Dark Mourne

A long stroll along an almost deserted beach at the National Trust's Murlough Reserve near Dundrum, County Down. With just a handful of cars in the parking area and passing only a few people on the 600m boardwalk down to the shore, we guessed correctly that the beach would be fairly empty. This really was social distancing.

Buttoned up against the chill and facing the breeze from the sea it wasn't long before blood came rushing to warm the cheeks. No need for an anti-virus mask here. We took deep lungfuls of the fresh salt air and immediately felt the benefit.

The sand was washed smooth with no previous steps before us and the sea seemed to have deposited various qualities of shingle and stone in lovely gradations. A perfect case study for a school geography trip and a salutary lesson in the organising power of nature. Here and there shells dotted the sand, washed ashore or perhaps dropped by feeding gulls. They lay with their scalloped grooves and ridges upward, the anticipated delicacy downward, reminiscent of dropped, buttered toast.

We walked until a stream crossed the beach and turned back towards Newcastle, surmounted by the lovely Mournes, a scissored silhouette against a brightening sky. Donard will be cold today, we agreed.  

Then silent reflective thoughts.

How often has this untampered scene been viewed before by people long since gone? And recollected or imagined in the tunes of the songsters who extolled its beauty and missed its presence. This beach has been crowded at other times with families and picnics. Long, bright, summer days. Not now though when our talk is of R-rate, regulations and restrictions. 

Sadness for those whose longings have been cut short.

Dark Mourne.


The driveway is full of them.  Leaves. They gather against the walls that frame the length of the driveway and road outside the house. Each car that passes flurries them up to find a new resting place or flattens them into the tarmac where they stick unbudging, resistant to all but the heaviest-duty bristle brush.

The leaves that have made our property their home don't come from our trees which are mainly evergreen. They hail from a deciduous domain, from elsewhere but seasons and wind have no knowledge of borders and so there is the annual autumnal task of collection and disposal. If the leaves were from a book it would be a multi-parter as the task of collection is repeated often until the last leaves leave their branches.

A leaf-blower to get my own back was a useful purchase. It enables me to blow them quickly into heaped mounds for later lifting. An old neighbour with country ways once advised me not to waste my time trying to brush them into such piles. Leave it to the wind, he advised, and when it calms down the leaves will have formed themselves into settled piles.

He was right. Working with nature. 

The piles are light to the touch and often the brittle leaves break and turn to dust. Their lightness is also a challenge though. Four big scoops with large plastic garden hands fill the barrow. A fifth would lose the precarious balance and leaves would fall off the barrow leaving a new deposit to brush.

No, better to take it gently and often. The piles cannot be left too long as stronger winds will disperse them again and supplement them with fresh fall. So the task is repeated, weekly and they are transposed to that out of the way spot in the garden where leaves can be left to crumble and compost.

The driveway relieved at last. 

Road book and press cutting

How many times over the years have we flicked through this old family heirloom roadbook? The AA Illustrated Road Book of Ireland.

This edition was published in 1970 and was often consulted on trips round the country. We loved its line drawings, its Irish place names and short but nonetheless helpful references. Later versions have better maps and descriptions but this one is the one with character and cachet.

Cachet? A word that denotes quality and distinction. Yes the book meets those criteria but drop the -t and
there is also cache, a word that refers to something hidden or concealed and the book has something to reveal there too.


Recently as part of a national heritage festival we had been discussing Holy Wells in Ireland. One that was mentioned was the Rock of Doon. Not having been there the conversation turned to - Well where exactly is it? It's north of Letterkenny, a few miles from Kilmacrenan in County Donegal. 
Well, we've been there quite a few times but never at the well. So naturally, we would look it up. Internet browser? Not this time. Where else to go to but the old book?

Kilmacrennan. There it was along with its map details and gazetteer entry and a press cutting. 
What? An article from a newspaper with words by a J.J. Toolett and a drawing by Gordon McKnight.
How long had that been in there? Who had put it there? 

How many times we have looked through that 50 year old book, brought it with us on travels and yet somehow failed to see that cutting from years gone by.  Extraordinary that it should come to light to inform our discussions.  Heirloom and heritage.

The obvious next steps are to find out more information on the Rock of Doon and to make the journey - should that be pilgrimage? - with the road book and press cutting. 

There will also be a reflection on that simple act of scissoring out an article and placing it for safe keeping in a treasured book.


King Solomon’s Mines. A 50-year reread

This book was on the English Literature course when I studied it way back in the 1960s. I suppose its adventure theme, with deadly battles and buried treasure, was judged suitable to capture the interest of 16-year-old boys. Boys and their reading - still a matter of recurring educational concern. 

I came back to the book after having watched a TV programme in which it was referenced. The programme charted the course of the English novel and, as one of its themes, explored literature associated with Empire and colonisation. Hooked, I decided that it might be interesting to reread KSM after more than 50 years. An early front runner of this type of story there are many books of this genre today and this one is still easily available.  

Stuck in my memory

Some of the characters and situations had certainly stuck in my memory and as I met up with them again, I wondered why that was. Since they stuck, there must have been something that appealed, and I consider now that it was that adventurer aspect. However, the most obvious thing that struck me from the reread was just how much society norms and values have changed since that time. Some of the references and dialogue struck me as somewhat racist and sexist, not to mention scenes of hunting and ivory gathering, and on occasions caused some moments of discomfort.  These attitudes were prevalent in the late 19th century. I'm glad that we have left lots of that behind but I'm just as sure that a toxic residue remains. Why keep reading then? Perhaps a good way to learn what one’s values are is to be aware when they are being offended. But was the sixteen-year-old offended? Or did I simply take it for granted? With 50 years hindsight I stuck with the book.

Audio narration

What might have been helpful to me as a sixteen-year-old student was the audio narration that is available, read by Timothy Jones.  Read - the word doesn't do the rendition justice. It was a consummate voiced performance in which he took on the range of voices from the narrator, Allan Quatermain to the screeching Witch doctor, Gagool. The accompanying narration made for a quick reread. On occasions I read, listened and did both concurrently. That's a technique I'll be using more in the future to engage with even more books. 


One last thing…A sixteen-year-old once learned what biltong was. That was a word that also stayed in the memory thanks to its use in this story. The product is available in a local supermarket, so I got some. 

Something else to chew on. 

Toeing the line

An indoor queue this time.
The simple strips adhered profusely over the mall floor kept everyone well apart. No jostling, no creeping forward. The shoppers waited patiently for each to be called forward in turn. Respectful distancing.
Seems like we've all got the message.
Complying. Toeing the line.

Palm Sunday 1925

Palm leaf crosses presented to churchgoers on Palm Sunday 

Today is Palm Sunday. 5 April 2020.

The occasion recalls the Entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the first Holy Week in the Christian tradition. This year services commemorating the Entry have been curtailed as a result of the Covid-19 Coronavirus.
The virus has taken its toll with many succumbing to its deadly onslaught.
Their personal Passion...

My dad was born on a Palm Sunday.
It was 5 April 1925.
As first born in his family it was no doubt a celebration.  A Hallelujah!

It always amused him that his own father would on the occasion of Palm Sunday each year wish him a Happy Birthday. My grandad, we called him Granda Christy, never seemed to realise that Palm Sunday just like Easter is an ecclesiastical and therefore a variable date.  Some still don't get this as calls continue to be made for Easter to have a fixed calendar date.  Commercially driven no doubt.

But maybe in that bygone age it was perhaps more appropriate, congruent with belief, to remember the religious occasion rather than the actual date of a birthday, however special.

Today though, on this date 95 years later, the wishes would have been appropriate.
And my father would have appreciated the sentiment.

Happy birthday dad.

Books are like old friends

Books are like old friends. That's certainly the case with this one that an old (and still) friend presented to me as a gift 60 or so years ago.
It says something about the nature of gifts back in those days - the pleasure of the printed word.

It's on my reread list and I'm wondering whether it will feel dated by today's standards.
That's because I reread King Solomon's Mines a while ago and felt that some of its themes and attitudes were of their time and could be considered inappropriate by today's standards.

So in preparation for my reread I did some background research into the Coral Island.
That's a story in itself.

I'm still going ahead with the book and will try to recover the experience of that first read. Six decades ago.
I love the gift of the printed word.  A gift that keeps on giving.

Yes, books are like old friends...the older the nicer.

Interested in the book, its author and creation? Check out the Wikipedia article here.

A taste of Marrakech

For a place such a short flight time from home and only one hour's time difference, Marrakech is a world apart. We were staying in a riad in the Medina and had not the receptionist arranged to come and meet us somewhere central we would never have found our way through the warren of narrow, packed streets. Saying that, at the end of our stay we could easily find our residence and return to places in the Medina we had marked for a return visit.

The first task after some rest was to get oriented and what better to do that than getting lost? Really?

Friendly passers-by shouted out directions, even urging us to follow them and suggesting visits. The pungent odour of where we had been directed to was not what we had been expecting. It was an open air camel tannery with stone troughs where the hides were pummelled and stretched. We were offered a large sprig of mint to sniff away the smell but politely declined and made off. But to where?

The friendly passers-by were nowhere to be seen. After a short walk we found ourselves in an open air market and attracted the attention of the locals. It was pretty obvious there were no other tourists and although there were curious glances they were also friendly and welcoming. It was wonderful to see old men approaching each other for handshakes which they held while also touching each other forehead to forehead. A lovely custom. As of course was the mint teas in obvious abundance. Mint tea. We heard that referred to as Moroccan whiskey.

It was a market and there was an abundant array of fresh vegetables and fruit: Aubergines, Courgettes, Celery,  Strawberries, Oranges, Potatoes and Mint everywhere.  We spotted an interesting way of keeping vegetables cool in the warmth.  A shady spot of course where one was available but also a basket type colander suspended over a tub of water in which there was a tin can. Holes had been punched in the bottom of the can and from time to time the vendor would take a scoop of water and let it drip over the basket of vegetables. Simple. Effective.

We followed the wider and busier streets and found our way back early afternoon to the main square Jemaa el-Fnaa  The perfumed scents of oils and spices stimulated the appetite. Time for a sit-down taste of Marrakech.

Not far from our Riad we spotted a small but evidently popular restaurant with panels of its offerings outside. A friendly caller, the owner or staff member perhaps invited us in. He didn't need to ask twice and nor did it take us long to decide what we needed.

Starters arrived. A welcome drink of milk and spices in a sugar frosted glass and bowls of olives, dips and bread.

That was followed by a Moroccan salad topped with falafel while my partner had a Kofta omelette both accompanied by pasta while my own included a portion of chips. I love the mix of vegetables called fatoush and my Moroccan salad had that distinctive flavour.

We asked for some mint tea to finish and this duly arrived with a plate of sliced fruit and a lovely pastry. I think it contained pistachio but there was also the unmistakable flavour of rose water. 
The bill at 110 Moroccan Dirham (MDA) was by no means huge, about £8 sterling, but there was little could be done with our available change to get to the correct amount. So the bill was to my embarrassment settled at 100 mda with the agreement that we would come back and eat there again.
We sure did! Well wouldn't you?

While we shook hands on it we didn't bump each others' foreheads!
And that return visit? The same guy, we were now sure that it was his business, recognised us immediately and escorted us to a brilliant table and even more mouth-watering food. 

On saying goodbye he scribbled out some words in Arabic for us in my notebook which I have mislaid but I remember the sentiment. It was: May a thousand roses bloom in your heart. 
Marrakech certainly bloomed there. 
Would love to go back, our visit was only a taste.