A Pebble in My Pocket

PART THREE: NORTH YORK MOORS NATIONAL PARK

Day nine is twenty-three miles of dodging rain clouds across North Yorkshire. The footpath travels from Richmond to Ingleby Cross and the Bluebell Hotel via lush farmland that Wainwright deplores and upon which he heaps considerable scorn. I am enamoured. Strolling along the edge of the River Swale, we pass through wheat fields and farmyards, along cart tracks and through tiny villages with signs declaring them all ‘the best kept village.’ In a churchyard, we spot a monument to a villager who lived for a mere 169 years. In Streetlam, we follow a sign saying it’s only a mile to Danby Wiske, and lunch. On the next corner, another sign says ‘two miles to Danby Wiske.’ I sit down on a large stone and sulk.

When we finally arrive, the pub at Danby Wiske is gorgeous. The owner enthusiastically welcomes hikers, which is a nice change from the usual reserved tolerance for us and our muddy boots. Apparently, he is the only pub in town and gets three to four hundred hikers through a month, and fills three guest books a year. He serves great food at a good price, and even the loos are lovely – very important! – with wooden dressers and old framed mirrors. As usual, we bump into walkers we have met previously and enjoy a merry lunch with four nurses we hadn’t seen for a few days.

*

We spend a strenuous, but lovely morning clambering up to the moors, where we look out over a patchwork of green and yellow hills, terracotta-red rooves, serpentine lanes, and endless horizons. Towards the end of day ten, we climb onto a colony of huge charcoal-grey rocks where the view looks over the National Park all the way to the Teeside petrochemical plant on its north-eastern rim. To the south, an emerald green valley is divided into odd-shaped patchwork squares by low, stone walls.

After eight and a half miles of trekking up hill and down dale, we find a tiny café, a miraculous oasis, newly opened and wondrously welcome. Wainwright has advised an overnight stop at Clay Bank Top – an odd choice – but we take a detour and strolled down to Great Broughton instead, only three miles further on, for a cup of tea, a bath and the amiable Mr. Robinson at Home Farm.

*

 “Moors, moors and more moors!”

The North York Moors National Park contains one of the largest expanses of heather  in the United Kingdom. Designated as a national park in 1952, it covers an area of 554 square miles, and the area’s economy depends mostly on farming and tourism. The dale farmers have the right to graze their sheep on the moorlands, but they must share them with grouse shooting. (Luckily for us, it is not the season for grouse, so we shouldn’t end up with buckshot in our backsides!) Further south, arable farms grow barley, wheat, canola, potatoes, and sugar beets. The famous vet, Mr. Herriott used to live in a tiny hamlet on the western edge of the National Park, but we passed by further north, and missed the opportunity to meet him.

Day eleven, and after a terrific breakfast, we set off back to Clay Top to begin today’s trek to Glaisdale. Once back up on top of the moors, the path takes us along a ridge above the Cleveland Plains with breath-taking views in every direction. We can walk side-by-side here, on broad, soft pathways, surrounded by heather and sunshine. We descend onto an old railway line that takes us all the way to Blakey Ridge and the Lion Inn in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. From here, we have a panorama of moorland as far as the eye can see. An icy wind whistling around our stiffening, aching limbs becomes tedious, despite the easy walking. We distract ourselves by re-inventing our future yet again…

After a good rest and a satisfying lunch at the dark and isolated Lion Inn – think ‘The Slaughtered Lamb in the movie ‘American Werewolf in London’ – we head off for four more hours of the same bleak moorland scenery. Heather, old and new, dead, charred, interminable: Mr. Wainwright you are welcome to it, I’ve had enough! With only two miles to go, and still no sign of change, we become hysterical, giggling at even the slightest variation in the landscape: a puddle, a wobble in the path, a solitary blackbird or raptor…

Eventually, after a sudden downpour about a mile and a half from Glaisdale, we drop off the edge of the world, and wind our way down, down, down through an isolated farmyard, past a couple of bungalows, before we find ourselves unexpectedly in the middle of town. A friendly woman in the post office, with ill-fitting false teeth, sets us off again, giggling as we discover that even the signposts suffer from speech impediments: railway station has been reduced to ‘r—w-y st—-n.’

The town of Glaisdale is in two parts and slides down a steep hill to Beggar’s Bridge and the ‘RWY STN’ at the bottom of the valley. Here, we fuel up on coffee and tea cakes before following the river to Churchdale Farm. This square, stone farmhouse is tucked into a crease of the hills, overlooking the river in one direction, and up the valley to Glaisdale, which is trimmed in tall, leafy trees, and thick hedgerows. Above the village, the hedges morph into low stone walls, stretching towards the moors.

Our room here is a delight, with high ceilings, a tall, shuttered window, and a vast, white bed. Dainty blue and white china is liberally spread across the mantelpiece and over the dressing table, and the walls are entwined with vines and bright red berries. It’s the prettiest wallpaper I have ever seen. I may stay here forever.

*

Day twelve. Our last day. The final lap to Robin Hood’s Bay. As the fog descends, we say a swift farewell to Wainwright, and find a short-cut to the sea, through the woods along the River Esk. Bracken and beech trees drip with raindrops, reminding us of the Tasmanian forests. I rave on endlessly about the flagstones set into the path, the plashing of waterfalls, the birds, the trees… everything!

At Egton Bridge we come across a plethora of riverside homes, smooth lawns running down to the river. A pretty pub is draped in wisteria, a laburnum drips yellow branches over the grass in the beer garden, and a horse chestnut spreads its foliage wide enough to camp under. A private road that once charged a toll – sixpence for a hearse – takes us past Egton Manor and into Grosmont in time to see the steam train setting off to Pickering.

The climb out of Grosmont (1:3 incline) is exhausting, and seems to go on for hours, up, up, up into the mist. When we eventually reach the top, the view has been completely blotted out. Yet, in the gauzy mist, the moors take on a different character, mysterious and alluring. Some brilliant navigating by the One & Only gets us to precisely the right spot to lead us down to Little Beck, a pretty hamlet tucked into the fold of a steep gorge. Two cyclists we pass peddling furiously up the hill have all my sympathy.

At this point, we tear ahead along the road and across a final stretch of moorland to reach the cliff-side town of Robin Hood’s Bay.  Here, our cosy world of lonely woodland paths and fireside camaraderie vanish in a puff of smoke. Or rather, in a tidal wave of tourists and day trippers. We throw our pebbles from the Irish Sea off the rocks into the North Sea. Our trek is done. Our feet are weary, but our heads are full of the glories of northern England, and tomorrow, it’s on to York. By bus.

*With thanks to the One & Only for the photo.

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A Pebble in My Pocket

PART TWO: THE YORKSHIRE DALES NATIONAL PARK

It is the fifth day. We leave Shap behind, crossing a footbridge over the motorway, passing the quarry and the steel factory spewing forth clouds of smoke. Three hours of mole-hills, moorland and broad horizons later, we reach Orton in record time. After that, things go astray, as we join new friends Claire and Gabriel on an inventive route along an old railway track that crosses a splendid stone viaduct. Supposedly, it will lead straight into Kirby Stephen, our next destination. It doesn’t. But we laugh a lot and the the extra six or seven miles is almost worth it for such smooth, steady walking. Nonetheless, my knees are struggling to support me, and my humour is long gone by the time we finally reach Kirby Stephen. We discover a B&B at the Old Courthouse and are welcomed with open arms. Our kind hostess even does my washing, bless her.

Hot showers, a brief rest, and then its time to go out for fish ‘n’ chips, a nut sundae and a quick drink at the pub with our new walking buddies. Later, I hobble home, somewhat bruised. I had decided, in my infinite wisdom, to hurdle a fence that promptly collapsed beneath me. I recover with a cup of tea and an episode of ‘Floyd Down Under.’

*

Fortunately for my bruised backside and blistered feet, day six is only twelve miles to Thwaite, and I have posted home half my heavy load, and packed a smaller, leaner rucksack. The first stretch to Nateby is a joy – and my burden decidedly lighter. But the moorland stretch to Keld is dull and dreary, the scenery unvaried and swamped with sheep. I loathe Keld before we even get there. It is one of those annoying towns that keeps disappearing behind another hill or around another bend just as you think it’s within reach. My blistered toes are less than impressed and my knees groan with despair, but on we trudge, chewing Opal Fruits to the tune of my whining. I drag myself wearily and tearily into Thwaite, only to find every B&B is fully booked. Collapsing feebly over tea and scones, I generously allow my gallant One & Only to scouts around for accommodation. Eventually, one sweet lady, recognizing his desperation, kindly offers her sofa bed, about 2½ miles down the road. Somehow I get there, feeling thoroughly martyred and miserable – and doubtless a heavier burden for my long-suffering boyfriend than any backpack. But even the floor feels like a feather bed tonight…

*

Day seven, and we are back on the road by 8am, after a quick, light breakfast. There’s an icy wind that makes us look like plucked chickens, but blue skies bode well for another glorious day. The path to Reeth lies beside the River Swale, through fields strewn with buttercups and daisies, pheasants and rabbits. Pretty stone bridges arch over the river at irregular intervals, and the riverbank flutters with pink campions and baby-blue forget-me-knots. Gunnerside, like many of the Yorkshire Dale villages, could almost be a Cotswold town, dressed in it’s honey-coloured stone. The sun shines and the cold wind flees as we pause for a tea break at The Punch Bowl Inn in Low Row.

Reeth High Street seems to topple down a steep hill, and provides amazing views across the Dales. The bakery here is fabulous, the baker and his wife creating many inventive and delicious variations on the ordinary loaf. We pass natty little souvenir shops and at least three pubs. And we find a terrific attic room at Hackney House, next to the newsagent, overlooking a meadow full of bright yellow buttercups, a goat and a couple of donkeys. After cleaning off the mud, we sit by the fire and relax, before joining Gabriel and Claire for a drink on the common in front of the Black Bull. Then it’s off to dinner at a local restaurant. In the land of pub meals – egg‘n’chips / chicken‘n’chips / fish‘n’chips / sausages’n’mash washed down with beer or cider –  steak and red wine is a novel treat.

*

The eighth day, and it is raining as we set out for Richmond. Snuggled into our waterproofs, we barely notice the weather, except that our hoods and the drizzle both blinker our vision somewhat. It is too wet to bother stopping for a break, so we reach Richmond after four hours of solid walking. And despite the rain, the walk is delightful: lush, green meadows choc-a-block with Mogwai-faced lambs and their handle-bar ears; wildflowers galore in field and hedgerow; stone farmhouses and pretty hamlets; a field of horses and their lanky foals. Misty clouds cling to the hillside along the Swale and sticky mud clings to our boots.

Richmond is really attractive. We have lunch at one of the many pubs here, then meander through town to find the castle. Alan Rufus began building this castle in the 1070s only a few years after fighting – and winning – the Battle of Hastings with his mate, William the Conqueror. Although it claims to be the best-preserved Norman castle in England, it was derelict by the early 16th century and  remained in ruins for 300 years. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many artists – including the remarkable J.M.W. Turner – were inspired to paint it.

Today, the views from the keep help us to get our bearings in this higgledy-piggledy town. We locate the marketplace and go on a tour of the only remaining Georgian theatre in the world. It looks like an old barn on the outside, but the inside has been beautifully restored. It is fascinating, especially where several panels have been left to show off the original paintwork. The theatre seats only 220 people, so everyone sits close to the stage. What a shame there is no play on tonight. Instead, we splurge on takeaway curry that we scoff in front of the TV, and gather our strength for the last four days of hiking. Bliss.

*With thanks yet again to my wonderful One & Only for his photography skills!

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A Pebble in my Pocket

PART ONE: THE LAKE DISTRICT NATIONAL PARK

London, 1991. It is the week before Easter. We squeeze sideways onto the commuter train to Euston with heavy rucksacks, trying hard not to look smug. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go we!’ Instead, are heading north to the Lake District, to walk Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path from Saint Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay, one hundred and ninety miles across Cumbria and North Yorkshire. No more office-bound job for me, tied to a desk, never seeing daylight, but off we go, in search of fresh, Spring air, invigorating treks across mountains and moors and, inevitably, blisters.

*

The Coast to Coast Walk, devised by Albert Wainwright, was first published in 1973. The pocket-sized book contains Wainwright’s original text and his hand-drawn black-and-white maps. Quite simply, he strung together a series of public footpaths to create a long-distance walk. The book would be updated in 1992, but we have the original version and follow it zealously for twelve days. Apart from the odd, misguided detour!

*

We stand on the beach at St. Bee’s Head and pocket a small pebble, borrowed from the Irish Sea, to toss into the North Sea at the far end. Our first day consists of a fourteen mile hike to Ennerdale Bridge. As we set out, we look ahead to the lighthouse on St. Bee’s Head, surrounded by cows.  For the first four miles we trudge north along red sandstone cliffs dotted with nesting gulls and hanging gardens of wildflowers in blue and pink and purple, the footpath narrow and precarious with occasional dips and detours down onto stony beaches, before it clambers back up the cliff. The fields to our right are full of spring lambs and boisterous calves. As we stroll through a daisy-strewn paddock, a huge bull looms – or is it just an exceptionally large cow? We don’t wait to confirm it either way, but somersault, at speed, over a stile.

For a dose of modern-day reality amid all this natural beauty, we spot the Sellafield nuclear power station to the south, puffing white clouds of vapour into the sky, like a chain smoker. To the north, the Workington Chemical Plant is enmeshed in massive power lines. Yet we are about to enter the Lake District National Park, famous for its lakes, forests and mountains and its association with William Wordsworth, John Rusklin and Beatrix Potter. The National Park was established in 1951 and covers an area of just under a thousand square miles. In 2017 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Five miles on, and we reach Sandwith, a small and remarkably pretty town above the sea. A quick pitstop for a glass of lemonade at the pub unexpectedly turns into a social occasion with the locals. Harry, serious and cross-eyed, is quick to enlighten us about the gaps Wainwright has left in his description of the country’s favourite long-distance walk. A hefty, gum chewing mud-wrestler glares at us through piggy eyes, the lids heavily painted in blue eye-shadow. Yet she is the only one who fails to welcome us into the fold. Re-hydrated and relaxed, we don our rucksacks and leave to a chorus of “See ya darlin’!” “Bye sweetheart!” “Ta-ra lovie!”

Having dallied in Sandwith, we must step up the pace if we are to reach our destination before dark. Or is it the call of beer pushing us on? The next lap involves a steep hill climb past a myriad new-born lambs and stray hikers, pot-bellied and gasping. Once over Dent Hill, we turn west, leaving the coastline behind us. We cross marshy fells and trudge through cool, dark pine plantations before descending steeply into a narrow valley below Raven’s Crag. The path leads past ponies, wildflowers, more lambs and a friendly, white bull calf, who had not yet learned to distrust humans. Eventually we land in Ennerdale Bridge, in time for tea.

*

Day Two is a beautiful, clear day. We begin by strolling along the eastern bank of Ennerdale Water, smooth as glass. Loose slate covering the path makes the going a bit tricky, but what a stunning landscape. The trail is full of weekend hikers today, walking single file like pilgrims en route to some distant grotto.

After three miles of Forestry Commission pine forest, with its broad, shaded paths, we stop for lunch at a farm that provides sandwiches and drinks for foot-sore walkers, before moving on to a stretch of ancient glacier. The drumlin – an egg shaped hill created by the glacier – is strewn with shale and boulders, which makes for cautious walking. As I swap my new hiking boots for sandshoes to deter blisters, we watch the sky change from turquoise to a charcoal grey, a distant rumble warning of storms to come. We clamber up and over Loft Beck – 700 feet of bleak, rocky outcrops, gravelly shale and mud – where we join the Great Gable track. This takes us down onto a disused tramline that once transported slate from the mine. Then, it’s a long downhill slither to Honister Pass and the old toll road, which provides a much kinder descent, returning us gently to the main road in Seatoller, among a softer landscape of oaks, water meadows and burbling streams.

Luckily, the storm never reaches us. We arrive, dry but tired, at Thorneythwaite Farm, with it’s beautiful old stone farm house and the welcome luxury of  a deep, claw-footed bathtub. Suitably refreshed, we head out to Rosthwaite and the Scafell Hotel for dinner. A late evening, star-strewn stroll home, past fields full of those ubiquitous sheep that includes half a dozen pregnant ewes and a clutch of new-born lambs.

*

Day 3 begins with a delicious and sociable breakfast with four other guests, two of whom have just returned from a year’s teaching in Western Australia. Then it’s up Stonethwaite Beck and Greenup Gill to Eagle Crag. It is a slog, but well worth the effort. The beck is full of deep, clear waterholes, and the final view over Borrowdale reminds me of Beatrix Potter’s illustration of Mrs Tiggywinkle and Lucy on the stile. In fact, it really could be the one she painted.

At this point, I manage to persuade my reluctant One & Only to detour from the Wainwright Bible, to avoid a dogleg to Grasmere. Instead, I assure him, we can take a short cut along Wyth Burn to the foot of Thirlmere and across to Grisedale Tarn. How was I to know that the path to the tarn would force us several hundred feet up the side of a vertical waterfall? The One & Only is decidedly peeved, but there is no turning back, and we eventually make it, hot and sweaty, to the top… only to discover that the long, steep descent to Ullswater is even more precipitous!

Blistered, weary and ravenously hungry, we find a B&B in Glenridding. Babs Studdens is ’eighty-four not out,’ and gave up running a B&B years ago. Luckily for us, she occasionally takes in a guest or two “if I feel like it.” She brings us tea and biscuits and recommends a pub in the village. The Traveller’s Rest is hidden away from the tourist stops, down beside the lake. Armed with a fabulous view, and a delicious moussaka, we watch the sun set over Plaice Fell, before staggering home to bed as our poor, abused muscles start seizing up.

*

Day four is eleven miles from Patterdale to Shap. Babs burns the toast, as she predicted she would, and the alarm buzzes for an age. I set out with thick bandages over my blisters, feeling crippled,  more by my rucksack than my feet, which has not proved a great success for hiking. We have slept in, so the One & Only insists on a brisk pace, barely allowing a pause to appreciate the glorious landscape.

We reach the end of the Lake District mountains at Haweswater, in glorious sunshine. Lying on mossy grass beneath a shady oak, beside a cold, clear waterfall, we munch on ham and salad sandwiches. Twenty minutes is all the time allowed, but it is twenty minutes of bliss. The trek today is testing, but the scenery is a stunning distraction from my poor, suffering feet. Gorse bushes bloom in joyful gold, waterfalls cross the path every quarter of a mile, and orchards brim with blossom. We stroll through a shady bluebell wood and clamber over rocky outcrops covered in daisies. A clear, shallow river splashes and swirls down a stepped waterfall. It is absolutely enchanting. I look for fairies.

The last few miles are full of stiles, our weary legs lacking the necessary bounce to get over them with any grace. We pass Shap Abbey at a flagging pace,and stagger up the final hill into town. Shap is an ancient parish on a windy ridge in Cumbria that lies along the A6, once the main road north. Until the early 19th century, it was a busy market town, trading largely in fleeces. A short decline ended with the opening of the railway in 1846. The market began to thrive again. Several quarries were mined for granite, limestone and slate. A steel factory opened. In 1958, however, the newly built M6 by-passed the town. By 1970, the Shap railway station was closed, and Shap began to fade into the background, becoming what it is today: a secluded rural village, off the tourist track, but still popular with hikers. We have booked a night at the Crown Inn, where we are greeted like old friends by Mavis and her fiancé, Steve. We find our bunk in the bunkhouse out the back, and a hot shower. Dinner is fish and chips, salad and gooseberry pie.  We feel infinitely better, and even manage a stroll around town before calling it a day.

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Strange Vegetables

‘’His hard-pressed father’s cooking and the pie-and-chips regime of his student days could not have prepared him for the strange vegetables – the aubergines, green and red peppers, courgettes and mange touts – that came regularly before him.’ ~ Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

Long gone are the days when Anglo-Australians ate a limp diet of meat and three over-cooked vegetables – namely, carrots, peas and potatoes.  Today’s culinary world is far more sophisticated and metropolitan, as we eagerly absorb every new cuisine that comes our way with the excitement of archaeologists finding a new tomb in Egypt.

When I first started dating the One & Only, the Mediterranean dishes that he grew up on were no part of my repertoire, and eating with his family was a real eye-opener. Do you remember that gorgeous movie, ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding?’ and that scene where poor Toula, ‘the swarthy six-year-old with sideburns’ is laughed at by the ‘blond, delicate girls with their Wonder Bread sandwiches’ for eating ‘moose kaka?’ We cringed in sympathy at their unkindness. And their ignorance. Today, Greek restaurants thrive in every city in Australia, and their fresh, tasty menus have proved a welcome addition to my stodgier, overcooked memories.

Last Saturday, I found my feet returning to a favourite Greek restaurant on Rundle Street, craving anything with eggplant in it. Named for the Greek God of Love, ‘Eros’ has been part of the landscape for more than 25 years, and still makes the best moussaka I have ever eaten. Unexpectedly chilly in mid-February, I found a table inside and curled over my book while I waited for my order. A good book, and the promise of an excellent moussaka. Who could ask for more?

The chef at Eros creates a mouth-watering moussaka (pr. MOO-sah-kah) of chargrilled eggplant and zucchini, layered with potato and rich, minced beef, topped with a creamy bechamel sauce and baked. It arrived at last, accompanied by a light, Greek salad. I ate all it as slowly as possible, savouring every mouthful, and rounded it off with coffee. It was all absolutely scrumptious.

Call it what you will – aubergine or eggplant, melanzana or brinjal, talong or patlidžan – the eggplant (officially a fruit, not a vegetable), has been popular in Arabic and Mediterranean countries for ages.   According to a 2010 academic paper by Weese & Bohs, ‘Eggplant origins: Out of Africa, into the Orient,’ eggplant ‘has been cultivated for centuries in the Old World,’ but it actually originated in Africa, then dispersed throughout the Middle East to Asia. The Arabs used it prolifically, stuffed with pine nuts or mixed into a dip with tahini and lemon juice. When they brought it across the Mediterranean to Sicily and Spain, it was ‘viewed with suspicion for a very long time.’ (Capatti & Montenarri, in ‘Italian Cuisine, A Cultural History.’) Urban myth suggests the meaning of its Italian name, melanzane, may be ‘crazy apple,’ as it was believed to cause insanity. Also, it was snobbishly labelled ‘peasant food’ until well into the nineteenth century. The Sicilians, nonetheless, adored their own vegetarian version of moussaka, combing eggplant with the ubiquitous tomato, and calling it Parmigiana di Melanzane. They also created a rich and tasty side dish known as caponata, with melanzane, peppers and capers.

 The pear-shaped, purple-skinned “Black Beauty” eggplant is probably the most familiar variety in Australia, but in the Philippines, I quickly became used the long thin variety – Japanese or finger eggplant. This would appear regularly in soups and salads, omelettes and main courses. Yasmin Newman, in her book ‘7000 Islands: A Food Portrait of the Philippines,’ ‘once served this [eggplant salad] to a Lebanese friend who said it was just like the eggplant salads she ate growing up.’  Then there is tortang talong, made from smoky eggplant cooked over the coals and coated in egg. Yum! (And the Ottoman imam bayildi or stuffed eggplant, is, likewise, absolutely delicious.)

Nicholas Clee, in his book ‘Don’t Sweat the Aubergine,’ reminds the home cook that ‘like tomatoes and spuds, don’t keep aubergine in the fridge.’ He also dispels the long-held belief that aubergines are bitter and need to be salted, rinsed and dried before cooking to remove the bitterness. Perhaps aubergines were once bitter, but these days, that gene appears to have been bred out. Either way, I haven’t bothered to do all that prep since my first explorations of cooking with eggplant, and there have – so far – been no ill effects. Clee has experimented and discovered that if you cook the aubergine until it is soft (fried in olive oil, or baked in the oven), salting is unnecessary.  Just be aware it will soak up a lot of oil, and it really isn’t nice when raw or only par-cooked. The skin will be leathery, the inside chewy and rubbery. A Turkish cooking lesson some years ago, taught me to bake them in their skins till you can spoon out the flesh, soft and richly flavoured, or burn their skins over an open flame for a smoky flavour. And for an Aussie BBQ, just slice it lengthwise, baste it in oil and lie it on the grill. It’s easy peasy, and perfect with lamb chops.

While some varieties of aubergine do look egg shaped – hence the name “eggplant” – these fruits of the nightshade family come in a surprising variety of shapes. And colours. For example, the Turkish Orange is a round variety, like a tomato, and the hint of its colour is in the name. Then there is the Snowy, which is pear shaped but white. The Thais produce a dense, round eggplant, like a golf ball except purple, which is terrific in coconut milk curries. The sweeter, smaller ‘Fairy Tale,’ with its attractive purple and white stripes, is excellent tossed into stir-fries or sautés, or skewered and grilled. More familiar perhaps, is the deep plum-coloured ‘Israeli,’ perfect for babaganoush.

To those familiar with vibrators or texting, eggplants have recently added a sexual connotation their repertoire, but personally, I like them better as food. And for those who want to know it’s health benefits, well, as long as you are not allergic, eggplants are a great source of vitamins & minerals. They aid digestion and are high in iron, so can help prevent anaemia. And they taste great, even if they use up all your olive oil!

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Sculptures by the Sea

‘Misuiro’ by Erika Edwards

Several years ago, I took a handful of young boys to walk along the coastal path from Bondi to Tamarama, to check out the Sculptures by the Sea exhibition. We were absolutely rivetted by the creativity on display and I’ve longed for the opportunity to be back in NSW at the right time to go again.

Established in 1997, Sydney’s Sculptures by the Sea has become the world’s largest free sculpture exhibition. 100 sculptures by artists from all over the world are displayed along the path and on the beaches. It evolved from an idea by David Handley, who had spent time in Prague and been inspired by an outdoor sculpture park in Northern Bohemia. The first exhibition was set up on a shoestring, but it brought together a plethora of local artists and volunteers, not to mention the 25,000 people who showed up on the day.
Since then, the Bondi Sculptures by the Sea has grown exponentially into an annual, three week exhibition, and the idea has been copied in Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide.

‘Coastal Garden Sphere’ by Andrew Rendall

Last weekend, I popped down to Brighton, South Australia to see how this year’s local sculpture exhibition was going. The Brighton version of Sculptures by the Sea first came into existence in 2008, when the local lifesaving club thought it might be an interesting way to raise some funds for the club. As in Bondi, it started from humble beginnings, but within five years it was bringing in experienced sculptors keen to get on the bandwagon.

Now, supported financially by Patritti Wines, Bank SA, Channel 7 and many others, Brighton Jetty Sculptures is a major community arts exhibition featuring both indoor and outdoor sculptures on display along the Brighton Beach promenade and in two marquees in the park beside the Brighton Surf Lifesaving Club. Over 200 sculptures were on display this year, and all were available for sale, 30% of which goes to the lifesaving club. Many of the sculptors are also happy to take on commissions.

It is a wonderful venue to show off the talents of both emerging and established sculptors. Often, the sculptures have a sea or beach theme. Animals and birds are also popular subjects. Many of the artists have created environmentally friendly pieces from waste materials. In the marquees in Bindarra Reserve, there are statues made from driftwood and reclaimed timber, and a phoenix rising from the detritus of man-made waste, such as plastic zipties, sparkler rods, pens and rubble. A beautiful, framed relief of a fern – a symbol of regeneration and hope – was created from glass beads and corrugated iron salvaged from the Cuddlee Creek fires last summer by artist Sue Caldicott. ‘Misuiro’ by Erika Edwards is a fabulous seascape made from resin and acrylic, bejwelled with quartz crystals, glass and glitter. And there are several wonderful glass mosaics including a whale tale and Mr. Percival the ‘Storm Boy’ pelican.

‘Whale Tale Splash’ by Cheryl Hay

On the seafront, a giant, hands-on kaleidoscope was built by Trent Manning & Kristen Wohlers and has been so popular that the handle has come loose and had to be fixed three times! Another one, named Kaleidoscope – although it is, in fact, a hoop of steel butterflies – provides a framed view over the waves. It was made by James Hamilton, who also created a full sized corten steel stag, ‘Heart of the Highlands’ posing proudly and staring up to the hills. My favourite piece last year – and still my screensaver – was Hamilton’s beautiful giraffe named Rita, also made from corten steel, that won the People’s Choice Award. (COR-TEN, I learned, is also known as weathering steel, referring to the chemical composition that has increased resistance to corrosion compared to other steels, forming an attractive, rusty appearance after several years’ exposure to weather.) Will Hendriks’ Surreal Shell in cast aluminium, large as a sofa, nestles in the dunes. His ‘Moving Forward’ also won the prize for the best outdoor sculpture.

‘Moving Forward’ by Will Hendriks

Stephen Vaughn created a 4 metre alligator from recycled gas cylinders and called him ‘Troy, King of the Swamp.’ We admired outdoor chairs constructed of steel and wood would that look divine in the garden, the sides curving into a womb-like pod, called ‘Sturt Desert Pea’ – appropriate as the floral emblem of South Australia. And one for the kids is a surreal piece called ‘Covid-19 Exterminator Machine Contraption’ by Steve Oatway, made from a variety of left-overs from junk stalls and op shops, including tractor seats, shower heads and an array of superhero figures. Everyone I saw admiring it spent ages examining all the details.

I even acquired a small piece for our garden, to complement the beautiful boobook owls that have moved into our road. And I am already looking forward to next years exhibition!

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Port Elliot Treasures

We are in Port Elliot. Again. Purportedly in the height of summer. Yet we sleep snuggly under our quilts and travel with layer upon layer of clothes like Sara Lee’s Danish pastries. Whatever the weather, however, Horseshoe Bay, with its rocky seascape and short jetty always provides a joyful view and a relaxing escape.

By the way, I’m not complaining about this year’s half-hearted summer weather. I am hopeless in the heat, and inclined to wilt like a fragile flower. And let’s face it, last year was the summer from hell, with those fearful bushfires tearing through Australia. So, let’s breathe a sigh of relief for this cooler January than was our lot in 2020.

Port Elliot is one of the prettiest old towns on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. It sits on the eastern side, between Victor Harbor and Goolwa, where the open seas of the Great Australian Bite provide a surf we don’t often have on our side of the peninsula, in the shelter of the Gulf St. Vincent. Early this morning, the waves poured over Christmas Pudding rock like thickened cream, while the rising sun struck through the clouds on the horizon, two long fingers of God, the sunlight glittering on the water like tinsel. The sand was white and smooth, made new by the night’s high tide. A few swimming enthusiasts were already striking out towards the diving platform in the middle of the Bay, while a man with a stick was autographing the pristine sand.

It’s only been a quick overnight trip to see friends before they head back to the city, and we could have driven home last night, but it is such a treat to sit in a deckchair with a cup of tea and watch the surf only metres away, as the town slowly starts to wake up. Then there’s time for a walk after breakfast, taking the path around the bay, past the memorial garden with its thick hedges of rosemary for remembrance, and up over the cliffs, where it is easy to see why Port Elliot never provided the hoped for safe harbour for ships exporting goods from the Riverland. As a safe bathing beach, however, it is picture perfect. And the lawn bowlers have the best view in town, their bowling green sitting above the beach like an infinity pool. We stray off the Harbourmaster’s Walking Trail to go in search of coffee and end up following the train line out to Lakala Reserve where local producers are setting up for the twice monthly market.

Last night we dined at No. 58 Cellar Door & Gallery on Watersport Road. Usually, it’s only open over the weekends, but during the summer holidays, its open seven days a week. This rustic cellar door for Thunderbird Wines is set among the vines on the corner of the old Waverley Estate, both part of Campbell Haig’s portfolio. Unfortunately, it was a bit cool to sit out on the deck, but we were given a large table right by the kitchen, which meant we could watch the chef in action whenever there was a lull in conversation.

The dinner menu is simple: a small selection of wood-fire pizzas on a damper like base. We started on the last dish of roast potatoes and a bowl of warm olives, then went on to share three pizzas, one topped with salami, another with ham and gorgonzola. The third had a garlic and tomato, scattered with tiny pipis from the beach at Goolwa, still in their shells, and needing to be extracted with each slice, tasting like the sea. Beyond the deck, neat rows of vines disappeared into the shadows as the sun set behind them.

The vineyard was planted barely a decade ago, apparently under contract to a boutique Adelaide Hills winemaker. Now operating under its own label, Thunderbird Wines produces small wine batches of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Shiraz. We chose their bubbles, the NV Blanc de Blanc, and it went down a treat.

The dining space includes a shelf of products for sale – oils, jams and sauces – is also used to display local art works. Kids are welcome and the space is warm and inviting, the staff always happy to help.

And then there’s South Sea Books, an independent bookshop with its cosy leather sofas and a coffee machine to extend your browsing time ~ at least when Covid restrictions aren’t disrupting proceedings. Originally a pretty stone cottage on the main road, South Seas has recently been enlarged with a light, brick addition on the side. I have been dropping in here for years, not least because I discovered that the owner, Sarah Taylor, went to school with me. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and peaceful retreat, the shelves and tables choc-a-bloc with delicious looking books, the old part of the building looking gorgeously homely, like a private, overstocked sitting room, the kind of sitting room any bookworm dreams of owning. The staff leave handwritten notes, recommending their favourite books and I challenge you to walk away with only one, or resist the beautiful, hand-picked cards.

And when you have eaten your fill of books, two doors down there is an attractive coffee shop, ‘Beaches,’ where you can sit down to examine the towering pile of literature you have inexplicably acquired…

*The lovely painting of the bookshop is the work of Abbey Rawson of Abzurd Creations used here with her kind permission.

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Navel Gazing

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

Happy New Year to you all. For those of you still contemplating weeks or months of lockdown, my sincere commiserations. In South Australia, while we remain wary, we have enjoyed a simple but unrestrained Christmas season. And I don’t mean to rub it in, when I add that we have been blessed with a stream of house guests and visitors over the past three weeks. My new Guest Book is getting quite full already. NYE was a quiet and cosy affair, however. No party, no fireworks, just a couple of old friends, a BBQ and a movie ~ and a soupçon of champagne, of course. New Year Resolutions? So far, not even one of any significance, beyond the ever-present promise to drink less wine and a plan to swim in the sea every day.

The former, well, wine and summer go together like love and marriage, so that one is doomed from the start. As for swimming, well, so far this summer has been strange. It’s almost been a metaphor for the weirdness of 2020, as Covid turned the world upside down: high winds, cool, cloudy days – what happened to thirty degrees and sunburn? I’m really not keen to plunge into arctic seas when a cold wind is lashing the trees and the sand is whipping through my hair and into my eyes. Maybe by February, it will have got warmer…

So, what to talk about today? I am still sifting through a pile of journals and letters from past lives abroad, but I worry the idea of armchair travel is wearing thin. We talk of taking Barney out on the road again, for another camping trip. The Eyre Peninsula? The Coorong? But perhaps we’ll wait until February when the schools go back, or April and Autumn? For now, we are happy at home. Despite the minimal Covid restrictions here, we have got into the habit of pottering through the days. It may not encourage scintillating travel tales, but it is wonderfully relaxing to sit for a while, and watch the world turn.

The birds wake us every morning, the corellas shrieking through the sky before settling down to demolish some unassuming banksia or conifer, making the pencil pines look like Christmas trees covered in white baubles. A family of owls has taken up residence in our street, and while not as sociable as our house guests, just as welcome. A neighbour’s tree full of white ants has been chopped down and its absence has widened the skyscape considerably. All the neighbours have joined the conversation on how to fill the gap. I have been binge watching series on Netflix and Stan till they are coming out my ears. How many more murder mysteries can I handle?

I contemplate our road trip to Bathurst in November, which has only had a brief mention to date. I do remember that, as we drove along the Barrier Highway I was reminded of a song from my childhood.

In 1962, an Australian musician, Lucky Star recorded a song that had been penned by Geoff Mack. Does anyone else remember ‘I’ve been everywhere man’? The song names almost a hundred country towns in Australia at breakneck speed, and it became an instant hit. It has taken on numerous iterations since, based on place names from New Zealand, the UK and the US, even Finland, and sung by a wide variety of performers from Rolf Harris to Johnny Cash. Peter Harris even produced a TV show in which he visited each of the towns mentioned in the Aussie version, and for those of us old enough to remember, the song also made an ironic guest appearance in that surreal comedy show of the early 70’s, Aunty Jack, who had only been to Wollongong.

We passed through so many wondrously tagged towns in our recent trip to Bathurst that I almost felt inspired to write my own version. We drove through Gundagai & Tooleybuc, Bogan Gate & Bumbaldry, Bungandore, Daroobalgie,  Gooloogong & Olary, Mingary & Tumblong, Borambola, Araluen, Braidwood & Oodla Wira, Ulooloo, Wilcannia, Canbelego, Manangatang, Boinka, Pinnaroo & Lameroo… and the list goes on. Poetic without even trying, isn’t it?

But I am blithering, and achieving little beyond a warm welcome to 2021 and the hope that vaccines and common sense will prevail this year; that we can revive a version of normality and the world will flip itself up the right way again. We are on the right track, perhaps, as America prepares to inaugurate a rather more balanced, more unifying and less narcissistic President for the next four years. Fingers crossed…

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Jersey Jottings

“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.” ~ Gerald Durrell

Jersey, Channel Islands, UK

I do love islands. I seem always to feel more comfortable living on an island than in a landlocked country, be it as big as Australia or as small as the microscopic Channel Isles floating off the coast of Normandy. Even though France is only fourteen miles across the sea, these five islands – Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm – plus a handful of uninhabited ‘islets,’ are dependencies of the British crown, one hundred miles from the English coast. At low tide, it feels as if you could walk across the sand to Normandy.

The Channel Islands have always been easy prey for marauders, and there are endless tales and legends of enemy invasions. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries there was a daunting stream of raiders who plundered the islands, burning crops and homes and murdering the locals. Yet, the one invasion that continues to enthrall our imaginations, however, is that of the German occupation during World War Two. If you have ever read ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,‘ you will know something about this chapter of its history. Guernsey was taken, undefended by the British, on June 30th 1940. A day later, Jersey also surrendered to the German Army. The Channel isles would remain occupied by the Germans until May 9th 1945.   

I first went to the Channel Islands in 1991 for a three week posting on Jersey – the largest of the islands and the closest to France – where I was to look after an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s in her home on the eastern tip of the island.

 Flying into the airport at Saint Peters in a pocket-sized prop plane is a magical, if somewhat unnerving experience. I first spotted the island from a height of several thousand feet. Lying in the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, the tiny island was lapped by glittering blue sea. The plane looped around over the Colentin Peninsula in Normandy, then descended so rapidly I thought we were going to land in a field among the doe-eyed Jersey cows. Swooping in low, over farmhouses, riding stables, fields and trees, I had my first glimpse of the legendary Jersey wealth: a helipad marked out on the lawn beside a country manor house. As the plane slammed on its brakes and rushed down a ridiculously short airstrip, I thought we might career off the end of the runway and tip into the sea. Perhaps a helicopter would have been safer?

Luckily, we didn’t end up under the waves, but I got a soaking anyway, as I discovered the unpredictable nature of the weather in the Channel Islands. Advertised in travel magazines with overtones of a Caribbean or Pacific island, Jersey may benefit from the Gulfstream, which softens the blow of the English winter, but Fiji it most definitively is not. We had flown in through powder puff clouds in a deep blue sky. I stepped out of the airport into a deluge.

Jersey is 5 miles x 9 miles or 45.6 square miles. (Of course, at this tiny size, every square foot counts.) Like intestines, almost 350 miles of narrow lanes twist and tie themselves in knots around the island, hemmed in by shoulder high stone walls and hedgerows, capable of confusing the hell out of even the most astute navigator.  Yet, I was more than happy at the prospect of losing myself in this maze of lanes, strolling along the cliffs or clambering down into the rocky coves in every spare moment.

Historically, Jersey has always been intensely farmed. Fields of cabbages and parsley were once kept well fertilised by the seaweed harvested from the beaches. Today, potatoes are the most important export crop, shipped mostly to the UK. And of course, there is the famous Jersey cow whose loyalty to its eponymous home ensures that those exported from the island never reach quite the same levels of excellence as those that remain. I often spotted them peering curiously over the walls as I wandered by, or was forced to tuck myself up against a hedge to avoid their hooves as they crammed into the green, tunnelled lanes at milking time, lowing wearily, their engorged udders swinging heavily and giving them a strange bowlegged gait. 

Tourism also plays a part in the local economy, and both Guernsey and Jersey become offshore tax havens long ago. This has escalated the population from 57,000 at the end of the war to 106,000 in 2020. Population control has now become a major political issue on Jersey, as more and more houses are built, and housing prices rise beyond the reach of the locals.

Enough facts and figures, let’s jump back on our bikes, as I’ve discovered they are cheap to hire and even cheaper to run, requiring only the cost of a little muscle power…

Inevitably, every bike ride leads to the coast, where rocky promontories fold protective arms around tiny coves and bite-sized bays, clusters of small fishing boats nestling cosily on a polished silver sea, like dozing ducks. Or, if the tide is low – Jersey has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, the island almost doubling in size twice a day – the boats loll drunkenly in the muddy grey sand that stretches out towards the French mainland, to which it was once connected by huge oak forests. On the way, I pass elegant manor houses tucked behind what remains of those ancient oak trees, and many of the old stone farmhouses that were introduced by the Normans. I was told that the true Jersey house traditionally has five windows across the front of the upper storey, and consequently spent the next fortnight religiously counting windows.

Aboard my trusty bike, I took to the coast roads to look for the plethora of military defences that sit above the beaches. Before the Germans built their sturdy, rather grim looking turrets along the coastline, the British had built some rather more attractive military architecture to keep the French at bay. These older fortifications include numerous medieval castles and forts, Martello towers to defend the island against Napoleon, artillery batteries and seawalls.

Mont Orgueil is a thirteenth century fortress built as Jersey’s first primary defence. It squats high above St Anne’s Port, where the narrow terraced houses of the town huddle at the foot of its mighty walls, clinging like toddlers to their mother’s apron strings. When superseded by Elizabeth Castle, it became, for a while, the island’s only prison.

Elizabeth Castle was constructed on a tidal island in the bay at Saint Helier. Originally an Abbey, the Crown confiscated the monastic buildings during the Reformation and the buildings were then used for military purposes. Construction of the castle itself began in 1594. It became the Governor’s residence and was named for Elizabeth I by Sir Walter Raleigh, who was Governor of Jersey between 1600 and 1603.

I also discovered a multitude of Nazi gun escarpments along the cliffs. But perhaps the most fascinating reminder of the presence of the Third Reich is the underground hospital in Saint Lawrence, much along the lines of one I have seen on Corregidor in Manila Bay. A marvel of modern engineering and muscle, the hospital was dug into the hill by slave labour, prisoners of war who were marched barefoot across Europe to die in crushing rock falls 130 feet below the surface. These underground tunnels remained unfinished at the time the island was liberated in 1945, but were nonetheless fully heated and air conditioned, and could provide 600 beds, staff quarters, an operating theatre and extensive kitchens.  Although the Channel Islands had little strategic value to the Germans, their psychological importance for propaganda purposes was enormous. For the first time in British history, the German army had its foot in the door, albeit at a small back entrance.

On my afternoon bike rides I head west, where a vast expanse of sand stretches around the coast and provides superb views of the La Corbière lighthouse to the south. To the north, are the cliffs and rocky outcrops of l’Etac. At Grouville Bay, when the tide is low, neat rows of oyster beds lie just below the surface of the sea and are apparently the largest oyster beds in the British Isles.

Jersey is divided into 12 parishes – Grouville, St Clements, St Brelades, St Helier – that were originally set up as Norman fiefdoms. Did I mention the Normans? In 933, the islands were annexed to the Duchy of Normandy. When William II of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, the islands became possessions of the English Crown. The heavy influence of Jersey’s Norman ancestry can still be seen in the street names, on the farms and in the surnames on the gravestones in every parish churchyard. In the late eighteenth century, as wealthy French émigrés fled the Revolution and sought refuge on the Channel Islands, the islands were nicknamed ‘the French Isles’. It’s history is also apparent in the local Norman dialect, Jèrriais, although today, this French patois is only spoken by a handful of inhabitants, and the official French language of previous centuries has been firmly replaced by English in the twentieth century.

Today, Jersey is a self-governing parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, with its own financial, legal and judicial systems and the power of self-determination, with a resident Lieutenant Governor as the personal representative of the Queen.

Famous people associated with Jersey include King Charles II, who spent a year in exile at Elizabeth castle from 1649-1650. Victor Hugo also spent many years in exile, first on Jersey and then on Guernsey, where he finished Les Misérables. When I was there in 1991, Roger Moore had a house just down the road from where I was staying in St. Martins. It looked like a wedding cake with blue edging and he had named it Moonraker. Of course.

Gerald Durrell established his famous zoo on Jersey in 1959, designed to preserve endangered species by increasing their numbers in captivity before returning them to the wild. Today, it is operated by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, but Durrell was still alive when I visited the zoo thirty years ago. The site for the zoo is Les Augres Manor, a 17th-century manor house which Durrell originally leased. I remember spacious gardens, beautifully laid out with wide lawns and colourful flowerbeds surrounding enclosures made to look as natural as possible; an aviary that was large enough for parrakeets to stretch their wings and fly about, while the gorillas and apes were provided with a broad range of climbing and swinging equipment. Eventually, in 1971, Durrell arranged to buy the property from its owner, to ensure his animals had a permanent home. It has also provided a permanent home for Durrell, whose ashes were buried there in 1995.

So, to finish where we began, with another quote from the inimitable Mr. Durrell: “Until we consider animal life to be worthy of the consideration and reverence we bestow upon old books and pictures and historic monuments, there will always be the animal refugee living a precarious life on the edge of extermination, dependent for existence on the charity of a few human beings.”

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“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…”

It’s almost Christmas. The tree is up and brimming with angels, even my grumpy Filipina one. The Kris Kringle list is out. The Christmas menu has been finalized. Our supplies of red are running low, but we have plenty pf bubbles. Luckily, I have my own private supplier: a friend who works for wine distributor Wine Direct and is always happy to introduce us to some of their good – and cost effective – labels. So, to restock the cellar for Christmas, I joined a bunch of keen wine tasters in my old mate’s gorgeous back garden to try some new wines and revisit some old favourites.

The garden is a tiny oasis behind a sweet, 1940s cottage on Kensington’s High Street. (Not THE Kensington High Street in London, but a pretty tree-lined suburban street in Adelaide.) ‘The Love Shack’ has been a popular destination for social gatherings for years: Christmas, ANZAC Day, a variety of birthdays, and now, wine tasting.

It was a hot afternoon, so we huddled into the shady spots, introducing ourselves and making new friends, before our hostess took us through the wines on offer with her inimitable flair and humour. We were introduced to five reds and five whites. Lots of South Australians, a French rosé and two from the Margaret River.

We began with a bright, Adelaide Hills bubbles, the 2015 Wicks Estate ‘Pamela,’ a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, made in the French methode traditionelle. After four years on lees in stainless steel vats, it still tastes fresh and creamy. The 2013 Vintage won a trophy for best sparkling wine at the Adelaide Show, and this one seems equally keen to lighten the mood of the day.

Another Adelaide Hills offering was appropriately named The Gathering: a 2010 aged Sauvignon Blanc Semillon from the popular Hahndorf winery, The Lane. As a lover of all things Chardonnay, I was surprised to find this wooded Sauvignon Blanc – rarely a favourite variety – a rather nice drop.

Then, we hopped across to the Clare Valley for a 2020 Claymore Joshua Tree Watervale Riesling, already a winner with the One & Only. Wine critic and blogger Winsor Dobbin – www.gourmetontheroad.com – claims it’s one of the best Rieslings the Clare Valley has to offer. It has been created by talented winemaker Kerri Thompson, ‘Australia’s Riesling Queen,’ who now has her own label, KT Wines, specializing in her first love: Rieslings.

Much to my delight, there was a Chardonnay next, all the way from W.A. Picardy Pemberton is a boutique winery owned by the Pannell family. These pioneers of the Margaret River region established Mosswood in 1969 and Picardy Pemberton in 1993. I’m not sure I need to say more than that I promptly ordered half a dozen, and surrounded by SB drinkers, I got an almost clear run on the sample bottle from 2018. (It’s also a good one to cellar for a few years, if you can wait that long.)

Anyone who has ever visited Provence, knows that rosé is the preferred Provençal wine. Every supermarket along the Côte d’Azur will have a wall of pink wine, and it is always a good choice, chilled and crisp on a summer afternoon. The Lumière de Provence Rosé 2017 is made from a blend of Grenache Syrah, Cinsault and Rolle grapes, mostly grown in a small hilltop village in the south of France. The result of this Mediterranean blend is a dry and textured wine, lightly flavoured with strawberries. The grapes are picked early to ensure a delicate, barely-there shade of pink. This elegant little number is perfect for a warm afternoon on the terrace, overlooking the sea. Or a gathering of friends on the back lawn in the shade of some hardy purple Prunus. For example.

Picardy Pemberton also provided our first red, in the form of a 2018 Pinot Noir. This is still a young wine with great cellaring potential. It also benefitted from double decanting. The father and son team has been working on perfecting this pinot, and the 2018, highly awarded, is their best so far.

Colab & Bloom is a young Willunga winery that is following the trend to use Mediterranean grapes, a better fit than the northern European grapes for our temperate climate. The grapes for this Italian style wine are sourced from all over SA, from Langhorne Creek to the Barossa, and their Montepulciano 2019 is full of fruit and makes incredibly smooth, easy drinking on a hot afternoon, when you mightn’t want the challenge of a heavier Barossa red. Like most Italian wines, it also goes exceptionally well with food. Owner and wine maker, Mike Farmilo, is an expert with a long career in winemaking. It has been recommended that decanting will bring out its best.

‘Great collaboration is like an orchestra – it doesn’t work if everyone plays the same part. The magic happens when a bunch of seeming misfits, fit together seamlessly, to create perfection. It’s Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti. It’s Cobain, Noveselic and Grohl. It’s Snap, Crackle and Pop.’ And, apparently, it’s also the St. John’s Road ‘Motley Bunch’ GMS 2017. Just see their website. Beautifully blending Grenache, Mataro, and Shiraz this is a lovely summer red to accompany a pizza or a bowl of pasta, and it’s had some great reviews.

The last two wines on offer were big reds from the Barossa Valley: a 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Chateau Yaldara, and a bold 2016 Shiraz from the Two Sisters Wine Co.

The Chateau Yaldara Cab Sav is an elegant, well balanced Cabernet, full of black fruits, oak and spice. It is fine to drink now but might be even better for a little time out in the cellar.

The Two Sisters Shiraz comes from some of the oldest vines in the Barossa, dating back to the 1840s. Six generations later, the family still owns the original homestead and orchard on one of the first vineyards established in the Barossa. This was another one recommended for cellaring.

Preferences chosen, shopping done, our wine cupboard is now looking a lot healthier, and I am absolutely set for Christmas. But where is the snow? Our first Christmas on the Fleurieu looks set to be warm and dry and snow free, with a maximum temperature of 27’C. A perfect day to put a leg of lamb on the Weber BBQ and roll back the cover on the swimming pool. No winter coats, gloves and hats needed here. Merry Christmas and Joy to the World! And I hope even those having to put up with tight Covid restrictions can have a special day.

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On the Road Again

After the state-wide panic of a six day Covid lockdown, our brief foray into isolation barely lasted 24 hours. A storm in a teacup? A flash in the pan? Miraculously, two days later, we were able to reignite plans to visit Bathurst for my cousin’s birthday and make a last minute dash to the border of New South Wales.

It’s our first night out, and we have landed just shy of the border, and Broken Hill. We camp on a patch of scrub in the middle of nowhere, between the railway line and the road. Barney, our new VW campervan (a very smart gentleman with blue and white checked seats and matching curtains) is already lightly coated in red dust. As we set up our deck chairs and the gas cooker, our noses and ears are promptly infiltrated by a thousand flies. Nonetheless, with a pasta sauce bubbling gently on the stove, and a glass of red wine in hand, we sit back happily, counting the wagons on the freight trains that thunder by, and waving gaily to the whooping hoots of the road trains.

The nearest township (Olary) consists of a pub and handful of scattered houses. The carcasses of a handful more (some reduced to a mere chimney), a few rusty corrugated iron sheds and a smattering of derelict cars complete the picture. Since Burra, the roadside has been littered with the white bones of roadkill. Whether kangaroos, cattle or sheep, it hard to tell, as the bones had been picked clean by crows and raptors, leaving few clues to distinguish them. Trees are an endangered species round here.

By complete contrast, we are reading a book by a friend who spent almost three years living in Mainland China. Flat, dry, scrubby dessert is replaced in our mind’s eye by vast Chinese cities, awash with sky-scrapers and immersed in smog. We try to decide if a city of nine million, awash with pollution and constant traffic jams, wins over nine million flies and mile upon mile of red dust.

It’s a little after dawn on day two. There is no thought of dawdling over cornflakes and a cup of tea. We are packing up in short order to flee the flies. By eight o’clock, we have arrived in Broken Hill for coffee and raisin toast topped with rocket. A strange choice of garnish, but the toast is delicious, full of spices and perfectly cooked, the coffee is hot, and the café is free of flies.

We have no idea what to expect of Broken Hill, knowing only that it was the home of Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP). We are surprised by wide, shady streets and many attractive stone buildings. We spend a fascinating day in this outback mining town, drifting from nature reserve to mine to art gallery, with a slight detour to Menindee, a tiny town to the south. (Note to self: it’s time to put aside European expectations. When the map suggests a large lake in the mid north, don’t expect miracles. Be grateful if it is a teacup more than a muddy puddle.)

Nonetheless, our foray south provides a fascinating spectacle of local wildlife, including a pair of emus with three gangly, long-legged, chicks in tow. A family of quail scuttle across the road in single file like school kids at a pedestrian crossing. Every few miles, a stolid, shingle backed lizard plods with suicidal determination across the hot tarmac. Down by the darling, a pair of pelicans drifted across the river, our only glimpse of running water since we drove over the Torrens, some six hundred kilometres south.

Line of Lode Miners Memorial, Broken Hill

Back in Broken Hill, we drive to the top of the hill on the southern side of town, where a visitor’s centre and a memorial to 800 dead miners have been erected, overlooking the town. The memorial lists all the miners killed, plus the cause of their deaths: in rock falls or mine explosions, from gas leaks or lung disease, from toppling down mine shafts or being buried alive in mullock or skimp. It seems there were a multitude of miserable ways to die before OH&S kicked in to protect miners from such grisly ends.

On a positive note, I learned some new words:
Mullock: a mound of waste and loose rubble left over from mining operations (or to ridicule someone by ‘poking mullock’ at them)
Kibble: a bucket for material or men out of a shaft (or dried dog food)
Bogger: a pneumatic shovel for removing broken rock (and dumping it into a cart that looks exactly like the ones at Gringotts)
Skimps: sandy residue from a mine, after all the minerals have been extracted (also something to suffocated under, if you should be careless enough to fall in).

After stalking over the wasteland of mullock, and admiring the view of the town below, we head north to the Living Desert State Park, a 2400 hectare area established in 1992. It is a hot day, and we trudge begrudgingly along the walking trail, through a fenced park that features hardy local plants that can survive the bone dry soil and the bleak surroundings better than we can. On a nearby hill is a circle of twelve stones à la Stonehenge. More than fifty tonnes of sandstone blocks were lugged from Wilcannia to this remote hilltop, where a multinational group of skilled sculptors gathered in 1993 to leave their mark on the Australian outback. As one artist said at the time, the stones look so peaceful and awe-inspiring on their own, he didn’t see the need to carve into them. But they did anyway, and the results are fascinating.

Another local artist, we discover, is Kevin Charles Hart, better known to the art world as Pro Hart. He died in 2006, but the gallery he built to house his eclectic works of art is an absolute joy to visit. It’s hard to believe this talented soul had a day job in the mines, but some of his most interesting works are those reflecting the hours he spent underground.

He also experimented with a multitude of art forms, creating paint guns and even a paint canon that splattered paint onto canvas from a distance. He illustrated the conflict between white man and aboriginal in stage-like sets, and his Lowry-like scenes of town events, such as the St Patrick’s Day races and Kids Sports day. He painted outback landscapes over one of his Rolls Royce cars and created exquisite sculptures. There are extraordinary abstracts and those enigmatic masks, eucalypts and yabbies, miners and shearers, Sydney Opera House and the Adelaide Oval. And Barney is now sporting a sticker of Hart’s amazing dragonfly on carpet.

Pro Hart Carpet Dragonfly

Broken Hill might be a long way from anywhere, but I’m keen to go back. Perhaps for the Broken Heel Festival in September, when the town fills up with drag queens and divas, comedy shows and cabaret, all paying homage to the glorious, glittering cult of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert…

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