scavenger season

We’re all scavengers at heart. Who doesn’t like picking something up for nothing and making use of it? I love it, as do other members of the family. And what better place to do a bit of scavenging, than on the beach?

Since we moved here the shoreline around the island has been an endless source of treasures and surprises all rolled into one. If you like collecting driftwood, shells, pebbles and odd bits of this and that blown in by the tide, you’d love it here too.

This weekend there was some major scavenging to be done. It was almost a salvage job, but I’ll come back to that. Let’s call it ‘Op Groin’ or ‘Operation Groin’ for non-military types. The start of the operation was some weeks back on another beach where an interesting piece of wood was spotted protruding from the wet sand as the sea retreated into the distance. Sunday afternoon dog walkers passed by without a glance, until someone began digging and digging and digging… without a spade too! Some time later, along time later actually, a giant oak groin/beam was uncovered and claimed by the digger. Determined not to loose his booty he hauled it across the beach into the dunes and buried it. This short sentence does not accurately describe the Herculean effort it took or the toll on clothes and hands and patience, by those of us who advised against it. Once in the dunes, photos were taken of the ‘secret’ location so Pirate-like he could return to collect it another day. End of the first part of Op Groin.

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Several weeks passed. Christmas came and went before Op Groin went into full swing again. More troops were recruited to help with the next sortie. There was some doubt about whether the buried treasure could be found, but ‘sniffer-dog-like’, the damp wood buried in the dunes was uncovered again and four healthy volunteers shouldered the weight and carried it down the beach, along the footpath and back to the recovery vehicle on the road. Success is a six foot beam drying in the garage.

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But it wasn’t all over. This beam needed other similar pieces to be really useful. Fortunately, two more likely items were spotted quite recently nearby, so this weekend Op Groin Part 2 swung into play. The battered wood was spotted quite quickly this time, not buried, just lying on the rocks. And while the storm clouds brewed overhead, I helped manhandle the pieces into the vehicle, at the same time as rescuing an old football and some interesting pebbles, before we piled into the car as the heavens opened. Two more immense beams are now drying in another outside store. Thank goodness that’s over!

Today on a cycle along the beach keen eyes spotted a mast leaning at an odd angle from the shore. We headed over, careless of brambles and mud, wondering what a large boat could be doing so close in. It was a sorry sight. A large, rather lovely yacht was marooned on the beach, lying on its side, all out of sorts its hull imbedded in the sand. We later discovered that this yacht was swept ashore just a few hours after Op Groin had ended. Now, that would have been a very big salvage operation. Fortunately for the owners our prime family scavenger had returned to London by the time the boat appeared. No one’s too clear about the law of salvage, so we left the boat safely in the hands of a couple of frolicking seals.

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As for Op Groin, thankfully the operation didn’t leave any casualties, apart from sore shoulders, and one day the wood drying in the garage may be turned into a beautiful table or a bench or even a bed… we can but hope.

that sinking feeling

Devon has been seeping into my soul this week. Its hazy afternoon horizons, skeletons of trees lining hilltops and rocky coves where cliff outcrops rise out of ice blue water have been reeling me in. I’ve watched the tide licking its way up estuaries and curling its tongue around bobbing boats and buoys. The painfully narrow lanes have become less threatening, switch backing through rolling hills, as cars and buses breathe in and kiss wing mirrors to squeeze past. Pretty painted houses line the sides of steep estuary banks like stacked dominoes staring down at themselves in silver water snaking through the valleys. This land of white washed cottages, beam-laden pubs with log fires, sailing boats and fishermen is pulsating with stories and intrigue.

A few days ago, lunch and water carefully packed, we set off along one of these mesmerizing estuaries as the tide ebbed out. When we reached the sea an ancient smugglers’ pub provided liquid refreshment on a rocky island just offshore, reached only at low tide. I checked out the barman for eye patches and parrots – the tell tale sign of a pirate or a smuggler. He seemed fairly law abiding and even provided free blue plasters for customers with sore feet – a bit soft for a smuggler perhaps. As we’d diligently followed a footpath across fields on the first leg of the journey, we decided to make up our own route on the way back and follow the curving river inland. How hard could it be with the tide out?

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Gradually rock and sand gave way to mud and fallen trees. OK so far. The banks began to turn steep and the mud became stickier. “Stay close to the rock,” was the instruction passed back – apparently this mud was less ‘sinky’. Some time later we had gone a long way, too far to turn back if the mud became impassable. There were fallen trees to clamber over and it became a case of picking a route on solid ground wherever possible. Curves in the river threw up new challenges as we had to navigate streams and more sinking sand and mud. So far we’d made it and surely it couldn’t be much further? A particularly substantial barrier of fallen trees and undergrowth blocked our path and although we tried to follow a line of firm-looking sand, we soon began to sink and had to head back to the bank and battle through the trees to make progress. By now we were convinced we had passed the worst of the sinking mud, so we crossed a narrow stream onto a line of solid sand, striding confidently onwards. Gradually I noticed the stream between us and the bank was widening and the sandbank felt more like the middle of the river. It was time to cross back to the safety of the bank because the tide had now turned and gullies of water were filling up. I had visions of being up to my knees in mud waiting for the air sea rescue helicopter. But before I knew it I was on my own and the lead member of the party was safe on the stones at the edge, urging me to run and not stop until I reached solid ground. I took a deep breath and began running, pulling my boots and legs out of the squelching mud threatening to suck me down. Obviously, I made it. Just. Mud up to the knees of my lovely blue jeans and coating my walking boots, seemed a small price to pay for the walk up the river and along the tidal road… but never again. I won’t be trusting Devon’s river estuaries, which look like sand, but turn into sinking mud.

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I realized it was a very near miss, when a few days later we witnessed a full RNLI rescue of a dog up to its neck in the mud on the edge of another estuary. When he was eventually carried out exhausted and mud drenched by several firemen and RNLI rescue crew everyone breathed a sigh of relief and I thought… it could have been me!

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Remember Remember

Damp sparklers and soggy rockets! That’s what the weather forecaster said last night and it looks like it might be true. The skies are grey and the kind of fine misty rain that England does so well looks set to stay. It’s a day for sitting beside a log fire (if you’re lucky) and making soup and mugs of hot chocolate after a walk with the dog – or cat in our case. He proved himself ‘more dog than cat’ by joining us on a walk beside the sea the other day. The problem is he’s pants at fetching sticks and won’t swim out when we throw stones in the water.

Although it’s November 5th and the mantra is “remember, remember”, I’m trying hard not to remember balmy clear nights with fireworks and entertainment in Cyprus last year with no rain to dampen the party spirit. Instead I am cheering myself up with thoughts of train journeys and pop-up cafes.

The other week I discovered a little gem at the local train station in Emsworth. Arriving with time to spare at this quaint Victorian station, which has a Railway Children look about it from the platform, I thought it would be too small to have a café. But a blackboard just inside advertised coffee and cakes at Carriages. I wandered in to the former waiting room which has been transformed into a Cath Kidston style café with spotty plastic table cloths, bunting and pot plants, all in pastel shades of pale pink, yellow and duck egg blue. I was so surprised about it not being ‘Costa’ or another chain that I wondered if they’d even have takeaway cups. No fear, there was a smiling barista happy to help and a row of tempting cup cakes lined up along the counter. We chatted about her new venture to acquire the empty rooms and start up a traditional café on the platform. I was only sorry there wasn’t time to sit at one of the pretty tables to soak up the café charm – another day hopefully. Standing on the platform a cup of latte steaming in my hands I felt so pleased that there was somewhere like Carriages and that a couple of people could still start up a ‘business with a soul’ in this little community. I’m sure it makes commuting a happier experience.

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I met another bit of beautiful British entrepreneurship a few days later after a walk along the cliffs in Dorset. It had been a sunny afternoon, one of the last warm autumn days as it turned out, and we’d enjoyed a picnic with a panoramic view of Harry’s Rock with Poole and Bournmouth in the distance. We decided to wander down to Studland beach before heading home and I was wishing I’d packed a thermos of tea or coffee. I needn’t have worried. At the bottom of the lane just beside the beach was a little shack with it’s blackboard sign for tea and coffees propped up outside. It was almost 5pm but the café was still serving tea and not just tea, but tea in proper mugs that you could enjoy on the picnic benches overlooking the beach. At the top of the slope leading onto the sand beside a beach hut was a large container filled with buckets and spades and beach toys. Instead of a price for hiring or buying, there was a little notice which said, ‘please borrow and return – we like recycling.’ I was impressed and touched all at the same time. This seemed like a local family offering a brilliant service for visitors and locals alike. A young girl from the cafe was tidying up the buckets and spades to pack them back in the beach hut and I helped pick up a few left on the shore. There is something special about letting people borrow things without a charge and it was incredibly refreshing and simple. It made me want to live somewhere like that, where it isn’t all about money and charges.

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Although we may have to contend with soggy sparklers and a smoking bonfire tonight, at least there’s plenty of tea and other charming seaside cafes to seek out in the future. I’m looking forward to sampling many more. There should be a ‘rough guide to UK seaside cafes’ – now there’s a thought…

 

the end of summer?

Today feels like coming towards the end of a very long summer holiday and the approach of September has a ‘back to school’ aura about it. The sand between my toes and now collecting in corners on the floor of the car is a tell tale sign of days spent at the beach. Damp towels, sandy snorkel masks and a striped beach bag in need of repair will soon be packed or thrown away, having served us for over two years.

It’s always sad feeling the summer come to an end. The past two years, although not a complete holiday, have felt more like a vacation than any other period of my life. Sitting watching the sun sink towards the horizon across the water tonight could hardly be more idyllic… as the sun sets on our time here. Even now there’s a warm breeze fluttering against my face while the sea is shimmering gold, and miniature waves lap with calming rhythm against the sand below us.

This week has been filled with ‘last times’ as we have revisited favourite haunts from cafes and umbrella lined bazaars in bustling Nicosia and the buzz of Kyrenia’s harbour at night to the remote wilderness of the Karpaz peninsular and its idyllic golden beaches.

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I don’t want to say goodbye to these places I’ve come to treasure and which are filled with happy memories of time spent with family and friends. Today we went to a different part of the beach and had a drink at a different cafe. This was partly for a change, but also on my part, I wanted to avoid the feeling of having to go somewhere knowing we’re not coming back any time soon. I decided I’d rather remember the last time there and hope we will return one day. I don’t like goodbyes.

Although we have been revisiting what I would call our ‘top spots’ on the island, we’ve also ventured out on a new experience.

On Friday we were guests on board an 80ft yacht with a Turkish captain and his mother. http://www.velayachting.com It was an unforgettable time from the moment we stepped aboard and removed our shoes to the fond farewells at the end of the day. Yacht ‘Vela’ was a treat. A beautiful old sailing boat with wood lined decks, neatly coiled ropes and relaxing navy cushions everywhere became our home for a few hours. A handful of us enjoyed a jaunt down the coast of northern Cyprus for the day stopping off at bays for swims and snorkelling along the way. This time it was a relief to know that while I lounged on a deck cushion the responsibility for dropping and picking up the anchor was someone else’s nightmare. It was a kind of treat not having to heave ropes or jump across jetties to secure lines, although one member of the party couldn’t resist lending a hand! I wasn’t even required to go below and rustle up rations as ‘Mama’, (we had been instructed to call her this), had already prepared a sumptuous feast of Turkish dishes spread out on the table when we returned from our swim.

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Meanwhile, Captain Serhat was doing his bit precariously barbecuing fish and lamb at the bows. Peaceful music tinkled all around and during the lunch we were serenaded by what sounded like snatches of an opera. It was a surreal yet lovely experience and Capt Serhat had some good banter with the other skipper on board, as they exchanged plenty of old sea tales. He also impressed us with a tight 360 manoeuvre below the castle walls… although someone kept muttering, “bow thrusters are cheating”. During the day there was ample time to watch the coast go by, muse on the identity of a flock of birds and natter with friends who had joined us, while we sipped strong Turkish coffee from miniature China cups. It was in fact a perfect finish to our Cyprus adventure as we sail into unchartered waters and life back in the UK.

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Last night was also topped off with a mini ‘night exercise’ along the beach. Having swum with turtles and seen their carefully marked nests on the beaches here, we were hoping to catch a glimpse of some baby turtles making their way to the sea by moonlight. Torches in hand we followed a path and steps onto the darkened beach where the crashing waves drowned out all other sounds. We were alone on the beach checking the sand for signs of mini turtles or broken shells, even the tell-tale pattern of fin prints in the soft sand. Although we saw a few of these and some scuttling mini crabs, there were no turtles in sight. Gradually a silvery moon appeared from behind a cloud and we took a break on a couple of empty sun loungers. Sometime later I woke with a start realising we had both fallen asleep. We’d probably slept through the turtle-hatching bonanza and missed everything. Either way it was too late, as we drove back along the cliff tops a little while later, I wondered why the light seemed bright in the car and realised the driver still had his head torch turned on, adding a third beam to the car headlights on the dirt track… time to call it a day. The quest for hatching turtles will have to wait for another summer – maybe on a return trip?

hot spots

According to Cypriot weather forecasters, last weekend was the start of a heat wave…what’s a heat wave like in Cyprus? Very hot. Almost don’t go outside hot. It’s been about 40 degrees today. I knew it was hot because the bread took less than half an hour to rise in the sun and the terrace is too hot to walk on with bare feet. The ceiling fans are working overtime and the cat is either hiding under our bed or flaked out on the tiled floor… but I’m not complaining. Where I come from, it’s probably raining!

I’ve now found a place in the house where it’s slightly less hot and as it’s a year and a month since we moved out here, I thought it was time to blog about some of my favourite spots – discovered over the past 12 months. So in no particular order, here goes…

1:
Karpaz Peninsular – more particularly, Burhan’s Golden Sand beach
I woke up here yesterday morning and I wasn’t dreaming. Stepping out onto the wooden balcony, the only thing dividing my view of the golden sands, turquoise sea and cloudless blue sky was a small herd of wild donkeys grazing amongst tufts of dried grass in the sand dunes. A few hours later, climbing a sand dune at one end of the deserted sweeping bay, we laughed as a stray dog skipped round a gorse bush in an attempt to catch a lizard. Hopping down the dune as the sand was too hot to walk on, we were so relieved to plunge into the crystal water at the bottom. Our very own natural swimming pool. This is the kind of place I used to dream about and now it’s only a 2 hour drive away from home.

2:
Troodos Mountains – the view from the kitchen window
On our first stay here, having arrived in the dark, I padded into the kitchen first thing in the morning and reached to push open the shutters. The view through the window was mesmerizing. All I could see was wall to wall pine trees, some with huge trunks, others more slender, but all silhouetted against a vivid blue sky. The cabin was built on a slope so the window was almost at ground level and the floor of pine needles and cones looked like an inviting brown bed. It felt like the forest was part of the house and the aroma of pine and fresh mountain air was intoxicating. This view always reminds me of Narnia and even when there’s no snow, it’s a magical place, with adventure in the air.

3:
Famagusta’s old city – Monk’s Inn
This is one of our favourite haunts. And you never know who you’ll meet. This fascinating stone building in the heart of the old city is full of surprises. Its huge dark wooden shutters fold back to reveal a lovely bar, with elegant stone arches and an imaginative cocktail menu that is best read by liberal minded drinkers. A couple of gay Belgian archeologist were among just a few of the characters we’ve come across. They were amazed at the ancient remains all around and did a lot of flirting with one of us, especially when they realised he wore uniform. Outside directors chairs spill out onto the pavement and the whole side street is cordoned off after 6pm, when the South African-born owner wheels out plant pots to the middle of the road to stop cars interrupting the party. Here we always enjoy a bottle of the local beer – EFES – served in chilled glasses. It can’t be beaten.

4:
Nicosia – a cafe off Ledra Street
I love just sitting watching the world go by at this small cafe in the back streets of the capital. Usually bustling with local Cypriot students, the cafe’s traditional wicker and wood painted chairs, have a lovely Greek feel. The atmosphere is relaxed, no-one urges you to take a seat. An ancient Greek Orthodox Church lies opposite and a series of benches line the square outside. Last time we ordered our usual medium frappes and the friendly waiter, who eventually appeared at our table, bought us a backgammon set. A little while later, a girl from the nearby table and the waiter were giving advice on setting up and game tactics. People were engaged at various stages of play on tables all around, some smoking, others sipping at the tiny cups of coffee, smiling and laughing, then sighing. One man removed his glasses and polished them, never taking his gaze off the board. Cypriot life slows down here and it’s a joy to return again and again to this hidden gem.

5:
Potomos – the fish restaurant
Imagine Mama Mia, but a bit flatter. This little restaurant nestles at the end of a tatty river estuary lined with fishing boats in various states of disrepair. Bumping down the rough stone track by car, there are glimpses of the snaking river and boats tied up to jetties, which look like they are about to collapse into the water. Made from what appears to be a jumble of recycled bits of timber, the roughly made piers are decorated with old plastic canisters, tangled ropes and uneven planks of assorted wood. Towards the end of the track the glistening Mediterranean comes into view. Parking outside the restaurant we weave our way across the sand between white painted trunks of trees, around to the restaurant where the blue and white checked tablecloths complete the Greek look. At our favourite table beside the water, we gaze out to sea across the small mound of rocks and the mini lighthouse marking the entrance to the estuary. There is a smile of welcome from the waiter, “hello again, how are you?” Waves crunch rhythmically onto the shore and the white sand at our feet is punctuated with boulders and stone troughs full of pink geraniums. A glass of cold white wine is essential.

If this list of favourites makes you think I’m always eating or drinking – you’d probably be right!

hidden in the sand

Have you ever found something special hidden in the sand? Maybe a precious shell or a piece of jewellery left behind? You may have been pretty chuffed, but not as much as the archaeologist who started digging in the sand a few kilometres from here and probably couldn’t believe it when he uncovered a whole city buried in the sand dunes!

I think you can have too much of a good thing and walking round ancient ruins might not be everyone’s cup of tea…but despite recent trips to a ruined castle and a ruined abbey with our latest guests, yesterday we decided we couldn’t put off a visit to the ruined city of Salamis any longer. Arriving in the afternoon the sun was still beating down and with the sea at our backs looking an inviting blue, it was on with the sun cream and hats, bottles of water at the ready and we were all set to go ‘time travelling’…

Wisely, the help of a local guide was enlisted for half an hour and she was, as one person said, “worth her weight in gold”, even if comments were made about quite how much that might add up to, since she was not a small person. Like every great storyteller she immediately began painting pictures from the past of life in 300AD under the Romans or Byzantines as they later became. Her tales of naked bathing and gym sessions and eaves-dropping by the slaves in shared toilets ‘with a view’ brought to life the crumbling walls, alcoves and pillars as we trailed around the site. We could almost hear the rich young men splashing in the shallow baths, heated by hot air and special heat-holding bricks from beneath. Although the stone was now rough and worn in places we could still see the slabs and traces of the white marble that would have covered most surfaces. As I glanced up at a wall and columns towering above us and envisaged them coated in shimmering marble, I shivered to think how incredible the city would have looked in the sunlight. In many areas the beautifully coloured mosaics were still visible and intact and I have to confess we walked across them, as if they were tiles in our own hall. There were so many gems, like the remains of a fresco in an archway above our heads, the colours still strong with powder blue, greens and deep reds. We could see pomegranates and leaves depicted in mosaics and in other places more mosaics and areas that were still tiled with the original colours of black, white, red, orange and blues. There were constant sighs of ‘incredible’ and ‘come and see this’, as we wandered in amongst a network of rooms and half crumbled buildings.
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Surprisingly, I have never been so informed about the origins of English words and phrases as I was yesterday, because our guide was a fount of information. For example, the low level semi circular area in one building housed a communal toilet, which looked across the gymnasium and exercise area where naked male wrestling was the top show. We gradually realised it was a pretty clean one all in marble with fresh water running continuously through it, unlike the rough dusty sandstone blocks above the drain that were all that was left today. Apparently people would sit here and rather than read a newspaper or a book privately, as you do, they would chat to each other and watch the wrestling! I didn’t spot any old stone toilet roll holders that’s because they used sponges on sticks instead…not a pleasant thought. Meanwhile, the slaves left outside the wall behind these toilets would listen in to private conversations in order to gain information and use this to bribe people later. It was this practice that led to the phrase: ‘the walls have ears’. So, phone hacking and listening in is nothing new, it was just a little less techie in those days, but just as dangerous. Further on in the site we saw the partly excavated amphitheatre which we expected to be semi-circular. No, explained the guide the word amphitheatre means two halves of a circle coming together, to either form a circle or an elongated circle. The semi-circular buildings with seats and chairs are technically called ‘theatres’…and she noted with a smile that it was amazing how many universities use the wrong word for their buildings, calling them amphitheatres when they are actually theatres.

We all became a bit blasé about the mosaics… saying, “I’ve found some more here!” behind another little low wall in a basilica, while everyone just nodded. The site was quite extensive and I believe the largest on the island. It included several acres spreading down the coastline with temples, forums, roads, baths, villas, a stadium, various basilicas or churches, a theatre and of course a gym. At one basilica we were searching for a special tomb, as our guide had given up on us by then, and I felt sure I had found a stone shaped hole the right size for a body – not everyone was convinced, as there were quite a lot of stones and holes for that matter! The afternoon included plenty of leaping between low walls and then nearly falling off them when a pair of giant lizards, or ‘Leonards’ as we call them, startled me. The guide had told us to be careful of snakes and we all held our breath slightly when one inquisitive member of the party decided to try and squeeze under a low roof at the bottom of some steps leading into a very dark cellar which would have made a good setting for an Indiana Jones sequel. “Be careful,” said the guide, “You may find someone else in there….it’s a good place for snakes.” After that I kept hissing quietly round corners and stamping my trainers heavily in order to warn any basking snakes I was armed and dangerous.

It was quite amazing to think that this was the place where St Paul landed on his very first missionary trip and that he had walked on these same mosaics and probably lent against a few of these actual pillars. In the forum there was a very lonely column with some fine leaf carvings that towered against the skyline and it seemed a little sad that this was all that was left from this immense building, part of a once bustling, cosmopolitan city. Although Salamis is just a ruin now, partly destroyed by two earthquakes, the last one did so much damage it was abandoned. But some of the inhabitants went to a nearby fishing village where they re-built their homes, palaces and churches with much of the rubble and stone from the broken buildings. The name they gave the city, now known as Famagusta, was ‘Ammochostos’, which in Greek means ‘hidden in the sand’. A fitting tribute to Salamis – the city they had left behind.

We eventually decided we were ‘ruined-out’ but I think I’ll be going back, if only to keep those snakes and lizards on their toes. But next time you start digging in the sand dunes remember that you never know what lies beneath…you may find another Salamis.