On Friday evening I did something exceedingly rare. It may restrict my ability to enter South Australia or Queensland should I care to mix with crow-eaters or banana benders, but I crossed from the Australian Capital Territory into New South Wales. Literally metres across the border, from a COVID-free paradise to a COVID ‘hotspot’. It was worth it for the chicken wings.
Succumbing to a blunt instrument of parochial politics intending to win votes, I decided I might as well embrace the situation. It has been nearly three months since I had a day outside of the ACT which in this unprecedented year is as unprecedented as it gets. The question was, where to go? The coast road would be busy, Goulburn had been exhausted, and the mountains would still be a touch snowy.
The answer lay in the methodical planning that shapes most of my trips: locations in which you can generously support the local economy by eating food. Hearty country fare of slices and pies and – increasingly – epicurean delights intertwined with fine coffee. In this regard, Long Track Pantry in Jugiong offered a foothold from which to explore; though I would, in the end, leave this until the end. I was headed for the hilltops.
Outside of obligatory food stops in charming country towns, the benefit of exploring the Hilltops region of NSW at this time of year is the explosion of spring. Fields of golden canola hit you in the face as you turn a corner, as you crest a ridge. The #canolatrail has even become a thing, ideal for selfies and people looking for something to do which doesn’t involve going overseas.
It’s sometimes a little hard to safely find a place to pull off the road at 100kph to capture the luminescent glow of fields. And this being country Australia there is rarely a public footpath to be found, something I have decried over and over again. So you’re often whizzing past scenic delights and by time you realise there was a spot you could have stopped it is disappearing in the rear view mirror and you should really look out for that truck laden with hay coming straight at you.
But today things changed. Yes, it took me an inordinate amount of time to work this most obvious solution out, but I shoved my bike in the back of the car. Just in case.
And in and around Boorowa all my dreams came true. First, the coffee stop at The Pantry on Pudman could not have been better. I would happily go back there again. Then there was a cycle path beside the river. Not especially long but a nice, leisurely amble winding through a verdant land of green. The weather was sublime; heading over twenty degrees, I wore shorts for the first time in a long while. And a bright red T-shirt to attract the friendly greeting of the magpies who were delighted to see me, as warm and jovial as ever.
On this Tour de Boorowa, the streets were – unsurprisingly – wide and empty. A gradual climb up to the Col de Recycling Centre offered views over town. And the aptly named Long Road led me off into the countryside, where I stopped every hundred metres to admire my beautiful bike within a luscious backdrop.
And of course, there was the canola. Surely there can be no better way to experience this landscape than by bike. It may well inspire me to head off into the country on two wheels in the future. As long as it’s reasonably flat. And comes with an incentive like today. Wine perhaps. Or cheese. Or chocolate. Or slow roasted local lamb barbecued on coals. Or just simply an opportunity to do something in country NSW which makes a border crossing worthwhile. Vive Le Tour!
Traditionally, the end of June has come to resemble a key juncture in my life: the culmination of the financial year acting as impetus for all sorts of project completions and invoice requirements and quick-turnaround work tasks. Traditionally.
Traditionally I would also, thanks to this purple patch, begin turning my attention to a trip overseas, to Europe, escaping some of winter and connecting again with treasured family and friends. Traditional cream teas would compete with a traditional trip to Looe for a pasty and a traditional offload of dirty laundry to Mum.
But tradition has been chucked out of the window. Of a twenty storey building. Then trampled over by a herd of elephants before being set on fire alongside a car park full of dumpsters. Attempts at home made pasties and Tilba cream prove B-grade substitutes. I continue to do my own laundry. The end-of-financial-year hubbub is subdued.
In many previous years it would have been unimaginable heading for a day out on the 29th June. Unless it was to a beige motel to complete some frantic discussion about something of great importance with eight citizens of Goulburn. All to get the country perspective. Perhaps it was some innate response mechanism propelling me up the Federal Highway today. To get another country perspective.
In COVID escapes from Canberra I think things peaked with a day on the South Coast. A trip to Goulburn was never really going to compete, even if I could stop off at Collector again for coffee. Still, I managed to find a couple of attractions along with a decent, good value spot to pick up some treats for later. Which always helps.
At Marsden Weir, the Wollondilly River forms an attractive body of water by which to amble. On a kink in the river, the sturdy red brick building of the Goulburn Historic Waterworks adds even more spice. There is a touch of Victorian endeavour about it – quite a rarity in Australia – and you can imagine Tony Robinson visiting it on his fourteenth series of Mildly Interesting Places in Regional New South Wales. He would explain how the waterworks were constructed in 1885 and form – wait for it – the “only complete, steam powered municipal water supply left in its original location, in the Southern Hemisphere.” Quite a lot of caveats to prominence there.
Being a weekday in midwinter and almost the end of the tax year there were just a handful of curious souls nosing around at the waterworks. You could – though – imagine banks of people in summer, supping locally-brewed ales and indulging in hearty lunches by the water. Perhaps a nearby cottage would supply cream teas and coffee and walnut cake. This is all in my dreams of course; nothing of the like seems to happen here. But perhaps it should be the way forward when we can all meet again.
Another prominent sight sits atop a hill which I have often glimpsed at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour on the way to Sydney. This is the Rocky Hill War Memorial Tower and there is a road up to its base. The tower was constructed in 1925 and you can walk to the top – after an application of hand sanitiser – to take in the scene. This provides a fine overview of Goulburn, spreading out on the southwestern side of the rail line. In the foreground, Goulburn East has its own, historic village feel going on, segregated from the rest of town by wetlands and a golf course. If I were to live in Goulburn, perhaps I would choose here; it just seems to have a touch more charm.
I ate my takeaway lunch overlooking the landscape from the hill and mulled over what to do for the remainder of the day. Being only lunchtime, I had seemingly exhausted the sights of Goulburn, with the obvious exception of the Big Merino. North of the tower some attractive bushland hills promise exploration but seem devoid of any walking trails. Far better to head to somewhere reliable, somewhere familiar, somewhere spectacular.
Bungonia National Park is probably the closest manifestation of rugged sandstone gorge country to Canberra and – of course – Goulburn. It is a landscape typical of much of the country surrounding the Sydney Basin, with heroic rivers carving out precipitous cliffs and deep ravines. As well as millions of eucalyptus, these landscapes are home to a few of my favourite things, including numerous lookouts.
Having been here several times before, I initially took a walk on the Orange Track. It’s probably the least exciting of the trails but offers a fairly easy stroll through open forest to a pleasant enough view in between the trees. You can tell it’s not going to be the most dramatic walk since the description suggests you might see a koala – surely only there to try and keep the kids occupied. What struck me more than anything was the absolute peace and quiet. Perhaps this was balm to the freneticism and clamour of downtown Goulburn.
It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but any mid-morning brightness had largely disappeared to a layer of white and grey. There were even a few spots of rain as I neared Bungonia Lookdown. Here, a platform leads out towards and dangles over the valley. It is a captivating, spectacular scene dramatically ruined by a quarry nestled in a hilltop to the north. But retaining focus on the valley, a few miracle shafts of sunlight suddenly appear to conjure up some kind of prehistoric lost world.
There is even a hint of rainbow in the air, but this quickly fades along with the sun and the rain. Yet I feel brightened and warmed by this visit and an appreciation once again of how lucky I am to be here today. To have this sort of wilderness on your doorstep. If you consider a ninety minute drive via the city of Goulburn your doorstep.
While Bungonia definitely lifted the day, there was clear benefit in stopping in Goulburn which became realised at my final stop. Adams Lookout provides another stunning view into Bungonia and – in particular – the narrow defile of Slot Canyon. There was something about the squidgy datey syrupy oaty nutty sugary slice that I had bought earlier that lifted things to another level. I daresay I would travel to Goulburn again to get my hands on one.
It was no cream tea but just the tonic to power me home. I even found a different route back which surprised me by being sealed the whole way – down to Tarago and back on familiar roads from Bungendore. Thus to experience the wonders of Bungonia you could actually avoid Goulburn entirely. Though I doubt if I will. I feel more likely a new experience, a new tradition has now been born.
Confinement within the boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory may sound like a nightmare to some people – mostly us privileged types who can jokingly equate it to being in prison. All without actually ever facing the very real prospect of being imprisoned. Still, I suppose it could be tough to be restricted within the clutches of a modern, affluent, well-resourced city without access to an episode of Fawlty Towers that has been shown a zillion times already in my lifetime. Oh the suffrage some people have to endure!
Other than perhaps anywhere in New Zealand, this city – Canberra – has arguably been the best place in the world to be of late. Okay, it is getting a bit chully now, but I can warm myself up with great coffee and a walk in one of the many suburban parks, bushland reserves, and panoramic hills. I have been doing a lot of that lately.
We have also been largely spared – for now – the health calamity that is Coronavirus. One hundred and eight confirmed cases in total. Only one of whom emerged in the last month: emerging from overseas and allowed to travel to Canberra because of a novel form of protection called Diplomatic Immunity. Everyone I have spoken to suspects a Yank. Because, well, you know.
Due to this good fortune and what can be fairly summarised as competent management – when did basic competence become the gold standard some of us can only yearn for from our leaders – restrictions have eased over time. Yes, the rules can seem a tad bewildering, requiring a protractor and solid understanding of trigonometry as well as a ready supply of hand sanitiser and guarded interaction. But now I can do things I would never do anyway, such as participating in a bootcamp or going to church. Never in a month of Sundays. Still, it is nice to feel like you could do them.
As of the start of this month, we were also allowed to travel outside of the ACT for leisure purposes. Being largely content in the territory, I didn’t rush off down to the coast on the first day of restrictions easing like half of the population, despite that particular day being grey, cool, and windy. Neither did I really leverage any benefit from not one, but two public holidays: one to acknowledge first Australians and promote reconciliation and harmony, the other to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s non-birthday. Yeah, go figure.
I think somewhere in my walking rambles during the midst of containment I made a sarcastic comment about the prospect of a day trip to Goulburn being something to look forward to. It was the kind of comment everyone not living in Canberra was making about Canberra. For us, we always have Goulburn. So, the day came when I finally decided I could set foot across the border and where better to head than Goulburn. Only I never actually made it; there is only so much excitement one can take after all.
About two-thirds of the way between Canberra and Goulburn is the small village of Collector. It is well-known in these parts for its pumpkin festival, an annual spectacular that fell victim this year to COVID cancel culture, a situation that probably explains why I can now buy a whole pumpkin for 99 cents. Beyond the soothing sounds of the Federal Highway and a growing population of scarecrows with gourd faces, what does Collector have to offer, I mused?
The first thing to highlight is a very fine coffee stop. To tell the truth, this is why I decided I could rationalise my first escape from the ACT to what is largely a featureless paddock on the fringe of waterless Lake George. It’s called Some Café and it benefits from a proximal relationship to the capital. Housed in a heritage building along with a wine tasting area, it conjures country charm with hipster-infused chill. I feel the cake display could be enhanced, but the coffee was indeed very fine and the cheese and ham toastie the stuff of the dreams I have been having ever since I watched that episode of Masterchef where they made toasties in the first round. Cheesy dreams.
Incidentally, upon leaving the café I noticed the logo resembles someone washing their hands. I mean, it might be clapping at the borderline pretentious latte art or rubbing your hands with glee at the prospect of Pialligo smoked bacon in a Three Mills bap. But in this day and age it is definitely someone washing their hands. Given this logo was there before the onset of COVID-19, one can actually imagine a handful of conspiracy theorists directing their unending keyboard war at a small café in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. There is even a phone mast on the nearby ridge for goodness sake!
Dodging death rays and applying sanitiser positioned at the exit, I moved on to explore the rest of Collector. Outside of pumpkin festival time it is eerily quiet, apart from the hum of trucks upon the nearby highway. Everyone is probably in church, given the village (population 313) has three from which to choose: Anglican, Uniting and Catholic. Penance for the bushrangers.
The other place of worship in town is the pub, the Bushranger Hotel, with rooms looking out over farming country and a weird labour of love known as the Dreamer’s Gate. A gothic sculpture formed from cement and chicken wire, it resembles something that would feature in the Gunning and Breadalbane Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Harry Potter and the Golden Horned Trans Merino. I can’t say I’m a massive fan, but I admire the dedication of its artist and his ability to piss off half of the locals.
Looping back towards Some Café from here, the road ran alongside a patch of farmland and the narrow course of Collector Creek. Given rain, it’s pleasant enough country with water even visible in the creek; not something that is guaranteed I’m sure.
It was around this point I was thinking how nice it would be to have a walk in the countryside. Yet this doesn’t really seem to be a thing in Australia – walking tracks are largely concentrated in some national parks and city reserves. There isn’t the same antiquated network of lanes and byways with right to roam as in the UK. So much country is locked out to the public, fenced off, dug away, blown up, guarded by deadly snakes. I think it’s a shame and also a missed opportunity. Imagine the benefits, for instance, if you were more impelled to pull off the Federal Highway and head into Collector, have a good coffee and a slice of cake, set off on a ramble for a few hours, and finish up in the pub. The same could be said for Gunning, Yass, Crookwell, Taralga, Tarago, Bungendore etc etc. Landholders unite!
Leaving Collector I did at least find something akin to a country lane. Eschewing the highway, I took a narrow road full of potholes towards the even smaller settlement of Breadalbane. It was so narrow (for Australia) that at one point I had to pull in to allow the only other car on it to proceed towards Collector. I’m not saying it would be a great walk or anything, but I definitely saw some cycling potential. For a start, it was mostly flat, with a small rise at what I think would be a good turn around point. It was very open, so you would see oncoming traffic. There are country sights to absorb, mostly sheep. And you could of course start and finish at Some Café, a cyclist’s dream. Just need to pick a wind-free, mild day. Perhaps Spring.
At what must have been Breadalbane I was starting to get a bit giddy being around fifty kilometres away from the ACT border. I could have turned right for Goulburn but thought I would save that for another exciting day out. Left was Gunning and – true to form, true to the real purpose of this day out – I knew of a good café there. By time I prevaricated and pottered about a little it would be acceptable afternoon tea hours.
A little shy of Gunning there is a small bridge over a small creek offering a sense of intimacy among a big land and big sky. It’s a peaceful scene, with a rail crossing and old pumphouse rising above a landscape that may occasionally flood. It would probably make another fine spot to set off on a walk, following the waterway and gradually climbing up to the gentle hills of the Cullerin Range, bedecked with wind turbines and unending views. All I can do is stop by the road and wait for clouds to blow through to reveal the sun.
The main reason I pause here is not only to kill time before afternoon tea, but to compare thee to a summer’s day. I came this way for the first time in December; those pre-COVID days that were only mired in ravaging drought, catastrophic bushfires and ‘Getting Brexit Done’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Back then, a few sheep were grazing under the bridge, clinging to remnant water like everything else seeking survival. In the sweet spot around February – the only two weeks of 2020 that were any good – the rains finally arrived. And today the sheep are nowhere to be seen, happily grazing elsewhere in a land of plenty.
Talking of grazing, the time for afternoon tea was getting closer, though I dragged things out a little further by taking in the sights of Gunning. This didn’t take too long, but I at least discovered a rough track through a park that followed a creek and for a few hundred metres resembled something akin to the replication of a simulation of a fake countryside walk. Leading from here I also ambled through a back lane decorated with the occasional section of crumbling brickwork overtaken by rampant undergrowth. In one garden, a Merino chewed upon the lawn, oblivious to the perils of a rusting trampoline.
Gunning has just the one high street offering an eclectic mix of styles and wares. A large warehouse hosts agricultural supplies. A row of Victorian-era shops display almost antiques and woollen craftwork. A garage straight out of the Midwest services passing trade. There is of course a pub and a couple of cafes to lure people off of the Hume Highway.
It was also back in dry December that I popped into one of these – the Merino Café – for a morning coffee accompanied by a delicious caramel macadamia ANZAC slice concoction. Back then it was justified by a desire to support small country communities doing it tough through the drought. Today it was about spending money in small businesses trying to get back on their feet through the COVID crisis. There is always some rationale and worthiness in cake.
The slice, along with several other varieties of fat and sugar, was still there, but a counter-top display of scones tempted and teased. Accepting the reality of disappointing cream, I was still tempted enough. And, yes, the cream was disappointing, but the scone itself was rather good.
All I needed now was a bloody good walk to burn off some of the indulgence. Looking at the map, the closest place for a bloody good walk in reality was Canberra. Yes, for all the breaking out of borders, I have to return to Canberra to go for a walk. You get the point. Country NSW: Cakes plentiful. Walks lacking.
I did at least take a stroll that included views of country NSW, discovering yet another small section of Mulligans Flat including more of its border fence. With a lowering afternoon sun and a combination of farmland and forest vistas, it was just the tonic after those relatively sedate and calorific country pursuits.
And then, with clouds congregating in a fashion that could yield a sunset spectacular, I made a last-minute call to stay out and see what might happen. Now back in the heart of Canberra I parked the car near Government House and wandered beside the lake. The sunset spectacle never really eventuated, but the light and tranquillity reminded of why this lucky little city is still one of the best places to be right now.
In fact, it’s even proving popular to those who live outside its boundaries. Among the entrails of dubious information and petulance located on Twitter I came across an article about how a trip to Canberra was generating excitement for those so confined in their oppressive Sydney bubble. Haw-bloody-haw. What do you think this is, Goulburn or something? Just don’t take all our cakes when you come here. And call in on a few towns and villages along the way.
Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?
It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.
What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.
There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.
The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.
The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.
From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.
This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.
It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.
With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.
The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.
I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.
The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.
I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).
Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.
You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.
And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.
You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.
Mostly this week I have been feeling cold. This is through no fault of the weather, which has undoubtedly shifted to something more temperate, more forgiving, more damp. Weather which is playing its part in soothing the horrors of summer, though a touch too excitedly in places. Creating – as I heard one survivor from Mogo on the radio frustratingly put it – a big green cover up.
No, my feeling of chilliness has undoubtedly arisen from human-induced climate change, which is preposterously adding to the – well – accumulation of emissions leading to human-induced climate change. No ifs or buts or false equivalence please. Air-conditioning can be the devil incarnate as well as angel descending.
Why oh why oh why must I feel so cold on a bus to Sydney, in a hotel lobby, in a meeting room, on a plane? Perhaps it is just me and a loopy thyroid, but I wasn’t the only one reaching for a winter coat on the bus. Not that I had a winter coat to draw on; the only long-sleeved apparel being a work shirt to throw over my frigid arms. It was quite the look, especially when I added a cap to minimise heat loss.
An underwhelming sense of fashion continued in Sydney as I ventured out into the Eastern Suburbs. In a turn up for the books so far this year, outside was proving the place to be – around 23 degrees, mostly cloudy, a gentle breeze. Perfect weather for cruising along the Eastern Suburbs Expressway also known as the Bondi to Coogee coast walk.
It’s a decent enough walk to require sustenance, so I strategically commenced in Bondi with a favourite pile of seafood. The beach was fairly busy – as you’d expect on a Sunday in February – but there is enough green space surrounding the bay to get your own little plot of land. Around me, every other person Facetiming to someone a million miles away, absent, distant. Nearby, a scruffy young guy settles down with a guitar, assuming the world near and far wants to be entertained by his derivative Passenger twaddle. It’s time to get moving.
I have completed this walk plenty of times in the past, but not for a few years. Apart from a steady flow of backpackers and tourists still allowed in from Asia, it’s typically traversed somewhat rapidly by idols of athleticism and toned contours unashamedly wearing tight-fitting garments. Who, despite being in the throes of exercise, manage to maintain a pristine, immaculate visage. I have always thought this as an impractical, impeded course for running, but perhaps that’s not the point.
Approaching the glamour of Tamarama, I realise I am wearing a pair of trainers from Big W, shorts that are at least three years old and – I’m pretty sure – a T-shirt discovered in the middle aisle of Aldi. In my cheap rags, multi-million dollar homes surround me, taking in the same view. Likely occupied by people who only know Big W as the name of the racehorse they stable in the Hunter Valley; Aldi is their gardener from Romania, perhaps. I bet they hate us walking by. But we are walking by.
Walking by BronteBeach and around the cemetery, through the cove of Clovelly, up the worse steps to circumnavigate Gordons Bay, and down again into Coogee. An egalitarian scene of Sunday sessions, volleyball, buckets and spades and barbecues. The beach has been in better shape, seemingly plagued by masses of seaweed that are surely something to do with the weird weather and warming seas. By now I finally feel a tad toasty, but ice cream proves the best way to cool back down.
So back it is onto an airconditioned bus, to an airconditioned hotel to prepare for a day in an airconditioned room. I awake snug and keen to get a dose of fresh air – something that has been really rare – before plunging into the human-induced icebox. From my window, a sliver of green nestles in a fold between the heights of Bondi Junction and Bellevue Hill and I walk that way. To a little miracle.
Cooper Park Reserve is an almost hidden oasis within some of the most opulent land in Sydney. Just a few minutes down from six lane expressways and clogged up arterial roads, somehow the sides of the gully shield the world of SUVs and private school drop offs. A dappled rainforest of gurgling water and tree ferns, the fragrant lemon and eucalyptus scent presenting a cleansing experience in the cool early morning. Surprisingly there are few others running and looking immaculate doing so, and I am able to ascend the many steps at the end without too much shame.
In a window distant, the towers of central Sydney loom large, shimmering like temples to the unstoppable commute. For me, it is onto a chilly train, bypassing under this city and out to Parramatta. Where equally chilly tower blocks await. Later, a chilly taxi crawls to the airport, where I am temporarily warmed by a beer with an old friend. We depart for chilly planes home through chillier skies. And, for once, arriving in Canberra there is the greatest relief at disembarking into the balmy evening air of a city getting back to its best.
What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.
This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.
Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.
Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.
Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.
Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…
Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.
Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.
And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.
It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.
What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.
The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.
The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.
With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.
This region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.
With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.
Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.
Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.
I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.
This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.
The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.
Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.
Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.
And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.
Supposedly some of the world’s most liveable cities are in Australia; yet surely not when the climate sears. A haze of dust and smoke blows in, hanging with diesel fumes unimpeded by a reverence for industry. Sitting heavy over a cityscape of cranes and glass, whose streets are lined with withering European trees, roots bulging in defiance at the constraints of baked concrete. Impetuous car horns compete with the pulse of a pedestrian crossing, as you wait to seek solace in the air conditioning of a mall, hoping the flies will not seek solace too.
But these are – in context – mild irritants, and you walk across the harbour bridge and all can be forgiven. I think Sydney knows this too, hence a certain resting on laurels, safe in the knowledge that people will continue to flock to its shorelines regardless of unaffordable homes and congested roads.
The unaffordable and congested were in ample supply as I decided to while away an hour or two before some appointments with a Friday morning visit to Balmoral, hopeful of a coffee and brief stroll on the sand. By time I got there it was around ten in the morning, already thirty degrees, and devoid of any parking space whatsoever. After a few circuits of various backstreets, I had to resign myself to defeat and head back to where I came from. The air conditioned mall in Chatswood.
Pleasingly, the other side of my work stuff proved more fulfilling, and that was in spite of a crawl through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. Clearly less glamorous than the bridge, but usually more efficient at spitting you out into the Eastern Suburbs. Spitting me out with a little extra fairy dust to nab a brilliant parking space in close proximity to Bronte Beach.
By now, the weather had cooled substantially, and a stiff breeze had kicked in to impart a touch of drizzly moisture here and there. Indeed, the late afternoon had become gloomy, a state of affairs that feels far more liveable than it looks in the brochures. Brightening things up – and almost as much a pleasant surprise as my parking space – was the annual Sculptures by the Sea parade, in which the range of photo poses and selfie contortions are a work of art in themselves.
Reaching Bondi – oh hallowed be thy name – I was determined to find a favourite little seafood haunt from times past; this was, after all, the prime reason I had not driven straight back to Canberra and had pottered about sufficiently to arrive at an acceptable time for dinner. And there it wasn’t. And there I was thinking why didn’t I just drive back to Canberra and have KFC at Marulan Service Centre instead? And there it was, on a different, quieter, cheaper street and life in Sydney was liveable for a few minutes again.
A couple of weeks later, half of New South Wales on fire, and I was heading in the other direction to Melbourne. An archnemesis that frequently beats Sydney as being proclaimed one of the world’s most liveable cities. Expanding rapidly, it is soon to overtake Sydney in population which – if taken as an indicator of popularity alone – is enough to cause the residents of Vaucluse to choke on their breakfast oysters.
Melbourne was – typical Melbourne – half the temperature of Sydney and a darn sight cooler than the world’s most liveable city, Canberra. It is sometimes proclaimed the most European of Australian metropolises, which means cloud and showery rain and a sometimes dingy – some may say grungy – countenance. And also, trams, which laugh in the face at numerous contemporary attempts to retrofit light rail elsewhere, like a wizened professor in a pokie room full of drongoes.
That’s not to say Melbourne is anything but Australian, amply illustrated in its awesomely good coffee and obsession with sport. It also has beaches upon Port Phillip Bay – nothing that would give Sydney a run for its money but fair dinkum true blue Aussie nonetheless. The sun even came out late afternoon as I headed over to the bay at St Kilda, and things were reasonably comfortable. Liveable even.
It was here that I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t been to St Kilda in – say – ten years or so, prompted by a certain gentrification that had taken place and the adornment of waterside bars dressed up slightly on the wrong side of pretentiousness. This prompted further reflection on how long I have lived in Australia, to the extent that I can now say ‘it wasn’t like this in the old days’ while simultaneously waving my fist at a cloud.
One thing that hadn’t changed was the pier, stretching out into the increasingly cold, stiff breeze, sheltering the city of Melbourne in its lee. A pier popular for evening strolls by people better prepared for the weather than me. How can I need a coat while a country burns? Even here, though, a sign of what is called progress, as most of the people wrapped up head out in the hope of a selfie with a little penguin at dusk. I retreat.
So, the big smokes, Sydney and Melbourne, sometimes chalk and sometimes cheese, sometimes infuriating, sometimes enthralling. A dictionary definition of liveable would be something akin to providing the core requirements for life, such as oxygen and water. I might also add the provision of good coffee and availability of fish and chips or salt and pepper squid and tempura vegetables.
You’d think the latter is more Melbourne while the former is all Sydney. But for me it was vice versa, the fish and chips the target of seagulls on St Kilda Beach, just for that extra European touch. If I had another jumper and another million dollars and an escape option from the oppression of another inevitable choking summer, I could probably live here, and I could probably live in Sydney too. If nothing else, I’d sure know some good spots for dinner.
Late Friday afternoon on the road between Braidwood and Bungendore and the wind is buffeting my car as it trundles into the sleety clouds of winter. I’m returning from the coast, where two hours before I was eating lunch on a sheltered cove saturated in warm sunshine. It’s a slightly weary drive and, for some reason, I decide to play The Lightning Seeds for probably the first time in twenty years.
After several jaunty, scousish ditties that sound identical, the sage words of Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill emerge as the infectious, glorious, deprecating anthem that is Three Lions blares out. I cannot listen to this without bobbing my head a little, chanting, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As much as you might try. It’s Coming Home! At least I hope so, in light of the possible blizzard up ahead.
It’s Coming Home. Euro 96. An era that now feels halcyon, days when the Donald and BJ were still complete dicks but at least not complete dicks inexplicably leading disunited states and precarious kingdoms. Back in 1996, John Major was trundling his way towards the end of years of Tory rule, a regime which now somehow seems sane and reasonable. The Spice Girls were zig-a-zag-ahing and both Mitchells were polishing their heads behind the bar of the Queen Vic. I was completing my first year of university, undistracted by a phone, immune from the ranting coalescence of conspiracy lunatics on the internet.
I don’t remember that much about my university course (who does?), but in a convoluted way which coincidentally brings us back to the present I suppose it led me to be in the South Coast NSW town of Narooma on a mild, golden evening in August 2019. I studied, I got a job, I travelled, I went back to that job, I transferred to Australia with that job and I ended up on a boardwalk meandering past calm and clear waters toward the ocean.
Did I ever imagine back in 1996 that I would be gazing out to the Pacific hoping to sight a whale? Meandering downhill alongside gardens strewn with exotic plants and colourful birds? Wandering past parks dotted with electric barbecues and sinks for dealing with the entrails of fish? Who would have thought I would have previously parred the treacherous Bogey Hole of that golf course wedged between the town and the plunging cliffs of the coastline? Certainly not me, or anyone else, which is why I bring it up again.
Even with its ageing hackers, Narooma is a pretty quiet kind of place, especially in a midweek in winter when the temperature has dipped to something around nineteen degrees. It’s tough going, having to put a light jumper on as the sun disappears behind Gulaga, pondering whether to have fish and chips for dinner or wait until tomorrow.
While I know Narooma pretty well, the first night in a strange place always seems to lead to a fitful sleep, even when you’ve opted to forego fish and chips. Waking too early the next day, the murmurings of RN Breakfast do little to inspire or send me back to doze, so I head out into the dark. I love this time of day, especially beside the ocean; facing east as the black fades to blue and grey and red and yellow, and shafts of sunlight glitter off the sea. The sun kisses the layers of morning cloud, spreading to the tops of trees, and illuminating the coffee shop on the hill. A beacon which makes the reward of an early start in Australia all the better.
With plenty of the day still ahead I took the car for a little explore south of Narooma, stopping first in the so-good-they-named-it-twice hamlet of Tilba Tilba before heading on to the relative bustle of Central Tilba. This is a corner of the county oozing genuine charm, with plenty of tin roofs and lacework awnings, flower-filled yards and rustic leftovers. By Australian standards it’s usually a green and lush place as well, which is great for local dairy products; but even here the drought looked to be taking its yellowing toll.
Given my early start it was probably pushing it to head to the bakery in Central Tilba for local produce straight away, so I took a gentle amble along the track which eventually leads to the top of Gulaga, the dominant, forest-clad peak of the area, spiritually significant to the local Yuin people. You can walk to the top, but I wasn’t really in the mood and I heard that summit views were lacking. The valley was perfectly happy enough.
Did I mention dairy products? One of my favourite topics which, back in 1996, probably didn’t come with any moral distaste from ethically sourced eco-vegan leftists typing away on their not-so-pure iPhones. I guess at a philosophical level, there is valid debate as to whether we can still have our cake and eat it? At an individual level, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only in Tilba, home to Jersey Cows and related outputs. But also in Bodalla, a pitstop on my journey into and out of Narooma and for all journeys this way in the future. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
South of Tilba, the main highway veers off towards Bermagui, along a splendid road of eucalyptus forest and the shores of Wallaga Lake. The maps indicate a few coastal rock formations here, names suggesting a likeness to horses and camels which enticed me to explore with the hope of discovering an Australian Durdle Door or Bedruthan Step. While there was not quite the same grandeur, the coastal scenery, now bathed in warm sunshine, proved a tonic after that massive apple turnover.
It was pleasing to discover I was on part of the ‘Great South Coast Walk’ according to a few signposts. This doesn’t appear to be an official trail but may yet develop into something more formal. One of my bugbears with Australia is that it doesn’t seem to have the same right to roam philosophy as the UK. Huge tracts of land are locked up in private hands or just downright inaccessible unless you have Ray Mears on hand with a machete and / or a big gas guzzling ute. Being able to just rock up anywhere on the coast and walk has an appeal unmatched. See, for example, South West Coast Path.
It was along this walk, overlooking the expanse of Wallaga Lake, that I learnt of another resemblance in the landscape around here. Gulaga is a pregnant woman, partly explaining its significance to the Yuin people who were here well, well before 1996. Today, its fertility abounds as a cluster of whales drift down the coast, mother and calf distant white caps sporadically splashing in the rich waters.
I probably wouldn’t have spotted the whales if it wasn’t for a couple of retired locals staked out on a headland near Horse Head Rock. For me, this is usually the most successful method of spotting wildlife. If you’re driving in country Australia and a cluster of people have pulled over to look up at a tree, there’s a fair chance you’ll get to see a koala. The other way you tend to discover local wildlife is when you nearly run it over. Beware Wombats.
Spurred on by earlier whale sightings I ended the day back up near Narooma, taking a scenic coastal drive alongside Dalmeny and Kianga which boasts several panoramic viewing platforms along the way. The platforms are sited in between yet more pristine bays that you can have all to yourself. It was at the last of these points that I glanced a surfing dolphin, followed by a few more and a few more still. Passing below, there must have been around twenty dolphins, tracking north on a feeding mission. A whole two football teams.
I doubt I would have seen dolphins in 1996. Nor would I be questioning the prospect of snow in August, even counting for British weather. Today, this was a possibility heading back to Canberra thanks to a vigorous succession of cold fronts coming from the Antarctic. My solution was to linger down on the coast for as long as possible.
It was undoubtedly windy, but the skies were blue and with a little shelter you could sit comfortably in a light sweater or even T-shirt. Neither of which were really possible in the blustery settings of Cullendulla Creek and the nearby Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, but these were attractive diversions nonetheless. At the gardens, the stronger gusts were a tad alarming and it felt only a matter of time before a branch would fall on my head. Mercifully it didn’t, and the march towards Spring carried on.
Just north of Batemans Bay – and the road junction back to Canberra – the graceful, tall spotted eucalypts of Murramarang National Park were probably less appealing to walk through today. Especially when picking a walk that follows a ridgeline facing the bay, directly exposed to the strong southwesterlies. The crashing chaos, the constant buffeting, the noise and fury do not entice a pause to look up and marvel. Impulsion instead for a brisk pace and the hope of respite on the other side. And what gentle and idyllic contrast this proves.
A bay with no-one and nothing. Nothing but calm clear waters, untouched sand and the backing of a gently whispering bush. A driftwood log, downed in some other storm and also finding its way to this paradise, is now a perfect setting for a late lunch. The breathlessness is not only in the air, the warmth not only on the outside. Perhaps even in 2019, these are still the days, this is still the life.
It is a fact truer than anything to have ever come out of the British Prime Minister’s mouth that I will always take up an opportunity to work in Brisbane in July. While the locals may gripe about the icy depths of winter where overnight it might just slip below double digits and require a good for humanity coal fire, I’ve packed two pairs of shorts. And just the one jumper.
And a raincoat. For it is even truer that Queensland is far from beautiful one day, perfect the next; a dubious marketing slogan dreamt up by mediocrities that continues apace in the supposed Sunshine Coast, a place frequently sodden by epic downpours and possessing a clammy mildew befitting the swampy subtropics. Saturday here was so damp that the highlight was a doughnut, and even that wasn’t much of a highlight, more a triumph of social marketing style over substance.
Queensland: pissing down one day, sweaty the next. The sweatiness emerging on Sunday as the sun makes an appearance, triggering rising heat and rampant moisture. Liquid particles are lifted by ocean gusts, filtered ineffectually through the thrum of air conditioning to congregate in damp surf club carpets. Puddles among snake-infested flood plain linger, waiting for passing birds and passing property developers to drain. The ubiquitous HiLux secretes fluids while idling outside Red Rooster, as a leftover billboard of some redneck running for parliament gazes down approvingly. Just thank the lord or some other unelected deity that it is not yet high summer.
Indeed, the sweatiness is relatively tolerable this time of year and is alleviated by the pleasure of wearing shorts in midwinter. As dark clouds sweep north to reveal a sky of blue, there is an hour of pleasant sunshine on the coast, a welcome companion on a bare-legged walk along the beach and promenade to Mooloolaba. I rest at Alex Heads watching sandcastles being built and surfers being demolished, and sharks being hidden just out of site. Probably. It’s not even a whole day let alone an entirety of existence, but for a few moments it seems that things are beautiful, tending towards perfect.
Somewhat annoyingly the sunshine was a sign of an improving pattern of weather as I returned to Brisbane and the prospect of work. On the plus side, there was a bit of downtime and a later flight back to Canberra on the warmest day of the week, giving me the opportunity to don shorts once again, while all around me wore coats. And then there was the hotel I was staying in, which was rather fine with its rooftop pool and terrace overlooking the ever rising city and the ever flowing brown of the Brisbane River.
Actually, the hotel was somewhat funky and felt more like a spot for special treat bogan holidays and shadowy foreign gambling syndicates fast-tracked by Border Force than a place where weary businesspeople rest their weary heads. In my room there was a wine fridge, the TV was in the mirror (what?!), and there were a series of illuminated switches that operated a configuration of lights that I never was able to master. Switches that glow in the dark and give a sense of Chernobyl as you try to sleep. Only the lift was more luminescent, alternating between being in a Daft Punk video and a fish tank of the Barrier Reef before it got bleached.
Walking out of the lift and onto the street was a sure way to ease a headache, especially as outside it was warm and sunny and just oozing that relaxed vibe that comes with a level of warmth and sunniness. Think how England feels when the misery of flooding rain and gloom dissipates for a freakish sunny day, golden and mild after months of despair and before the impending furnace of yet another unseasonal heat plume from the African colonies. A bit like that.
The Brisbane River acts as something of a waymarker wandering the city, guiding you along South Bank and its gardens and galleries, channelling you across to the north with angular bridges and sweeping curves. Disappearing as you cut across the CBD with its blocks of one-way-street and chirruping pedestrian crossings, before emerging again in an amalgam of mangroves at the terminus of the Botanic Gardens.
Back across the river, the cliffs of Kangaroo Point provide fine city views as well as clichéd place name delight for international visitors to post. Some people abseil down the cliffs, others look up from the riverside path below. All try to avoid getting run over by yet another dork on one of the city’s electric scooters. Most sit and wait and contemplate what it would be like to be on a scooter, as the sun goes down on another day in Queensland.
And for me, as darkness descends, it is back to the light. The florid light of that lift going up to the many lights that I cannot figure out how to arrange in my hotel room, the switches for which will light up at night as a constant reminder that they have won. Along the way, the lights of the city flicker on, as the temperature drops below twenty.
After a few days here I rummage in my bag for that one jumper. It’s starting to get a tad cool, just a little off being perfectly comfortable. I could survive without it, but I did pack it after all, and it would be a shame to carry it all this way and not put it to use. For the first time in Brisbane, I seem to fit in. Now all I need is a scooter to carry me off into the night, towards the light.
On holiday, and at home, food is such a focal point to the activities of the day, whether that be a walk over hills to forage in supermarkets or an outing for coffee and cake for something to do in the rain. There are days where food gives me a sense of structure, particularly given my slavish devotion to the coffee (and biscuit or cake) gods midway through the morning.
Holidaying in Cornwall, the cream tea is often the main agenda item of the day, especially if it’s a bit gloomy, a tad tepid, a little dull. A cream tea is a little taste of solace no matter what the weather. But it turns out there are other foodstuffs which can dial up the sunshine to eleven, whether that be by design or not quite accident.
The St. Agnes Sausage Roll
After several days of dogged white cloud promising both sun and rain but delivering neither, a Sunday suddenly arrived under skies true blue. After a quick check of the Internet to see if certain places were open, I lead-footed it in good time to the North Cornwall coast, parking beside the remnants of Wheal Coates Mine. It was a bit early for lunch, so there was treasure to be discovered traversing the clifftops to Chapel Porth and working up an appetite back up past the mine buildings to the car. Sun out, tide out, T-shirt out, this is what I came for.
But in nearby St. Agnes there is an enhancement to be had among the narrow yesteryear parade of shops and cottages. Past the pub adorned by people sheltering with a shandy, the bakery in the corner is indeed open. And the big dilemma is whether to have one sausage roll or two. I mean, they are hefty affairs so one would be ample, but when would I be here again? And if I have just the one that means there’s only the single flavour to sample. Valid concerns, after the event. Much to my subsequent regret I opted for one, cognisant of leaving room for any other opportunities that should present themselves later in the day.
Thus, the quest for a very particular sausage roll had delivered me to one of the most beautiful corners of the country on one of the most beautiful days of the year so far. And it had barely reached lunchtime. It was time to walk it off.
And walk it off I did, on a pleasing circular loop taking in three of the sandiest, sunniest beaches in Britain. Setting off from WestPentire, the route immediately dipped into a sheltered valley of fluttering birdsong, before rising again to the forlorn cries of hacks criss-crossing the mini links of Holywell. One of the trails disappearing into the maze of dunes should eventually lead to the beach, but it would be easy to lose your bearings, like a couple of droids you are not looking for in a galaxy far, far away.
The beach at Holywell Bay was surprisingly underpopulated in light of this being a Bank Holiday weekend and all. The cause: a brisk nor’wester coming directly off the ocean. Even Poldork was in hiding. The dunes were clearly the place to be, strategically sheltered in a hollow hoping some berk with a backpack won’t come traipsing past to ruin the ambience of your romantic picnic.
Onward and upward the berk heads, overlooking the massive expanse of the bay and the beach now seemingly stretching to America on the low tide. Rounding the next corner, the sands of Poly Joke Beach cluster in the nooks and crevices of the land, as if gold has run off from the verdant pasture above. Mostly a tidal beach, people here create castles and clobber balls for six, reading papers in the sand and letting their dogs do whatever their dogs please, as per usual.
Walking up from Jolly Poke or whatever it’s called, I continue on the coast path rather than heading directly back to the car park. There is no rush to head home, on a day such as this. And surely I can find some sustenance as reward at the end to keep me going until Plymouth. It’s afternoon tea time after all.
Well, this is where sausage roll regrets return, for there is no happy ending, despite the blissful site of Crantock Beach sparkling at full reveal. There is a pub overlooking this vista, but I don’t fancy a beer. It. Must. Be. Tea. And. Cake. A nearby hotel offers something, but the last slice of Victoria Sponge looks a bit dry and sad. I should’ve bought one of the sweet treats from St. Agnes bakery. As well as another sausage roll.
The Bedruthan Spud
Despite the lack of a treat at the end, I was delighted to have done a North Cornwall day in such wonderful conditions. If that was that for this year, then so be it. But, then, my very last day in the southwest heralded a decent dollop of sunshine. And I wasn’t going to let a sore throat, bad back and overindulgence in clotted cream stop me.
These are the days that can simultaneously warm your soul and break your heart. The days when it would be difficult to fathom why you would be anywhere else. Sure, it was cool and blustery but that only made it all the more rewarding. Even the coffee at Mawgan Porth was bearable, which is pretty good going if I’m being honest.
Whereas I had a sausage roll in St. Agnes all to myself, today was a shared affair with Mum. Not that we were planning on sharing any food of course. No, we are related after all. But we were content to share the sands of Mawgan Porth together, with hardly anyone else in sight, determining to walk to the shoreline even though it never seemed to get any closer. Rockpools will do.
Now, the Bedruthan Spud – not to be confused with the Australian Minister for Home Affairs – has been a fixture of previous holidays but I wouldn’t call it a requisite. Cream tea: tick. Decent pasty: tick. Mum’s lasagne: tick. Une tartiflette: oui. The Bedruthan Spud today was more a consequence of convenience rather than a destination of desire.
We ventured on a walk just past Bedruthan, out towards Park Head. Accustomed to the postcard views near Spud Café I was keen to get a different perspective, a different angle. And the walk seemed reasonable enough, for both of us. A way to savour the sights and build some hunger before lunch. Wherever that may be.
Returning from the headland, I outlined the lunch options on offer: somewhere vague and probably owned by Rick in Padstow or even more vaguely anywhere opportune in between. Uncertainty is a risk (see Neil Misses Out on Tea and Cake) and so it took us about half a second to turn back to the National Trust café at Carnewas.
There is, of course, comfort in the familiar, safety in the known. And if you know it is going to be good, going to please, going to make your day and someone else’s, then why not just go ahead and do it. Whether that’s a baked potato with a slab of ham and a bowl of Cheddar or not.
Go back to the things that bring a smile to your face and warmth to your heart, again and again and again. Like that first sip of good coffee, that view of the ocean, that first family gathering over a trayful of roast potatoes, secretly seething that someone else took the crispiest one but contented with everything that this cacophonous moment brings. Go back to foods that delight, places that charm and people that love. And never ever tire of the same old picture postcard views along the way.
P.S. A sausage roll in the foreground would just about make this picture perfect.
A habit of mine is to go for a walk somewhere every day of the week. Or at least try to, even if this is a little amble to the shops or a trudge through puddles in a park. It’s a habit easily fed in Canberra, where leafy suburbia intermingles with random patches of bushland and sprawling hilltop reserves, usually rising under big blue skies. I can walk out of my door and be in any number of spots that hardly feel as though they are in the middle of a city: trees and birds and kangaroos and a horizon of mountain wilderness espied in the west.
This habit bordering on obsession can become a little harder in the UK, which is surprising when you consider all the public footpaths and country lanes and bridleways and muddy fields marked on an Ordnance Survey map. British cities are denser and usually grimier and most definitely wetter, meaning a walk from the doorstep often requires a little deeper investigation, a tad more imagination, and a dose of good luck. Like finding the slightly cottagey lanes of Compton Vale in Plymouth or clumps of woodland on a steep highway embankment, or the spooky cemeteries of Janners past.
Of course, with a car the options open up exponentially, but so too do the speed cameras and the filter lanes and the traffic lights and the roundabouts clogged with cars rarely indicating. It can be a bit of a chore to get out of Plymouth for a walk, but once you make it the world is pretty much your oyster. Until the next village with a parade of speed bumps and cattle grids.
The roundabout at Roborough is a significant, welcome milestone in the escape from Plymouth; a conduit between giant superstores and industrial estates and the rambling wilds and shady valleys of Dartmoor National Park. This is Plymouth’s backyard and, once you get there, a fairly quiet one away from the usual honeypots and ice cream traps.
Even on a sunny Saturday – admittedly a bracingly cold Saturday for early May – the moor was more than ample to soak up the extra ramblers and cyclists and trippers tripping on cream teas. This includes an additional fellow in young Leo, who was adamant he was coming with us for a walk and, of course, ended up being carried the whole way. Kids, huh?!
The walk near Princetown felt a far cry from the city, all empty and remote, a desolate bleakness intensified by the icy wind casting sun and cloud patterns upon the barren brown moors. Yet here civilisation creeps in, or at least tries for a while. The solitary austere brick structure of Nun’s Cross Farm stands resolute, providing a little shelter in the lee of the wind to tame Leo’s hair. Rather than a blight on the landscape, it seems to fit, offering as much a representation of life on the moor as ponies and tumbling clusters of granite…
…And clotted cream teas. After such an frigid walk can there be anything more delightful than a log fire, buttery scones, pots of tea and the usual trimmings? It’s not like I planned the walk around this or anything, it just happened to be nearby, and we were hungry, and well… There is only so much rugged emptiness one can take. What’s the point of walking if you can’t get to enjoy it?!
Back through that roundabout at Roborough within the city of Plymouth, there is a pocket of countryside on the banks of the Plym, wedged between the Devon Expressway and the South Hams Tractortrack. It’s ideal for a pre-dinner stroll or – better still – post-dinner, when Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders zap the brain cells of millions of devoted followers. Saltram is a gracious property boasting copious, succulent Devonian land, including plenty of woodland pockets in which Mr Darcy can brood.
Saltram has its trails but is not without its trials. First off, National Trust property, which means the good people of busybody parkingland can’t wait to rob you of gold. For all the wonderful things the National Trust provides, it all seems a little exorbitant to me…I can’t help but feel some of the charges are siphoned off to some sycophantic Daily Telegraph fundraiser to install the natural heir to Churchill as PM. That dog from the TV ads.
The other thing with Saltram is that it takes a circuitous effort to reach by car, navigating a manic roundabout whose lanes disappear into a wormhole, and then a slip lane clogged with cars turning into Lidl for a pint of milk or 60 inch flat screen. Such is the travail of the journey, the prospect of digging into your life savings to park, and – should you mistime – the odorous tidal pong of the River Plym, that Saltram can prove a frustrating affair.
Or it can be wonderful, arriving a little before rush-hour and just after the parking attendant has gone home. This yields a quiet fist pump of glee and a good mood in which to walk the parklands. Along the river, the tide is high and holding on, and clouds part to release the sun. Forget the roar of traffic along the Embankment, and the mould-tinged sails of Sainsburys, and focus instead on the flourishing green of the woods and bounteous swathes of wild garlic. Embrace the chirping birds and walk with the hope of encountering a deer.
Look down upon manicured fields and be thankful that this is indeed upon your doorstep. A doorstep in which the land and sea meets, producing conditions that are often frustrating but usually fruitful. Beyond the chav-filled potholes of the city, a land of strawberries and cream or raspberries and cream or just cream goddammit.
A daily walk is an obsession not for the air, nor for the nature, nor for the killing of time in a rather pleasant way. A daily walk is the only way I can try to keep that goddam luscious cream off!
I love how there are so many different roads meandering through the English countryside, linking villages that you never knew existed; undistinguishable places called something like Dompywell Saddlebag or West Northclumptonbrook, typically boasting a new speed bump and a church roof appeal from the 1980s. It’s a situation converse to Australia, where a few main roads emanate from the cities and towns, off which a handful of mysterious dirt tracks disperse into nothing. Setting off from home for a country drive in Australia is exhausted in four or five trips. Whereas in England the possibilities seem infinite.
When I say roads, of course, most are only a little wider than a Nissan Micra, especially in Devon, where they are also frequently clogged with tractors. Farming is still king – I think – in the South Hams, though tourism, teashops and production of Let’s Escape To Buy An Expensive Seaside Residence With Five Bedrooms And A Private Mooring On The Estuary To Get Through Our Retirement In The Sun TV shows prosper.
When the sun does appear, there is hardly anywhere more contented; there must be some primeval appeal in the lusciousness of those voluptuous green hills and snaking river valleys, the sheen of golden sands recently cleansed by the ebb and flow of a shimmering sea.
Remembering this is England, the sun of course doesn’t always shine and in the spring-like indecision that is early May it can be a fickle environment in which to salivate. At Bigbury-on-Sea, raincoats, fleeces and hot chocolates might be required while waiting for a break in the clouds. Temptation abounds to get back in the car and turn around; but you’ve paid for that parking now and you are British, and you’ll courageously stick it out like MEPs campaigning against their very existence (Customary Brexit Reference: tick). You have to be patient staying in this particular part of the world, but the benefits in doing so are clear and tangible.
A bit further down the A-road mostly suitable for two cars to pass, the town of Salcombe boasts a rather desirable ambience, even on another cloudy and cool day. Tucked inside the Kingsbridge Estuary it has some of the most golden sand and emerald water around, lapping at elegant houses and dense woodland thickets. There is a palpable sense of envy from the smattering of visitors strolling past the homes and gardens perched with lofty views across the water. I could live here, we all bitterly seethe in our heads.
No doubt many of the loftier residents of Salcombe were in jovial mood; not only from their elevated perch surveying the ambling peasants seeking a cheap pasty, but with the news of a royal baby to join the ranks. Does it have a name yet? I can’t even remember. Have the Daily Mail criticised the parents yet? Oh probably.
One of the perks of Salcombe are the options for food and drink, many of which come with waterside tables and a brief taste of refinement. Mum and I commenced the day at North Sands and a somewhat quirky café – The Winking Prawn – serving coffee (and for future reference, buffet breakfast). We then did the amble along the water and fancy homes to the town centre, where the usual offerings of pastry products, ice creams, pub food, overpriced crab bits and line caught organic fish goujons with quadruple cooked fondant sweet potato discs were up for grabs. Probably the best looking things were a tray of Chelsea Buns in a bakery, swiftly bagged and taken home for trouncing the Arsenal.
Really, it should have been a day for a Salcombe Dairy ice cream, the delicious embodiment of the verdant landscape all around. But after a bone-chilling ferry ride to South Sands, the moment had gone. Perhaps for another day.
Plymouth to Dartmouth is not the quickest affair despite only being around 30 miles apart. One option includes the tortuous A379 through thatched villages that become irretrievably clogged in battles between buses and B&M Bargains trucks – threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a doddle by comparison. Or there is the route via Totnes, which seems a bit too zig-zaggy to appear logical. An alternative cut through just past Avonwick was a new discovery that proved highly effective on the way almost there, and highly ridiculous on the way back.
One of the joys of that cut through, in the morning at least, was finding yet another road that took me through even more unknown villages as pretty as a picture, following river valleys and archetypal ten foot hedgerows and fields of newly minted lambs. The sun was shining too, and my meteorological calculations to head east appeared to be paying off.
It was also joyous to have a functioning car, without an exhaust dangling onto the road and probably projecting sparks onto the windscreen of a doddery couple heading to the post office. This happened later, on the A3122 at Collaton Cross, about a mile after the BP garage and before Woodlands Adventure Park. Details etched into my brain to guide the saviour that was the breakdown truck towards us.
And so, the unexpected and unplanned once again yields some of the most memorable moments. Waiting in a small layby among the gorgeous fields of Devon in the warming sunshine could be worse. Being patched up and guided to Totnes for repairs by endearing locals eager to provide a helping hand (and earn some pennies) proved heart-warming. Spending a few hours in Totnes, charmed and enlightened by good coffee, markets overflowing with abundance and leafy riverside walks. And the satisfaction of rediscovering batter bits with malt vinegar (good work Mum!)
Killing time in Totnes wasn’t too much of a chore in the end, and it was partway along a path following the River Dart that we got the call that the car was fit and ready. It had been an eventful day covering a lot of ground, but I was determined to head to where I had originally planned, several hours earlier. Another slice of succulent South Devon that oozes curvaceously into the sea.
Such are the ample proportions of the landscape here that the coast path between Strete and Blackpool Sands struggles to keep to the coast. The barriers are too immense, and the trail cuts inland as it dips down towards the bay. But this too is something of a blessing, for not only do you make it without falling to an inevitable death into the sea, but you become once again immersed into a countryside apparently so utopian. Farming must still be productive here, despite the temptation to become a campsite or a tearoom or a paddock for some pampered hobby horses.
The coast path comes back to the shore via a row of thatched cottages that could have almost been deliberately placed there to charm dewy-eyed tourists like myself. The fine shingle of Blackpool Sands lends a bright and airy light even through the sunshine of the morning is rare. And down near the shingle, a café, winding down for the day has some Salcombe Dairy on tap.
After fish and chips and batter bits there is hardly need for additional gluttony. But this is a land of overindulgence, of profligate abundance, blessed with more than its ample share of what makes life good. And I still have one of those gorgeous hills to climb to get back to the car, a climb that is incessant and delightful and my own private nirvana full of ice cream and South Devon. A climb and a day entirely, wonderfully, exhausting.
Welcome to Liverpool John Lennon Airport where the time is 10:55 in the morning, the temperature is 10 degrees Celsius and you should watch your bags at all times eh calm down calm down. Imagine. Everybody loves a cliché when they’re not victim to it, so here I was suddenly in the north, a stark, leaden shell suited contrast to the flowery air of France. It is said – mostly by Liverpudlians – that Scouse humour is unparalleled, and you’d need to have a sense of humour to live here. Boom boom.
The north was right proper grim, mostly due to the arrival of Storm Hannah. I have known a few Hannahs in my lifetime and they have all been sweet and agreeable and no offence at all. Storm Hannah, by contrast, was a true harbinger of misery, decimating the promise of spring as quickly and as conclusively as a hi-vis revolution in Queensland.
The saving grace was that this soggy, cold weekend around Lytham St Annes was perfect for central heating and afternoon naps, for cups of tea and slices of cake, for red wine and takeaway curry with treasured friends and football maniacs. Occasional breaks in the rain allowed for a brisk walk in a brisk breeze beside a sullen waterfront, outings that only really made the arrival back indoors all the more comforting. Cup of tea? Aye.
It was a more placid day departing the north, incrementally brightening on my journey towards London and then onward to Salisbury; the very heart of a conceptual south. Perhaps near here, somewhere within the borderlands of Wiltshire sits that romanticised version of England; of thatched cottages and village greens; of tinkling brooks and sun-dappled woods; of church fetes and coffee and walnut cake. Perhaps, indeed.
The promising return of spring added to the ambience of a walk in west Wiltshire, footsteps traversing a mixture of quiet villages and busy farms and flourishing woodlands. The woodlands sprouting green and carpeted with bluebells, the farms a hive of rebirth and earnest bustle, the villages cute and clustering around a church and a pub. Church or pub? Hmm, let me see…
Praise the Lord for a pint outside in the open air, soaking up the sweetly chirping birds and the smell of the country. And thank the almighty for a gentle downhill totter back to the car, parked beside the marquee on the green next to the church in the contented village of East Knoyle. Everywhere around here is easy to suspect as a secret filming location for Bake Off.
[In a Noel Fielding whisper]: In Bake Off this week our contestants go t’mill t’fetch t’grain t’make a barn cake t’take to creecket. Oop ill un darn dale in an accent neither befitting Noel Fielding nor the Wiltshire-Dorset border. Yet it is precisely here, in the affluent southern town of Shaftesbury, that the most revered depiction of life in the north persists in our psyche. That Hovis ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, many of my generation and older see this as The North. Even though – upon deeper inspection – its narrative is delivered in an undefined country twang that could be at home in Dorset. It must be the bloody brass band that does it, for only Northerners trudge up hills to the melancholy parp of a brass band.
“When I were a wee lad you didn’t see us lot wasting our time with Instagrams of food and posing for selfies,” Dad clearly didn’t say as I took a photo of some coffee and cake and indulged in a selfie. Because this wasn’t Yorkshire and neither was it the 1940s anymore, though you suspect some in Shaftesbury would be pleased to turn back time. At least to the years before that bloody advert sent people flocking to a hill to take Instagrams and selfies.
Back in a more reassuring south, a morning in Salisbury offered increasing photographic opportunities, marvelling at the famous Cathedral with its famous 123-metre spire and its famous clock, a renown reaching as far and wide as Russia. The water meadows glowing under the sunlight, it was briefly warm enough to amble in a T-shirt, a clear signal that things were still on an upward trend. The birds continued to tweet and to chirp and to wade and to pose in such land of growing abundance.
Indeed, it was a day for the birds, a time of year for their lusty antics and devoted nurture. Apart from bluebells and an impending relegation battle for Plymouth Argyle, nothing says spring more than the sight of recently arrived chicks, coddled and cajoled by their stressed-out parents who are quick to snap.
The new life of spring offers a time for optimism, for hopes and dreams of what lies ahead. It’s an optimism that extends to the many people on narrowboat holidays milling at walking pace through the murky waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal. A holiday at this time of year is a risky proposition (tell me about it!), and it didn’t take long for cloud to build and release its patchy drizzle.
The rain held off sufficiently to climb Martinsell Hill, which is the third highest point in Wiltshire apparently. And, even with a degree of dreariness, the views were expansive, taking in much of the county, much of the south: clusters of civilisation nestled among a gently undulating patchwork of green and brown and yellow.
From here, Dad and I headed across a ridge towards Oare, which I hope (but sadly suspect not) is pronounced in a wonderful countrified “Oo-arrrrr.” It would suit, because I am certain the number of tractors per head of population is well above the national average. As are the proportion of bluebells, culminating in a delightful peaceful pocket of woodland on our route towards Oare Hill.
Bluebells really were in profusion across England at this time, evident everywhere during this sojourn in the south and among the storm-laden lands of the north. Spreading across the country like the philosophy of Nigel Farage, only exponentially more unifying and much easier on the eye. They would have been a clear highlight, if it were not for that slab of coffee and walnut cake in Honey Street before catching my train west. A very perfect bookend to this haphazard instalment of North and South. And preparation for the tea and scones still to come.
The annual plume of unseasonal warm air making its way up towards the British Isles from North Africa (aka fake summer) coincided with a trip to France. In some ways it was a shame to miss out on such glorious weather in Britain over Easter – how I would miss the opportunity to pop to Tesco in my shorts to battle for the last bag of charcoal and three packs of sausages for a fiver. Or negotiate the single track roads to Cornish coves whose hillsides are coated in cars charged eight quid for the privilege. But France would be nice.
Indeed, the weather didn’t bring too much to grumble about and my shorts proved a justified inclusion on the continent. There were countryside ambles and meanders through parks, Easter egg hunts in the garden and trips to the market. All the usual trappings of life on the French-Swiss border in Ville-la-Grand, snow coating distant peaks while spring was springing all around.
Out of town, a morning amble around Lac du Mole took us slightly closer to the snow. Yet here the sights of ducklings and the sounds of randy toads were ample testament to the fact that things were hotting up.
It was good to be out, within flirting distance of the mountains, the sight of which always entice you to explore more. However, the primary rationale for this particular outing wasn’t really to survey mountain tops and randy toads. It was – of course – the proximity of the lake to a patisserie; a roadside stop that could be a Little Chef or a Costa Coffee in the UK, but here was brim with fondant artistry and crème extravagance. As opposed to despondent mediocrity and frothy incompetence.
While there was gateau and – naturally – cheese aplenty, this was also a trip featuring roast dinners, toads in holes and homemade lasagne; a franglais stew to cater for cross-cultural cravings. I find ice cream works in any language, whether this is whipped in Walsall or churned in Chernobyl. Both places where you’d hope not to find yourself buying ice cream to be honest.
Annecy, on the other hand, is a gem of a place to take in an ice cream or do whatever you should please. From the hive of construction that is Annemasse station, a pleasing hour long train ride delivered my nephew Guillaume and I to what has been described as the Venice of the Alps, largely on the count of a canal infiltrating a few of the streets and – possibly – gondoliers wailing about their need for Walls Cornettos.
Passing through France almost every town or village you come upon proclaims itself as a Ville Fleurie, going on to illustrate this with an intricate arrangement featuring a cast iron cow and a cluster of geraniums in the middle of a roundabout. Annecy would live up to Ville Fleurie and then some, at least in its medieval centre chock full of flower boxes and civic blooms. The suburbs could well be as grimy as Walsall for all I know, but in the midst of town, much is done to attract and charm.
The waterways and the flowers and the daytrippers milling about eating ice cream largely find their way towards the jewel in the crown that is Lac d’Annecy and its quite dazzling surrounds. Clear, glacial water hosts an array of boats, encircled by forests, villages and rapidly elevating peaks. It’s a popular spot to row or cruise or be a hoon on a jetski. Or even pedalo for half an hour in a large figure eight. Everybody loves a tourist.
The frequent sight of tourists eating ice cream impels one to wander the streets like a tourist to seek out an ice cream. Heavily topped cornets increase in frequency back near one of the canals, and a large queue meanders from the serving hatch of Glacier des Alpes. Patience may be rewarded with sublime ice cream but neither Guillaume nor I had much patience and opted for a perfectly satisfactory version nearby. Safe from the clutches of any devious gondoliers.
Leaving Annecy, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains and the very fine weather would break the following day to deliver a period of wind and rain. Preparation for my return to England – and the frequently damp northwest of England to boot. Unlike in the northwest of England, the weather front passed here and left a glorious late afternoon and evening, ripe for a walk across to Switzerland.
A recurring spectacle across my trip this year – both in France and the UK – was the sight of rapeseed flowering in the fields. A swathe of lurid yellow regularly interrupting the tranquil patchwork of green, unable to be contained within its boundaries and peppering nearby hedges and springing from cracks in the concrete. Insatiable and seemingly inevitable around every corner, in places stretching as far as the eye can see. Only the mountains appear to stop it.
And so, the last evening in France turned out as sunny as the unseasonably warm sun that was soon to fade away in Great Britain; to be replaced by a storm so irritating it was awarded a name (Hannah), heralding a permanent return to long trousers. One last slice of gateau would compensate for the impending doom, and cap off a very fine Easter; my first in the northern hemisphere since 2006. So, fake summer or real, it was undoubtedly one that will go down in history.
With an opportunity to escape the bumbling mediocrity of an Australian election campaign, I touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport nearing five in the evening on the 11 April. The skies blue, the airport efficient, the tube harmonious. Becalmed the very day before the second Brexit non-deadline. As if there was a collective sigh that it has all gone away for a bit. Which to me raises an obvious question, but the advice you get in the street, down the boozer, around the dinner table is don’t go there. Even the BBC News was all quiet that night.
Other than systemic meltdown there is a risk to entering the UK in April rather than August. Spring, when one day can be bathed in an Arctic gloom, the next a moist Atlantic drizzle. Not that different from August really. There can, though, be occasional bright spells such as the one greeting my arrival and – with a stroke of luck – freakish warm air masses from southern Europe. The weather doesn’t heed the advice of 17.4 million.
Apart from questioning the sufficiency of warm tops in my suitcase I felt quite excited about the prospect of budding leaves and blossoms and bluebells. Around Highgate Wood in North London, a break in the cloud. A brief sense of warmth penetrating through the radiant green speckles rapidly installed within an otherwise monotone canopy. A feeling decimated a day later in Devon, bleak and bracing beside the River Plym, though perfect aperitif for a Sunday roast.
Peak wintry spring madness came with a trip to Looe in Cornwall. Strong winds funnelling from the ocean, all grey lumps and foam. Sand blasting shops and bins and the faces of those brave or crazy enough to walk the seafront. Even the seagulls, usually so bold and rapacious, had given up the ghost. For them, and for me, a piping hot pasty can be the only comfort here.
The magic of spring is the randomness of its appearance. Suddenly, the winds calm, the clouds part, the air warms. Somehow, it doesn’t quite seem feasible. Yet it is and – often from sheer exuberance – you strip down to a tee shirt despite it just creeping over 10 degrees. Everything is relative to what has gone before and what might come again tomorrow.
Such as shifting from the misery of Looe to the majesty of Lundy Bay, a spot on the North Cornwall coast that can be categorised into Vistas You May Have Seen From The Television Show Doc Martin. Across the Camel from Scenes In A Rick Stein Series. And down the road from Places In Which Poldork Prances.
Ambling down a lush valley from the road to the ocean, a backdrop of birdlife generates gentle melodies under the sun. The aromas of apple blossoms entice bees newly invigorated by the warmth. Dogs and humans pass and greet in that cheery way that can only come about when everyone is equally delighted about being here now. As if they have discovered some little secret, that even Doc Martin can’t defile.
Nearby, the sleepy hamlet of Port Quin is celebrating in its sheltered spot, nestled between the hills that ooze out along its harbour to suddenly plunge into the Atlantic. A walk out to a headland marking the entrance to this enclave is a touch more blustery; the reward solitude and drama and vistas that make the heart sing and the heart ache. And ice cream that makes the heart say uh-oh we’re in Cornwall again aren’t we, better brace ourselves.
Next in line along this stretch of coast is Port Isaac, the epicentre of Doc Martin mania. Perhaps mania is too strong a word, such is the inoffensive, unassuming charm evoked by the incredulous tales of Portwenn. Yet there has to be something in it, given the rows of coaches and car parking at capacity. This little town in a remote part of the world has, undoubtedly, attained prominence.
And so, with nowhere to park, the best option was to head onward towards Tintagel. Almost. For just before reaching rows of plastic Excaliburs and ridiculous business decisions to switch to suboptimum fudge, a spontaneous side trip led down to Trebarwith Strand. Not just a wonderful Cornish name but wonderful Cornish waves, exploding from a vibrant blue ocean to crash into wonderful Cornish coves.
A little above The Strand, under wonderful, warming sun perched a wonderful pub overlooking the ocean. A pub that served up a local tribute, a tribute to the seas and skies, the clifftops and harbours, the wind and rain and storms and sun. The seasons battering and bathing and cajoling and churning the charisma and spirit into this magical Cornish land. Spring has arrived, and so have I. Cheers.