Wednesday, 27 September 2017


Two days ago I intended to go to Bude, in North Cornwall, but ended up at Sandymouth instead, which is a few miles to the north of Bude.

You can, at very low tide, walk along a vast continuous beach from Sandymouth to Northcott Mouth and then to Bude Haven. Or indeed walk the clifftop between these places, for a section of the South West Coast Path links them. In good weather either way - beach or clifftop - is exhilarating. I contented myself with sections of beach half a mile northward from Sandymouth, and half a mile southward. I wanted sunshine and a paddle in the sea. I got both.

There are several shots of me in this post having a wonderful time. I felt carefree and full of wellbeing. I hope the shots capture that.

But I also wanted to drive home what the point of living in North Cornwall might be. At any age, access to coast like this must blow all cares and fears away. A young person facing difficult exams should come here. Somebody in a mid-life crisis should come here. An old person who is getting close to the end of their life should come here. The sea, the cliffs, the wind, the sunshine, the sheer emptiness of the beach: all of these elements will soothe, inspire and restore.

Sandymouth (and quite a lot of nearby coastline) is in the care of the National Trust. Leaving the A39 (the 'Atlantic Highway') just south of Kilkhampton, and passing through the village of Stibb, eventually brings you to the NT car park. Being an NT Life Member, I had nothing to pay.

From the car park (which had a modern café and nice toilets adjacent) a track led down to the shore. The beach came into view quite dramatically, a V-shaped defile in the cliffs (which just here were low) opening out onto pebbles. But the sand wasn't far away.

Immediately I saw a waterfall, the clear water gushing noisily onto the rocks. Armed only with Tigerlily, my Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone, I took a shot, uncertain whether her camera would cope with the speed of the cascade. I didn't want a mere blur.

I needn't have worried. My goodness, Tigerlily's camera managed a shutter speed of 1/1,250th of a second, and froze the little water droplets in their flight! It's astonishing what the latest phone cameras can do.

The next thing I noticed was the rocks. There were several types, of varying colour and hardness, but all sedimentary, and all tilted at a crazy angle to the horizontal. They were also contorted, having been folded by immense pressures. If geology is your thing, this is a place to come for some textbook examples of folding, tilting, catastrophic slippage and faulting, and the erosive effects of a savage sea.

Below the present cliffline were rows of dragons' teeth, the worn-down remains of where the cliffs once were. No old-time sailing boat or ship would ever have survived contact with these. This remote area was indeed Shipwreck Alley, as much as anywhere else along this section of coast, and surely had been a haunt of the old-time wreckers.

I then turned my attention to the sea. The tide was still going out, exposing a vast wet beach. Northward lay Duckpool and Steeple Point, with one of the white dishes at the GCHQ tracking station visible. Southward lay Menachurch Point and Northcott Mouth, with Bude Haven out of sight in the sea spray.

I took my shoes off. I thought the damp sand would feel cold, but it didn't. I walked to the sea, and braced myself for an icy immersion as a ripple washed towards my feet. But it was all right. The sea water felt half-warm. Was that normal hereabouts for late September? Perhaps the Gulf Stream was functioning well this year. Those hurricanes hadn't sucked away all of the tropical heat. I was soon splashing my way along the water's edge, just for the hell of it. It was fun. And it was gratifying that the phone could capure the splashes so well, and somehow the mood also.

I wasn't the only person to respond to the sea and the sunshine. There were couples here and there enjoying it all just as much.

I seemed to be the only person there on their own. How the world was built around two people getting together! But I felt fine. I loved the distinction, the freedom, of oneness.

More strikingly-contorted cliffs. More dragons' teeth to rip the bottom from any vessel that the sea drove onto this shore. And something else. Orange growths, like giant fungus, attached to the rocky teeth. I had a closer look. Was it a sponge? Or something quite different? Where the waves had battered it, sections of this growth had been torn away, and its structure exposed. Hundreds of long, thin trumpet-like plants (or animals?) crowded together into one solid mass.

It looked creepy to me, and I didn't touch any of it. Was this a product of global warming? I couldn't remember seeing anything like this before. I took some shots, so that later on I could look it up and identify it, then walked away, glad to leave it behind. It didn't seem wholesome.

By this time I'd long given up any notion of driving onwards into Bude itself. So there was no rush to get away. I sat on a rock, rubbed the damp sand from my toes, and let the sunshine dry my feet.

It was a moment for contemplation. It was a moment to consider again the benefits of moving from Sussex to some spot between Bude and Barnstaple. But I'd been through all the pros and cons before. The conclusion had been, and still was, that in old age Sussex would be the best place. For the present, and for some years to come, I could easily come here as a holiday visitor. I was still able to travel 250 miles without the slightest issue. But one day I wouldn't be. And, rather sooner, I would become disinclined to face the upheaval of moving, and uprooting myself from where I was in Sussex. Sussex had better medical facilties, better amenities all round. But it didn't have beaches like this.

Expect this to be a recurring theme that won't go away: the pull of the sun, the sea, and the wild empty coast versus the pull of convenient living in a crowded county a bit too close to London.

Monday, 25 September 2017

While chickens cluck and owls hoot

Did something strike you about that last post? It was profusely illustrated with pictures, even though published from a caravan in a field deep in the North Devon countryside, and therefore using mobile internet only, the kind you get on your mobile phone. And in fact I was using my phone.

This is actually remarkable, that it's now possible to upload a post heavy with digital photos using a phone. In past years I struggled to publish even a text-only post: pictures were impossible, because the upload always timed out. I suppose that Vodafone's coverage in rural areas, or at least here, has been progressively upgraded. It does say '4G', but presently only one bar of signal strength. But it must be enough. Well, it means that I can put out an illustrated post while actually on holiday, and not have wait until I get home.

Of course, the pictures are reduced in size before being inserted into the text, and it's easiest to do that using a proper Windows program on the laptop. In fact my writing and publishing procedure in the caravan is this:

1. With the text of the post in mind, I select a batch of suitable photos to use and copy them into a separate desktop folder on my laptop. Then, using a Nikon photo-editing program, I batch-process all these copied shots, reducing the file size to 30% of the original, which strikes a good compromise between small size and image quality.
2. I write the post on my laptop, in html, which is plain text with punctuation and paragraph-creation tags. Using Bluetooth, I send this to my phone.
3. Using Bluetooth, I now send the reduced-size pictures to my phone.
4. On the phone now, I open the html document, select all the text, and copy it.
5. Opening Blogger, I select the 'New Post' option and the 'html' choice, then paste my post into the writing area. This done, I convert the html into standard rich text by switching from 'html' to 'compose'.
6. Now I insert whichever photos I am going to use.
7. After a quick tidy-up on line spacing and obvious typos, I hit the 'Publish' button and examine the result. This invariably reveals further typos to correct, spelling mistakes, and examples of stilted phrasing. I deal with these.

And that's it. A distinctly more convoluted procedure than publishing from home, but perfectly doable. I imagine that having a powerful phone helps, also a reasonable signal. But I'm amazed that it's possible to put out a fully-fledged post from deep countryside.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Lunch with crime author Ian Rankin

That went rather well. In fact, it exceeded expectations.

Today I attended the Appledore Book Festival Friends' Sunday Lunch - with renowned crime author Ian Rankin as the guest. That's right: Ian Rankin of Inspector Rebus fame. The privilege of being there was certainly worth the £20 paid for my 2017 Friend status - although that £20 also let me have first crack at booking tickets for the events on offer during the Festival, before the general public could apply. That was an important advantage to have. I booked a wide range of talks to attend, given by this year's authors. But some events do sell out very quickly, and it happened that tickets for the 'ordinary' Friends' Lunch - this year a yummy indian feast with chef Vivek Singh as the celebrity author - went very quickly indeed. The email to say 'Friends can now make their bookings!' came in as I was driving down to Kent. By the time I was home again that evening, the Friends' Lunch had sold out. Bugger.

Next day I phoned up to lament my bad luck, and ask if I could go onto a reserve list. 'Ah,' said local historian David Carter (he and his wife Jenny handle the Festival ticketing from their Gallery in Appledore, and they know me for a faithful Festival-goer), 'We may be able to arrange another lunch, not with Vivek Singh, but another author. Shall I put you on the list for that?' 'Yes, please, David!' 'And the Vivek Singh lunch too, in case there are any cancellations?' 'Oh yes please!' 'Done. You're seventh on the Vivek Singh reserve list. Sorry it can't be higher, but these lunches are always very popular.' 'I understand. Let's hope the alternative lunch takes place.' And it did get arranged, at the same limited-seating venue - The Seagate, Appledore's poshest hotel and dining spot on the quay - and I got my ticket as soon as the email came through.

So there I was, all dolled up in my best new outfit, at 2.00pm this afternoon. This is the outfit:

The restaurant at The Seagate is on a mezzanine section of the ground floor, towards the back of the building, and doors lead out onto a rear patio, where, if you don't mind the breeze, you can eat al fresco. There is a central round table, with several other tables around it, including one or two in snug alcoves. Mr Rankin was going to be on the central table. I chose the table with the best light coming from behind me, and therefore nicely illuminating anybody sitting opposite me on my table. In due course that would be Ian Rankin, for before and after the serving of the food he was going to visit each table in turn, sitting with its occupants and talking to them for a few minutes. I was keen to get a decent shot or two of him if I possibly could.

I was on my own, but there another person also there who was clearly not with anybody, so I caught his eye and asked him over. I didn't mind seeming to be Billie No-Mates, but it was better to offer company to another unattached person. His name was Chris. He lived in Bideford, and was actually married, but his wife was doing something else that afternoon. He was a very pleasant man. I had no problem at all chatting away with him. We faced two empty seats. Mr Rankin would sit in one of those. And if I dared to ask, and he acquiesced, I could nip into the seat beside him, and get Chris to take a few shots of us with Tigerlily. Serendipitously, it turned out that Chris was something of a photographer himself, and well-used to taking snaps with a phone. All set up, then!

And amazingly, I got what I wanted. Ian Rankin seemed to really enjoy meeting total strangers intent on asking him questions, and wanting a souvenir photo or two. What a top man. Mind you, I did wonder whether he was himself on the alert to discover people of singular personality or mannerisms whom he could use as models for characters in his books. Or at any rate, not get stuck with humdrum admirers. In which case, I hope he struck gold in my case. I may be mistaken, but (not unlike many of my friends) I am surely unconventional, and even frankly unusual, in the way I come across. And I wouldn't be offended if I were immortalised as a well-meaning but unbearable character in a future book!

Anyway, here are the shots of the man arriving - and giving our table a glance - and a little later, of him sitting with us, apparently in a high good humour. Many thanks, Chris!

Inevitability we concentrated on his creation Inspector Rebus, the Edinburgh detective with emotional baggage and a seriously unhealthy lifestyle. There wasn't time to enquire how much of the fictional character John Rebus was really drawn from the real-life Ian Rankin. A simple Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario seemed too glib. I wanted to know more. But I had a second chance to put a question to Mr Rankin after dessert, after Chris had left to have a walk around Appledore before catching his bus home. The restaurant was emptying, but the central table was still occupied with Ian Rankin, the romantic novelist Veronica Henry, and men from the press, one of them the photographer. There was one empty seat. Shamelessly, I walked over, asked if I could join them, and slid into that seat. I wasn't after photos now. I just wanted more conversation. Nobody seemed to mind. (You can never say of me that, in a situation like this, I lack bare-faced self-confidence)

I was sat next to the press photographer, and he was checking his recently-taken shots of veteran broadcaster Peter Snow and his wife. He let me see. I asked Ian Rankin what kind of shots he liked taken of himself. 'Well, nowadays I don't want any really,' he said, 'At least not the usual portraits you see on the covers of books.' And he told us how a writer friend of his - also in his fifties - went into contortions to make the paperback cover photo look good. He'd hide his sagging chin and throat by placing his right hand just so, then twist himself around to look over a shoulder. This performance (which Ian Rankin demonstrated) hid the effects of good living and encroaching older age, and it was what the publishers wanted anyway. When he had sat at our table, I noticed that he was drinking beer, and I'd said to him, 'I thought you were a whisky man?' And I'd offered to buy him one if he intended to linger after lunch. I now repeated that offer, but no, he was going for a stroll. Hey-ho, I tried! No chat at the bar then. It was however the nearest I'd yet got to securing a private interview with a celebrity writer.

Outside again, I immediately ran into Dave and Sandra, a couple from Milton Keynes who were holidaying in Appledore and staying at The Seagate. I'd sat next to them the previous day, at the Ann Cleeves event. We seemed to get on. We had apparently both visited Whitley Bay (where Ann Cleeves lived) on the same day last June. Then Chris arrived, his walk finished. Had I enjoyed my lunch with Ian Rankin? Oh yes! I showed them the best shot that Chris had taken of us together. Then I took a picture of the three of them:

Nice place, nice people.