and drinking it all in. For an Australian, it’s like being dumped down in the middle of a Grimm’s fairy tale, without any of the scary bits. I try hard to look blasé about everything, but it’s impossible and I suspect I am walking around with a dazed and dopey grin on my face.

There’s always a church – sometimes tiny, sometimes enormously out of proportion to the village it serves – usually these are seriously old, 12th to 14th century. Inside, you feel the prayer and the ignorance and the oppression seeping out of the pores of the thick stone walls. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much of the gruesome history of the Church in these parts, particularly the activities of St Dominic with his slaughter of the Cathars, who sound like sensible and decent souls to me, even if they were technically heretics.) Some of the church buildings are plain and breath-takingly beautiful, others have the same handsome bones, covered all over with religious kitsch, like a beautiful woman plastered grotesquely in heavy make-up.

So much beauty. Of course there is the occasional bigger town, with supermarchés and car sales yards and industrial zones, but they are few and far between. The Gers – the part of Gascony where we are staying - is one of the least populated of the French départements. It’s one of the most agricultural and unspoiled areas in the country, and it is perfect for us, reeling as we are from a tough 18 months, just wanting to be alone and to gorge ourselves on sunshine and simple, rustic beauty.

In the evening we have a shorter walk down the one street of our village, through the quiet fields, from which you can just see the Pyrenees towering in the distance, beyond which lies Spain. We have our small supper, we read novels or watch a DVD and we sleep soundly, the window wide open to the silent night of a tiny village. And in the morning, we get up and do it again.