Before I go any further I think I need to introduce you to the major characters on our Nepali adventure. Here in no particular order are the cast… they are not the only people we spent time or travelled with, but they feature prominently in the story.
This is Richard, or R for short, my best mate and love of my life. Ok, enough of the soppy stuff.
This is Naomi, or Na for short, a sweet of voice, multi instrumentalist bee expert and adventurer extraordinaire – and the major reason we got to go to Nepal.
And this is Narayan. How to describe Narayan? He is THE man, a multi tasking organising whirlwind who knows everybody, can get anything (at less than half price) and runs marathons in his spare time. And when I say he runs marathons, he runs them casually, for fun, and at very high altitudes.
Na and Narayan’s oldest kid Erica, a girl of extraordinary imagination and story telling prowess. She’s trekked in the high Himalayas and isn’t yet seven years old.
Here’s Emily, a cheerful funny girl with a foghorn voice and searchlight eyes who will charm – or talk you into – complete surrender.
And here’s Tanuska, the baby of the family. She might be small but don’t be fooled – she has the strongest will and a fiery temper, a big personality in a little body.
This is Na’s mum Di, otherwise known to all as granny. Kind, warm, wise and intrepid, she’s a real globetrotter.
Na is one of Richards oldest and best friends, and we’d been wanting to visit her and her family in Nepal for years. We spent a jetlagged day or two in Na and Narayan’s house in Godavary (a suburb of Kathmandu) but it wasn’t long before we started out on the first part of our journey – to Pokhara, and from there, Jomosom.
A couple of weekends ago now (how quickly the summer goes) R and I caught the train to Cookham to spend an afternoon walking along the drowsy bank of the River Thames and climb Winter Hill, where we would picnic in honour of the fullness of summer. Follow the Thames west of London up towards it’s source and you will barely recognise it as the murky waterway that bisects the city’s heart; indeed, follow it as far west as Oxford and it has another name – the Isis.
The day was hot and sunny with a refreshing breeze as we approached the flank of the Hill along a towpath riotous with wildflowers. The breeze however kept dragonflies and damselflies to a minimum, though we did get to see this little marvel, a female Beautiful Damoiselle.
Cookham is famous as the home of the visionary artist Stanley Spencer, who painted biblical scenes as if they had occurred in his native village. After viewing some of his oddly hallucinatory work in the Stanley Spencer Museum the landscape, already vivid in the summer heat took on a strange intensity as if I were looking directly through the artists eyes. Cookham is also a home to the arcane practice of Swan Upping, the ceremonial rounding up of mute swans by the Queen’s Swan Markers, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers. Cookham, in short, is as beautifully English as it gets, and more than mildly eccentric to boot.
One of the best reasons to visit this part of the world (apart from it’s singular beauty) is the chance to see Red Kites. Once almost extinct in the UK and still globally threatened, these spectacular birds ride the skies like no other bird I’ve ever seen, and around Cookham and Winter Hill there is a sizeable local population. On a previous visit we’d been startled by a tawny flash erupting from a wheat field right in front of us as one of these birds shot into the sky, leaving us gasping with disbelief. On that occasion we didn’t know that these birds were locally common, and while eating our picnic on the hill’s crest we shook our heads in wonder while watching more than one bird flirting with the breeze at eye level no more than twenty yards away. On this visit we got our first sighting while in the beer garden of the Bounty Pub, taking turns with the binoculars to watch a soaring pair while we slapped on sun cream, drank a sustaining coffee and prepared for our climb.
Don’t get me wrong; the climb is hardly arduous – I don’t know for sure but I’d be surprised if Winter Hill tops two hundred feet. It’s steep though, and the sun was bright and harsh. Lush vivid green meadows nodding with wildflowers clung to the slope and as we climbed it’s steepest point our hot faces drew level with Harebells, Clustered Bellflowers, Scabious. Butterflies commute busily between patches of flowers and at the top rabbits, unafraid, graze near the sheltering brambles.
The view from the top of Winter Hill on a beautiful late summer day repays the modest effort a thousandfold – the flat lands of the Thames roll out like a richly patterned carpet, and in the dancing shade of oak and ash we sat down to drink it all in.
No picture could do justice to the panorama of many coloured patchwork fields, the toy like train on it’s track, the subtle glint of the Thames below. We unpacked our picnic of strawberries and wine and toasted the sun dazed landscape.
Exploring the crest of the hill I was delighted to find some fat new Parasol Mushrooms growing up through dried out cow pats – Parasol mushrooms are good eating, but I’m always a little nervous about id’ing mushrooms in the field so we left them unmolested.
Further along I found this beastie gorging it’s-self on Ragwort. It’s the gaudy caterpillar of the just as gaudy Cinnabar moth, and it’s football jersey colouration serves as a warning to predators – keep away, I taste bad, I will make you very sick! It’s food plant – Ragwort – is full of poisonous alkaloids which the caterpillar stores safely in it’s body, rendering it, too, poisonous. They have a voracious appetite and will completely devour their host plant down to the ground, which will sometimes result in the caterpillars turning cannibal in the absence of anything else to eat. As this was the only Ragwort plant to be seen, and as it had already been quite comprehensively munched, and as there was only one caterpillar doing the munching… well I have to come to the conclusion that this greedy creature may well have been the sole survivor of a cannibal feast. Enough of the grisly nature lesson – don’t you think our stripy friend would look well sitting on a fully opened parasol mushroom – just like the caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland? The landscape may be full of gentle beauty, but just a quick glimpse of it at a different scale reveals a strangeness to match anything Lewis Carrol dreamed up.
Eventually it was time to dawdle our way back down and catch the train back to London. We thought we’d seen everything we could possibly want to see as we strolled along the river, scanning the waters with our binoculars for nothing in particular. Then I spotted this Great Crested Grebe diving, and soon it had a plump fish in it’s beak. Curious as to why it did not eat it’s prize immediately I kept the binoculars trained on the bird and was lucky to see it swim to it’s mate and give the fish to her – she could not dive for her own dinner because their chicks were riding upon her back, their fuzzy grey heads peeking out between her wings.
A misty spring morning a couple of weekends ago saw a group of us set out to explore the Long Man of Wilmington. At the start of our walk, in a valley buried in cloud and noisy with birdsong we couldn’t quite believe we would see anything, but as we climbed the haze lifted to give us one of our first truly glorious spring days and a vast panorama dissolving into the horizon.
On the approach to Windover Hill we chose to first climb the ridge to the top, thus hiding the Long Man from our view until we had picnicked at the top and made our descent. Spurred on by the exhilarating song flight of skylarks, buffeted by chilly winds and squinting in harsh sunshine we gained the top of the ridge, sank down into the stubbly grass and unpacked our goodies. Our bellies did very well for themselves, but perched on the precarious ridge with our legs braced against the drop we also feasted on this…
I’ve walked in higher places but this still felt like the top of the world. Where we sat and gobbled our food it was possible to steal a glance at the giant inscribed on the hillside just below our feet, but he’s so huge (and designed to be seen from below) that we could not make much sense of what we saw. Once we’d eaten it was time to go and inspect our enigmatic friend.
It seems no-one can agree on much where the Long man is concerned; although he looks ancient there are many who believe him to be a relatively modern creation. There is controversy over whether his outline was changed during a restoration attempt, and whether he is a war god wielding weapons or a man standing in a doorway. Even up close he is not as he seems; as we descended the hill and approached the white outlines which we had assumed were scratched directly into the chalk hillside they resolved into a kind of narrow stone pavement laid into the turf.
Whoever made him, he was designed to be seen from below and at a distance, and this is the best way to look at him and make your own mind up. He is an astonishingly powerful presence even if, as we agreed, it did look as if someone had botched up his feet a bit. I couldn’t see the war god in him at all, preferring the interpretation of someone standing at an entrance, hands on either side as if flinging open a set of doors, paused before entering or emerging. Of course no-one really has a clue or ever will, and therein lies the Long Man’s true secret… he makes you see what you want to see, we are all free to interpret him as we wish.
At a distance the sinuous curves of Windover Hill took on the aspect of a sleeping woman, curled up on her side. “He’s being born!” D exclaimed, and once he’d said that we could all see it too.
Yesterday I wrote of walking in a once-in-a-generation icy landscape, and mentioned that I had been transfixed by the sunset at the end of the walk. I’m going to save my words today and just show you the sunset that kept me outside that little bit longer.
For more beautiful and fascinating images of the sky around the world, visit Skywatch Friday!
At the start of the year, a week’s worth of sub zero temperatures accompanied by thick freezing fog transformed the Hampshire countryside around R’s parents. One short stroll in this uncanny landscape has to count as one of the most extraordinary walks I have ever taken anywhere.
The rolling contours of Hampshire’s giant industrially farmed fields still stubbled with the remains of last years crops had become a brittle confection, sugar dusted. Hedgerow branches hung furred with ice, which crackled and popped delicately if you touched it with your tongue. As we set off a flock of fieldfares whirled like bonfire ash, gleaning the frozen ground.
Visibility shifted – from ten yards to fifty then back to ten. At times the silent world rolled under my feet as would a treadmill, the landscape ahead not just invisible but wholly absent.
The bold silhouettes of my companions, sharp as cardboard cut-outs, faded to grainy photocopies then neatly dissolved into the white. All landmarks obliterated, the hard crackling ground under my feet became the only certain thing.
An occasional game crop – sunflowers or corn (left standing as fodder for Hampshire’s vast population of doomed pheasants) lent the landscape an almost apocalyptic air, frozen flower heads bent under rimes of frost an inch or more thick. For a moment I could picture refugees pouring through devastated frozen fields should a failing Gulf Stream plunge Britain into another ice age.
Crossing the empty fields felt like crossing a fog bound ocean, landmarks islanded in whiteness and fading in and out like ghosts. A spinney loomed out of the ground like a surfacing leviathan.
At our approach individual trees picked themselves out delicately in a lacy monochrome, sugared and perfect. Passing its edge the spinney now took on the aspect of a snow globe, and we the tiny people in it. A short detour among the trees revealed a world in negative – silver branches against a darker sky. White, silver, platinum, all in finer calibrations than you would ever suspect a human eye could see and way beyond the capabilities of my camera or my prose. Apart from the fieldfares at the beginning of our walk we didn’t see another moving thing, and the hedgerows were uncannily silent.
The fog began to clear, revealing a cheerless wintry sun hung in an opalescent sky. Colour seeped gently back into the landscape. At the end of our walk I paused to admire the sky while my small companion excitedly explained the complex world of Harry Potter. Everyone else seemed in a rush to get into the car, and I can’t blame them, but the sunset had me rooted to the spot.
To see the first set of my cold weather pictures, take a look at the previous blog post Through The Wardrobe. There will be more cold weather pictures soon!