n e b r o d i

[ 17:20 monday 4 september – porto di milazzo, sicily ]

the hydrofoil’s crew unhurriedly take their places, preparing to cast off from milazzo for the final journey of the day. the late afternoon sun catches my face through an open hatchway. in two and a half hours i’ll be on stromboli.

on friday i said goodbye to gaetano and his family after an invigorating dip in the stream that tumbles down from the aspromonte. the tiny train carried me down to gioia then i got the main line to villa san giovani with its criss-cross relay of ferries  traversing the straits of messina. there was a tiny beach between the ferry terminals and the water looked reasonably clean so i had a quick swim before taking a ship. from messina i caught the coach to palermo, where i passed a riotous night with impromptu friends before uniting with gabriele.

on saturday morning gabriele and i drove to a rocky stretch of coast for a swim then headed up into the mighty nebrodi mountains in the north-east of sicily. we stopped and watched the spectacular sunset with livid-hued clouds swirling all around us.

after spending saturday night upstairs from a bar in the little town of cesero we bought some supplies, packed our rucksacks and set off on foot. we hiked all afternoon through the wooded mountainside, eyed with curiosity by the wild black pigs that seem to be the nebrodi’s masters. our goal was the biviere di cesaro, a remote and beautiful lake a thousand metres up in the mountains. our solitude was disturbed only by a convoy of mountain bikers in a race.

by the time we reached the lake the morning’s clear sky had been obscured by clouds trickling up from the mountains. the water was completely still, with reed beds dotting its perimeter and the forest extending down to its western shore.

looking northward one could make out the hazy outline of the aeolian islands. the view to the south was dominated by etna’s brooding cone with its eternal streamer of smoke. the only sounds were the buzzing insects, faraway cowbells and the occasional hoot of water fowl.

gabriele had heard that the solitary farmhouse near the lake had a cattle shed that was left open where hikers could pass the night. the farmhouse’s gates were heavily padlocked and there was no reply to our calls so we climbed over and looked around for the shed. at this point the farmer returned. he seemed like a tough fellow, accustomed to being alone, and he was not amused to find us there. it turned out gabriele’s information was essentially correct, but the farmer resented people like us taking the shed for granted. in the end gabriele’s charm and my stupid englishman act worked their magic and he said we could stay. he also gave us permission to walk in the mountainside around the lake, all of which was his property.

the shed was a little way up the hill from the farmhouse. inside we found three ancient camp beds and a rickety table. it was already inhabited by eight adorable little bats, hanging from the rafters busily cleaning themselves, and everything was covered with their shit. we dumped our rucksacks and headed out to explore.

below the lake was a marshy area, followed a dry stream-bed piled with huge boulders washed down the mountain. beyond this we discovered an abandoned village comprising seven or eight simple stone dwellings in an advanced state of decay. each house had a carefully leveled stone terrace in front of it where the inhabitants must have lived and worked in daylight hours through the warmer months. it was a strongly evocative place.

after dark we climbed up the hillside and sat silently in the bright moonlight, looking out over the mountains and valleys stretching to the distance. at one point a hedgehog trotted over to investigate us. later an owl swooped around us, hunting for its prey. there were probably no more than a dozen people within ten kilometres.

: c :

c u c u d o

[ 17:00 thursday 31 august – monte cucudo, calabria, italy ]

this is fantasic! i’m on top of mount cucudo in the aspromonte, eight hundred and twenty metres above sea level. far below me is the town of cittanova, which i left an hour ago. beyond the town the olive-covered plain spreads west to the tirrenian coast twenty kilometres hence.

far to the north i can see the cliffs of capo vaticano. to the south the rising peaks of the aspromonte jostle away into the distance. most magical of all, centred in the glittering horizon, is the black cone of stromboli. even though it’s eighty kilometres away i’m half convinced i can hear its eruptions, whose pattern and sound are etched so deeply in my consciousness. is this some acoustic freak of the mountains or just my imagination?

this morning i woke at seven and phoned gaetano. the sun was shining but he said rain was coming and we must postpone our walk. sure enough within an hour it was tipping down. i was a little crestfallen but this afternoon the sky cleared so i came out with my camera. i started exploring a dry streambed, following the rock-strewn channel away from the edge of the town. after a while i realised my feet were taking me up the mountain so i simply carried on and here i am at the top. i took a couple of false trails and wound up picking my way through thorns, but mostly it was easy to find the way. it’s not the day-long hike i had in mind but it would be churlish to lament that.

yesterday evening michele told me that “cucudo” (the name of this peak – also written “cuculo”) is the local word for a single hailstone. there’s a  completely different word for the plural. the dialect here is lovely.

: c :

c i t t a n o v a

[ 15:43 wednesday 30 august – cittanova, calabria ]

plane trees cast dappled shade over me and palms rustle in the warm breeze. i’m sitting in a park in the quiet town of cittanova. from here an olive-covered plain stretches west to the calabrian coast whilst the mighty aspromonte mountains rise sharply to the east. i’m waiting for something to happen.

for the last couple of days i’ve been in tropea, a mediaeval town perched on a rock above the sea. it’s a beautiful place but there were too many people. so this morning i got on a rattly little train to the inaccurately named town of gioia (joy). my trusty map indicated a branch line winding up to the mountains from there, but the timetables at gioia station showed no sign of it. i feared it had been closed down but when i asked an official he pointed to a separate station down the road.  here to my delight i found a 1950s single-carriage train waiting, painted in bright red and yellow.

twenty minutes later i was bouncing and squeeking through olive groves and forest across the plain. my fellow passengers were a nun, a mother and a baby.

getting off at cittanova i found the station completely deserted. exiting to the street there were a couple of children playing who stopped and stared as soon as they saw me. i smiled and asked directions to the town centre. they continued to stare and said nothing. i don’t think many tourists come to cittanova.

i picked my way through narrow crumbling streets and soon found my way to the main piazza dominated by a stark white church. a big stage was being constructed and a bunch of musicians was huddled to one side. i asked whether there was an information office but they were all freshly arrived for a performance this evening and no wiser than me. the only other sign of life was a fellow hovering at the corner of the piazza. i asked him and he told me to wait, crossed to a doorway and shouted something inside.

a moment later a sparky young lady called patrizia came out, bid me help her close the door and took me in hand. first she drove me to the one and only bed and breakfast in town, but its two rooms were already occupied. then she drove me to the mother of someone who runs a hostel up in the mountains. there was no definitive answer but i’m due to phone in an hour by which time it’ll be clear if there’s room for me. patrizia dropped me off here to wait. if there’s space in the hostel i’ll have to polish my hitch-hiking skills since there’s no bus, taxi or car hire in cittanova.

19:05 / now seated at the roadside in the centre of ton with a beer at my side. when i called the hostel they told me they didn’t have any space. i considered catching the last train of the day to polistena right at the end of the line. but there’s no guarantee i’d find somewhere to stay there. patrizia had mentioned a hotel on the outskirts of cittanova so i sought it out and took a room.

21:10 / the last few hours have been a fabulous cavalcade. as i was writing my previous entry by the road several men came over and asked if i needed any help. when i explained that i wanted to take a hike up in the mountains they started suggesting all manner of routes, though i got the impression it had been a while since any of them had actually been up themselves. each one of them warned me that i would get lost and meet my doom if i followed any route other than the one they were advocating.

eventually a younger chap called michele rolled up on a bicycle and by the way the others deferred it was clear he knew the mountains rather better than they did. he proceeded to take me to his family house to dig out some maps then to various friends’ houses who might be interested in coming up with me, but all of them were out. after this he took me to the town hall where i met cittanova’s environmental director and mayor. the latter was calmly discussing how his car was blown up by ill-wishers earlier this evening. finally michele took me to a keen rambler called gaetano who pulled out glasses of amaro and photos he’d taken on treks throughout the aspromonte. if the weather’s clear he’ll come up with me tomorrow.

i doubt this is what most people are after when they go traveling but it’s exactly the kind of thing that delights me most. i feel completely alive, swept along by currents of happenstance and unexpected friendship, richly connected to a place where i was a complete stranger just eight hours ago. i’m so happy i could cry.

g r e e n m a n

[ 02:30 monday 21 august – glenusk estate, gwent, wales ]

it’s the final night of the green man festival, here in the welsh hills. after three days gorging ourselves on music the crowd of three thousand has distilled down to the forty-odd people crammed into this yurt. almost everyone is playing a percussion instrument of some kind, in most cases bottles or jars. for the last half hour i’ve been hammering a big metal olive oil canister. i shall probably remember this as the high point of the festival. there’s a sense of exhuberence and fellowship. for the first time we’re producing something together rather than consuming it.

in 1999 i played at camel rock in the isles scilly. then in 2004 i spent a couple of hours at womad. but this has been my first fully fledged experience of a music festival. i took the train to abergavenny with jan and luke on monday morning, from where we took a taxi up to the festival site. we pitched our tents under a big oak tree and we’ve been here since then.

there are three music stages and several other venues. the music covers a wide spectrum but most of it is evolved from some kind of folk tradition. the highlights for me have been gruff rhys (all but two of whose songs were in welsh), a band called “nalle” which sounded like icelandic music from outer space, and a duo from new mexico playing accordian and violin.

the music has been quite euro-american focused and the crowd is distinctly middle class. personally i’d have enjoyed more asian, african and south american ingredients. but i don’t want to carp, i’ve loved it all.

: c :

k a y a k

[ 15:23 sunday 13 august – sandhurst,  gloucestershire ]

i’m with mum and dad for the weekend, perched in the sitting room   with the garden a mass of lively greens against the overcast sky. mum   remedying my botched efforts turning up a pair of linen trousers i   bought from chieko’s stall at spitalfiends. on the radio the bach  cello suites are being played in a curious transcription for guitar.

yesterday we all went canoeing on the river wye, mum and dad together  in an open canoe and me in a bright yellow kayak. we did an eight  mile stretch around the symonds yat gorge in the middle of the forest  of dean, a gorgeous and mysterious landscape. we saw salmon jumping,  buzzards wheeling overhead and even a kingfisher darting azure across  the water. the river was very low and at several points the water  formed races over the stony bed. at one such race i made an idiot of  myself and succeeded in capsizing, to the amusement of mum and dad.  the water was so deliciously warm that when we’d finished the journey  and hauled the canoes out of the water i found a secluded spot and  went for a swim.

for the past month or two i’ve been looking for a house to buy in  london but truth be told i’m ambivalent about the whole exercise. one  of my experiments from 1998 to 2003 involved trying to avoid owning  things and it left me with a strong sense that the less i owned the  happier i was. so long as i have access to necessary things and  services i have no desire to own them. people usually talk about the  feelings of security that come with ownership but in my experience  there is much more sense of burden and restriction.

a house is probably the pinnacle of the ownership malaise, surrounded  as it is by long-term financial obligations and a multitude of  complex maintenance requirements. i have no interest in a house as an  investment, which seems to have become a primary motivator for many  people. i just want somewhere to live.

the thing that started me thinking about buying somewhere was the  realisation that there are a hundred things i’d like to change in the  flat where i live, but because i rent it i’m not able to do it. the  bathroom and kitchen need refitting, the roof needs strengthening and  given proper access, the brickwork on the western wall needs sealing  so rainwater doesn’t seep in, more storage needs building in. all  these things would make a difference to my daily life.

of course i don’t really like living in london, which further  diminishes my enthusiasm for buying a house here. when i returned  from stromboli in 2003 i sincerely believed it would be possible to  set up trampoline and be on my way again after six months. three  years later this looks somewhat naive, but i’m glad i made the choice  and i doubt i’d have done so had i realised how long it would take,  so that original naivety was a blessing. the company’s at a point now  where i expect to be able to start spending a portion of my time  working remotely before long. but i’ll still be spending a lot of my  time in london for the next few years so it makes sense to sort out a  living environment in which i feel comfortable.

amongst the many odious aspects of house-hunting there’s been one  real pleasure. in the process of determining which areas i’d like to  live in i’ve spent hours cycling round unfamiliar areas of hackney,  islington highbury, haggerston and canonbury. this has given me a  much richer sense of where the mediaeval village centres were and of  the explosive waves of residential development during the second half  of the nineteenth century. a bicycle is a wonderful aid to  understanding a city’s development and topography.

: c :

p o n d s

[ 17:00 saturday 24 june – middle bathing pond, hampstead heath, london ]

there are three of these ponds on hampstead heath, of which this one is my favourite. i dislike swimming pools so in the absence of the sea this place is a haven. the water is brownish from the peaty soil but it is clean. the pond is large enough never to feel crowded, even on a glorious day like today. one swims surrounded by willow trees and gigantic azure dragon-flies, accompanied by birdsong and the babble of happy voices. the centre of the heath is one of few places in london where the eternal rumble of traffic doesn’t penetrate. what bliss.

indeed the last three weeks in london have borne an uncanny resemblance to summer. every day i take breakfast and supper on the roof. the camelia and rhododendron have already flowered, the oleander and hydrangea are coming into bud now. i love sitting up there in an island of tranquility with the world flowing around me.

the biggest difference the serene weather makes is its impact on londoners themselves. instead of the usual grim and downturned faces the streets are filled with smiles and laughter. people walk differently, more meandering strolls and fewer purposeful strides. people are even less uptight about bantering with strangers. if london were like this for six months each year (heck, even for three solid months) it would not be such a bad place to live. but alas these days are all too fleeting and before we know it they will be gone.

k i t e s u r f e r s

[ 15:14 monday 29 may – hayle towans, cornwall ]

the tide has receded further than i’ve ever seen. these must be some of the biggest spring tides of the year. the departing waters have left the huge expanse of white sand imprinted with a mysterious caligraphy of wrinkles and undulations.

attracted by today’s clear skies, two feet of surf and a steady force five the kite surfers are out in force. i can count twenty of them darting around, leaping high into the air and floating gracefully back down. they’d be easier to count if they’d stayed still.

the wind’s a bit chilly so i’m sheltering amongst  rocks at the base of the cliff. how good to be back here in cornwall where i grew up. good also to spend these days with anna and adam, who are packing up their home in hayle ready to move next weekend.

[ 22:03 tuesday 30 may – great western railway, hayle to london ]

four hours into the six hour journey. the sun set shortly before bristol in a golden blaze.

i feel a tug of emotion every time i pass over brunel’s saltash bridge, the iconic frontier between devon and cornwall. the nature of the emotion depends on my direction.

: c :

n u b e

[ 02:15 friday 5 may – stromboli ]

i’m wedged between rocks about eight hundred metres up the volcano, on my own.  scrambling up the scree on hands and knees a few minutes ago i was suddenly engulfed in thick cloud. visibility is down to three metres. the wind whips and tugs from unpredictable directions. from time to time there’s the roar of an eruption, above me to the left, and the cloud glows orange. it’s cold. the rocks glisten with moisture. i feel completely alone.

as i write, the clouds open above me and the vast mantle of stars is unveiled, but i know the cloud may close around me again at any moment.

i was planning to go to the summit tonight but this is the first time i’ve come up alone and the cloud is scaring me. even in clear conditions it’s easy to lose your way up here and find yourself on the edge of a precipice.

03:33 / the last hour has been hard work. after writing the previous entry i agonised about whether to carry on upwards or give in. finally i couldn’t resist being so close to the top and started scrambling upward again. sure enough the cloud closed around me five minutes later, punishing me for my arrogance. since then i’ve been painstakingly picking my way down the mountainside, straining to pick out the path (such as it is). several times i’ve erred and had to retrace my steps some distance. i never imagined i’d feel such gratitude for the occasional splashes of white paint left behind by consciencious guides.

the cloud extended about six hundred metres down the mountain and i only emerged a moment ago. looking with gratitude at the starry sky i was rewarded with the second-brightest meteorite i’ve ever seen, streaking across the mountain leaving a brilliant fizzing trail behind it. i made one hell of a wish.

04:40 / back home, relieved, tired.