All posts by charlesarmstrong

a l a n d a l u s

[ 12:51 Tuesday 13 December 2022 – Gran Via de Colon, Granada, Andalucia ]

From where I sit on the roof terrace, the medieval heart of Granada unwinds beneath me like a labyrinth, the skyline punctuated by churches. To my left, the hulking mass of the cathedral, commenced 1518 on the site of the previous grand mosque, stands as a permanent marker of the Catholic monarchy’s final defeat of Spain’s Islamic civilisation after seven centuries.

Granada roofscape from our terrace

In front of me, the sober dome and tower of Santos Justo y Pastor rise above the rooftops, built in 1575 as the convent church of the Hermandad de la Encarnación. To my right, the white-and-green tiled dome of San Juan de Dios strikes a jollier note, constructed from 1737 with a jaw-dropping baroque interior where every available surface is coated in gold.

Beyond the medieval centre and the suburbs stretches the wide fertile plain, Granada’s “Vega”. In the distance the horizon is ringed by low mountains. Finally, leaning over the parapet and looking to my left, the peaks of the high Sierra Nevada form a spectacular backdrop to the city, rising to three thousand metres and capped in snow.

Mulhacen, 3,482 metres, the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada

For the last last three days the weather has been unsettled. As I write  the Vega is dotted with patches of light and dark as clouds prowl across the sky. The mountains to my right are veiled beneath a grey curtain as a rainstorm passes over, heading towards the city. Sometime in the next half hour I’ll need to duck indoors and wait for the rain to pass. 

We arrived in this flat at the start of November. The Andalucian winter is so mild and sunny I’ve been able to spend most days working out here on the terrace with my laptop, often wearing no more than a T shirt. This strikes quite a contrast with last winter in Pollença, where we were trapped inside with a blazing fire while gales and torrential rain battered the windows.

Vaulting in the Capilla Real, Cathedral de Granada

Granada is where Alex was born and went to university. I visited the city with him shortly after we met. However this is the first extended period we’ve spent here together. This is also the first of our Spanish homes located in a city centre rather than the country.

The city is delightful, the centre small enough that one can reach anywhere in thirty minutes by foot. Each week we buy fish from a stall in the central market, fruit and vegetables from our favourite grocer, bread from one of a handful of bakers. Occasionally we stop for tapas at one of the dozens of bars surrounding the house. We’ve been to art galleries, concerts and dance performances. Along the way I’ve met a variety of Alex’s childhood friends. My Spanish is just about at a point where I can converse with someone who speaks no English, albeit haltingly and with grievous errors.

Late night Flamenco in its true habitat, a cave in Sacromonte

The area of Granada I’m most drawn to is the Albayzin. This is the oldest part of the city, where the Romans established their settlement of Iliberis on a hill overlooking the plain in 44BC. More significantly, it’s where Zawa ben Ziri established Gharnata in 1009AD, the capital of the Zirid kingdom.

Over the subsequent 481 years Gharnata grew to be one of the greatest cities of the Islamic world, famed for its climate, fertility and artisanship. After the Catholic conquest of 1492 the geographical focus shifted to the foot of the hill where the medieval and modern city developed. As a result the Albayzin remains miraculously preserved, much as the Zirids would have recognised it.

The Albayzin

A labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways cling to the steep hillside, some no more than a metre wide, lined with houses of two or three storeys, often wrapped around a tranquil internal courtyard. Every so often a street opens onto an intimate plaza with a church at one end, which invariably turns out to have been a mosque previously. Underpinning the settlement is the virtuosic system of aqueducts and cisterns constructed by the Zirids to supply the city with water from springs ten kilometres to the north, much of it still in operation today.

Before arriving in Granada we spent a couple of weeks in Ferreirola, a tiny and silent village with 90 inhabitants, 1,000 metres high on the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada. This is one of fifty villages in the Alpujarra, a region settled by Berbers following the Islamic occupation of 711AD. They brought with them a distinctive and finely-tuned array of architectural, irrigation and agricultural practices from the Atlas mountains. The villages consist of white houses with stone walls, flat roofs made from branches supporting a layer of stones, with first floors extending over the narrow streets to provide shelter from the harsh winter weather.

Our front door, Ferreirola

The Alpujarra is as close to a Garden of Eden as anywhere on earth I’ve been. Springs bubble from the earth at every step, some producing sparkling water, others rich in iron. Forests of chestnut, walnut and oak cloak the mountainside. Orchards and gardens overflow with fruits and vegetables of every kind. Alex and I spent our days hiking and losing ourselves in the abundant nature.

In July I wrote about our first visit to Los Escullos in the Cabo de Gata Biosphere Reserve, on Andalucia’s southern coast. We both loved the area, so we decided to return and spend more time. For the month of October we rented a house in Las Hortichuelas Bajas, a tiny village at the foot of an ancient volcano, at the centre of the reserve.

La Isletta del Moro, in the Cabo de Gata Biosphere Reserve

In July the area felt remarkably free of tourists, but in October it was positively deserted. Over the course of the month we explored almost the entire coast from Cabo de Gata to Carboneras, with its seemingly infinite selection of wild coves and beaches, each with its own dramatic cliffs or rock outcrops.

During the month we experienced just one storm, complete with thunder, lightning and an hour of torrential rain. In such an arid landscape the rain felt like a miracle. The next day the air was filled with the rich perfumes of plants. Each afternoon we went to swim either on the stony beach at Las Negras or the broad sandy arc of Playazo de Rodalquilar, which became our favourite. Alex’s parents and my parents both came to stay while we were there.

Pine oasis at Cala de Los Toros

Now, three months after our arrival in Andalucia, this chapter of our journey is almost at an end. The house is packed up and in a few hours Alex will drive me to the airport. After a week of meetings in London I’ll join my family for Christmas in Cornwall.

Andalucia is not at all what I expected. I imagined the blend of Islamic and Christian elements would be similar to Sicily, which I know well, however Andalucia is wildly different. The fusion of North African and European elements is woven much more deeply through every aspect of the landscape and culture, with the contributions of the Islamic civilisation more vividly present in the modern culture.

In truth we’ve barely scratched the surface of Andalucia in these months, yet already the contrasts are striking. The aridity of Cabo de Gata versus the lush fertility of the Alpujarra, the cosmopolitan vitality of Granada versus the silent stillness of Las Hortichuelas, the winter sunshine and blossoms of the Vega versus the snow-covered terrain of the Sierra Nevada.

This has been an intoxicating first immersion in Andalucia. I doubt it will be the last.

: c :

a ñ o b a l e a r

[ 22:55 Friday 1 July 2022 – Los Escullos, Andalucia ]

One year ago today, Alejandro and I tumbled out of the airport in Palma with an avalanche of suitcases, bicycles and dreams. A couple of days ago we stood and watched Palma recede from the stern of a ship, with our belongings squashed into a Citröen van several decks below.

Adios, Palma!

The ferry took us two hundred and fifty kilometres to Denia, on the coast of Valencia. From there we drove another three hundred and seventy kilometres to Los Escullos in the Cabo de Gata national park, in Andalucia. This is an astonishing landscape, a cluster of dead volcanoes eroded over millions of years into gentle undulating hills. It’s the most arid place in Europe, with just twenty centimetres of rainfall a year; the only piece of the continent to classify as “hot desert”.

The land is far from lifeless though. The hillsides are speckled with dwarf fan palms, pink snapdragon and cactuses, able to suck meagre moisture from the air. Jujube trees or “red dates” dot the coastal areas. Some valleys are filled with surreal forests of agave, comprising thousands of spindly flowering spikes swaying several metres in the air.

The coast consists of jagged cliffs punctuated with sandy beaches, each one a different hue; white, grey, black, even brick red. In 1987 the Spanish government designated the area as a Parque Natural, then ten years later it became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Consequently it has escaped the intensive tourist development which blights much of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Even now in July the area is astonishingly empty.

Los Escullos in the Cabo de Gata Biosphere Reserve, Andalucia

I’m sitting now with my laptop on the terrace of our house in Los Escullos, surrounded by chirping crickets with the stars twinkling through the fronds of a palm tree. Next week we’ll make a final stop with Alejandro’s family, an hour away in Olula del Rio. After that it’ll be time to leave Spain to spend a couple of months in London, Cornwall, Turkey and Georgia.

In total we’ve lived in six houses over the past year. For the first three months we had a beautiful house in the tiny village of Port des Canonge, on the mountainous north coast of Mallorca. That was followed by two weeks in a flat in Esporles, the closest village inland. For the winter we spent six months in a large draughty villa on the fertile plain between Pollença and the sea, at the northern tip of the Mallorca. In May we loaded everything onto the ferry and crossed to Menorca, where we spent a month in a bungalow by the sea in Binisafua. In June we returned to Mallorca for a month in a flat overlooking the harbour of Portopetro, on the east coast. Now here we are in a cabin near Los Escullos on the Andalucian coast.

Out of the six places we’ve lived, our base in Menorca was was probably my favourite. The house itself was nothing special but it was directly adjacent to a tiny, exquisite, V-shaped cala, with a patch of white sand opening to an expanse of turquoise water. Between video calls and emails I was able to nip over several times a day, and lose myself in the blue light.

A moody day in the cala below our house, Menorca

Professionally, the year has been highly productive. I arrived in Palma with an idea for a new kind of live/work campus for nomadic workers and team retreats, mixing housing, workspace, training an a cafe/bar. One year on, I’m in the process of establishing a sister company to The Trampery to take the idea forward. Through complete serendipity I met someone in Pollença who was working on a similar idea, and we’ve ended up joining forces.

After visiting dozens of potential sites in Mallorca and Menorca, together with multiple rounds of financial modelling, the original concept has evolved, splitting into distinct formats for town and country. We’re evaluating a site in the mediaeval heart of Palma, with the hope it might become our first location. In parallel we’re also starting to look at sites on the mainland, in Andalucia and Catalonia.

Alongside the new venture, the experiment of running The Trampery remotely from Spain has been a success. A combination of Slack and Zoom keep me close to the team every day, whilst email carries most of the discussion with clients, partners, architects and other collaborators. An important element of my role is leading development of new workspace projects, so it’s encouraging to discover I’m able to do this remotely as well.

The van, crammed with our chattels

Throughout the year I’ve maintained a rhythm of two weeks in London every two months. These periods are dedicated to site visits for potential new projects, spending time with the team and meeting clients face to face. Every visit I go out to dinner with The Trampery’s management team, which has become one of my favourite rituals. However I still haven’t worked out the right formula for these periods in London. Each visit so far I’ve ended up trying to squeeze two months of meetings into two weeks, and ended up feeling completely exhausted.

At a personal level the year’s been equally rewarding. After eighteen years living in London, it was high time I threw myself into a new environment. Each successive location has presented a tabula rasa, with the process of exploration and discovery beginning afresh. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish, my first new language since learning Italian in 2001. Over the winter I also taught myself to play the bass clarinet, since I’m without a piano.

One of the greatest privileges has been the opportunity to spend much of my time in the open air, mostly in beautiful natural environments. At each house I’ve organised somewhere I can work outside. Initially I was shy about doing video calls al fresco, but gradually that’s become my default. I’ve also been able to establish a routine where I swim in the sea almost every day, which has wonderful benefits for my state of mind. I’ve probably swum about 80% of the days through spring, summer and autumn (along with a bracing swim on New Year’s Day).

Evening office.

At the centre of the year’s experience has been Alejandro, whom I’ve started calling Alex. Catapulting ourselves into this adventure, with its catalogue of joys and stresses, has deepened our relationship. We’ve learned to rely on each other, and we’ve also become more patient with each other.

Alongside our personal relationship, this is the first time we’ve worked together on a project. As a native Spanish-speaker, Alex led all the discussions with local government. It also fell to him to fight the ghastly battle with the Spanish bureaucracy to secure my “Visado de Emprendador” (Entrepreneur Visa), without which I couldn’t have stayed in Spain. More recently he’s been doing a lot of the background research for the evolving project. Initially we both felt some trepidation about working together, and we were careful to establish “spheres of influence” to avoid treading on each other’s toes, but it’s been a very rewarding experience and I hope we can carry on.

Until the middle of September our movements are more or less planned. From that point on it’s a blank slate. We’ll just have to see where the currents carry us.

: c :

i n v i e r n o

[ 11:21 Thursday 24 March – Villa Catalaneta, Pollença ]

As I sit here on the terrace bathed in birdsong, two thousand kilometres away Russian tanks are pounding Ukraine’s Black Sea ports into rubble. Life goes on but the shadow of war lurks always in the background. It is hard not to wonder what pandora’s box has been opened, and what will emerge from it in the months and years ahead.

Yesterday marked five years since Alejandro and I met, following a talk on fine-art curation in the digital sphere organised by Elaine. It still feels like yesterday that I spotted this handsome fellow grinning and gesticulating across the room. How can it be five years? The probability of meeting someone who shares my most obscure musical tastes, whose social values run close to mine and who enjoys so many of the same pursuits as me, must be infinitesimally small. How far we’ve come together in these years, how much richer my life is and how much I’ve learned from him.

Five years making trouble

This morning it rained. Now as the clouds lift, water drips from trees and bushes around the garden, creating an irregular counterpoint to the birds’ polyphony. Alejandro and I chose this house to spend six months over the winter. It’s located in the plain that spreads from the town of Pollença, in the foothills of the Tramuntana mountains, to the sheltered arc of the Bay of Pollença. It’s a spacious house with a big garden and a row of eleven tall palm trees, signalling its location across the landscape.

Our house for six months over the winter, Pollença

We arrived here at the start of November during a cataclysmic thunderstorm, which set the tone for our first two months here. A freakish chain of storm systems passed through the western Mediterranean, bringing two months of almost unbroken gales and torrential rain.

Fields and roads were flooded. Sporadic electricity outages became familiar occurrences. Gusts were recorded close by at 120 kilometres an hour. A yacht broke its mooring and washed up on the beach. I went to the coast in one of the strongest gales and the force of the wind was such that I could barely open my eyes.

A yacht broke its mooring in the storms & ran aground, Port de Pollença

Initially the dramatic weather was exciting, but as it continued week after week the experience became gruelling. With no central heating and poorly-fitted windows the house was dark, damp and cold. We had half a ton of holm oak and olive wood delivered, and became experts at managing the open fire in the sitting room. We also learned to fling open doors and windows whenever the rain stopped, to air the house and keep it dry.

When Christmas came we joined our respective families in Cornwall and Almeria. Returning to Mallorca on New Year’s Eve, it was as if we’d come back to a different place. The sun was shining, the sky was azure and the temperature was nudging 20 degrees. Elaine arrived from Los Angeles, Arthur arrived from Paris, we celebrated the last day of the year with Alejandro DJing on a tiny portable speaker.

At 4am on New Year’s Day we went out into the garden to discover a thick fog had settled over the plain, cloaking the landscape in swirling dampness. In the motionless air we could hear music from half a dozen other parties, spanning a range of several miles in each direction. The music was mingled with the sound of hundreds of cockerels crowing, near and far across the plain, as if adding their voices to the celebration. It was a magical way to begin the year.

January and February were sublime months. Day after day we awoke to clear skies, sunshine and birdsong. I spent the days working on a table in the garden, retreating inside only when the sun set behind Puig Maria and the temperature started to fall. A couple of times each week I took my laptop to a local beach, went for a swim in the chill, crystal-clear water, then sat on a rock in the sun and did my work.

The post-swim office

We’ve been getting a lot of exercise. We hike at the weekends, exploring remote places in the mountains and coast. At twilight when we finish work we often do a circuit to the sea and back on our bikes. We’ve started weekly tennis lessons, a sport that Alejandro already plays well but which is new to me. Finally, inspired by Alejandro’s example, I’ve started going to a couple of yoga classes each week.

Between 1995 and 2015 I studied yoga devotedly, starting with Alaric Newcombe at the Iyengar Centre in Maida Vale, then continuing with a series of wonderful teachers. Having suffered knee problems as a child, I grew up with a terribly hunched posture and little confidence in my physical ability. Alaric was a demanding teacher and at first I found the classes a struggle. But with perseverance, yoga restored my posture, changed how I breathe, and gave me a new sense of myself as a physical entity. After twenty years of devoted study, I gradually drifted into other activities and allowed it to lapse. Picking it up again now is like being reunited with an old friend, and I realise how large a gap it left in my life.

Our trusty wheels

The one sad note from these months is the death of Viola Nettle, my beloved piano teacher from Cornwall, aged 90. I studied with her from the age of 7 to 17. Along the way she became as much a friend as a teacher and we always remained close. Viola is the person who gave shape to my love of music, and instilled in me a curiosity for new sounds that will be with me all my life.

For the last decade, tragically, she suffered from alzheimer’s which progressively stripped away her memory and personality. The last time I saw her was February 2020 when I visited the care home where she was living. By this stage conversation was impossible, so I spent an hour playing the piano for her, including the whole of JS Bach’s Italian Variations, some Ravel I was working on, and a couple of pieces she’d taught me as a child. When the time came to say goodbye I kissed her on the cheek. She grinned and said “You naughty boy!”

: c :

m e d i o s i g l o

[ 12:35 Sunday 24 October 2021 – MV Orlando, Thames estuary ]

I’m sitting on the top deck of Orlando under a clear blue sky, swinging slowly in the wide open estuary, with the autumn sun on my face. To the north, the windswept expanse of Rainham Marshes fills the landscape behind a sweeping bend in the river, familiar to me from many explorations by foot and bike. Every few minutes a high speed train whistles past behind the marshes, sending clouds of birds rising from the wetlands.

To the south, the muddy bank is lined with waste processing plants and cement works, with the spire of Erith church peeking above piles of twisted metal upriver. The ghostly sentinels of Canary Wharf and the City shimmer on the distant western horizon, reminders of the great city at their feet.

We arrived yesterday evening in the final rays of sun and lowered our anchor rattling into the black sticky mud, following an exhilarating run down from St Katharine Docks, skimming over the water at twenty-five knots. With the engines spent, the only sound was the sucking and slapping of the fierce ebb tide pulling at the hull, drawing the anchor chain taut like a violin string and painting a fan of tangled water behind the stern.

Orlando at anchor, Thames estuary

We planned to go further, to the mouth of the Medway, and anchor in the desolate mudlands of Stangate Creek. But a fault with the fuel gauges left us uncertain what remained in the tanks, so we erred on the side of caution and stopped here.

Ever since buying the boat in the spring and bringing it down to London, I’ve been yearning to spend a night at anchor on the estuary, entirely off-grid. This first experiment has been a thrill. Alejandro and I cooked dinner on the gas hob: sauteed haddock loin, cavolo nero and mashed sweet potatoes with spring onions. We played cards in the saloon as the boat swung on the turning tide. It feels as though we’re cut off from the world, completely self-sufficient.

Half an hour after curling up in bed there was a scare when suddenly the boat began pitching and rolling crazily, sending cups and bottles crashing to the floor. I was awake in an instant and scrambled out to the deck expecting to find a giant ship passing. However the river was deserted and after a few minutes the waves subsided, their cause remaining a mystery. We went back to sleep and the night saw no further disturbances.

Alejandro and I spent the final week of September packing up the house in Port D’Es Canonge. With a heavy heart I took final swims from my favourite places. On the thirtieth, my final day as a legal visitor in Spain under the post-Brexit regulations, we flew to London. There was still no word from the Spanish Consulate regarding my visa, so we departed Mallorca with no idea when we’d be returning.

Packing up the house, Port D’Es Canonge

Despite my melancholy at leaving Mallorca, it’s been a pleasure spending October in Britain. The first week was a riot of meetings with The Trampery and catching up with friends. On the fourth a message finally arrived from the Spanish Consulate: my entrepreneur visa was granted! Alejandro and I cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate and we stared making plans for the winter in Mallorca.

From London I got the train to Cornwall and spent a week with my family. The weather was glorious. Each day was filled with coastal hikes and swims. One especially sublime morning my parents donned their wetsuits and joined me for a swim on the Roseland peninsular. Having been without a piano since selling mine in June, I greedily ploughed through JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Mum and Dad’s, greatly relieved to find my technique returning after a couple of days. Alejandro joined me in Cornwall and we spent a night with Anna and Adam. Then Mum organised a magnificent dinner for all of us, the first time we’d been together around a table since before the pandemic.

Low tide at Porthtowan, Cornwall

After Cornwall our next stop was a three-days electronic music festival in Sheffield, the first time I’d been in an enclosed space with so many people since March 2019. Once I’d got used to the crowd, I loved it. The artist roster was superb and I’ve missed dancing like crazy. From Sheffield we returned to London, where we remain until flying back to Mallorca on the fourth of November.

Opening night of No Bounds festival, Sheffield

This month has been our first extended period living on board Orlando together. Ever since we decided to get a boat as our London base, it’s been a bit of a gamble how we’d find it in practice. Would we start feeling claustrophobic after a few days? Would it be unbearably cold in the winter?

To my relief we both love it, to the point where we could probably live aboard indefinitely. There’s enough space for the two of us to potter around doing our own stuff without tripping over each other. Whenever the sun is shining I take my laptop up to the flybridge and work there. On frosty nights the hot air system keeps the cabin toasty.

My new folding bike on the pontoon, St Katharine Docks

There’s something about the boat’s constant gentle movements as it shifts on its mooring that I find particularly conducive to peaceful sleep. I love being tucked up in bed when the rain is pattering on the foredeck above our heads. We’re still getting used to being so centrally located in London. Museums and galleries that were an hour’s travel from Hackney Wick are now within walking distance. Meanwhile I’ve bought a little folding bike so I can zip back and forth to meetings.

On the fourteenth of September I celebrated my fiftieth birthday with Alejandro in the town of Soller, on the north coast of Mallorca. I feel nothing but gratitude for the life I’ve been granted.

: c :

o n e m o n t h

[ 19:43 sunday 26 april 2020 – old ford lock, london ]

in the month since britain’s quarantine restrictions came into force, life has diminished in almost every way. my world has shrunk to a sphere comprising the house, the garden and a surrounding radius of one hour’s cycle.

at the same time, though, life has also expanded in certain respects. alejandro and i have both noticed a heightened awareness of the natural world around us. in this most most abundant period of spring, each day brings a thousand changes; trees newly in blossom, shoots peeping from the earth, buds opening into flowers, different species of migrating moth appearing in the house. i’ve never been so conscious of it all. there is a luxury of stillness, the ability to sit for ten minutes and allow one’s mind to soak up and appreciate everything that is around.

with the closure of london city airport the usual background noise of jet engines has disappeared. it’s like an extended version of the intense quiet i remember from 2011, when the volcano grimsvötn erupted in iceland and for a few days european air traffic ceased. our location at old ford lock was already quiet. with the planes gone, the loudest sounds are now birdsong, the rustle of wind in the trees and the trickle of water escaping through the lock gates.

alejandro and i continue our daily bike excursions, progressively scouring the area for wild or interesting places that fall within range. over the past two weekends we’ve traced the path of the river roding from woodford, through the bluebell-carpeted grounds of wanstead house, past ilford and barking to the reed beds and wastelands where it finally reaches the thames. frisbee, badminton and yoga have been added to our daily outdoor routine. scrabble and trivial pursuit have become evening fixtures.

many of my friends have found themselves undertaking heroic projects in the house or garden. for my part i’ve dug out several new flower beds and planted them with twenty-one dahlias, nine peonies and ten begonias. with luck, some of them might flourish. i’ve also cleared out the small yard behind the house, which had become an overgrown dumping ground for boats and abandoned flowerpots, to create a new seating area. since it gets the late afternoon sun we’ve taken to having our tea there.

on weekdays i remain occupied with my work for the trampery. march and april have been a hectic cycle of planning for possible scenarios and responding to events. the most demanding period was the second half of march when the situation was changing dramatically from day to day. it was during this period we switched most of our team to home working and took the decision to close down the workspaces. during april things have stabilised in their new geometry. in the last couple of weeks i’ve been able to start working on future projects once again.

a crisis like this tests the mettle of any team. the trampery team, currently numbering twenty-seven employees plus eight contractors, has been magnificent. throughout the whole rollercoaster experience everyone has stuck together, calmly evaluated what was coming and adapted to each successive change. a full week before the quarantine was announced, the team had already switched most of the company’s activities online and launched “the trampery at home“. i’m excited to see what we can achieve together once the crisis is past.

since january i’ve been writing an article each month for the trampery, touching on aspects of entrepreneurship and society that interest me. the most recent one explores how the coronavirus crisis is likely to affect the future course of capitalism. if you’re interested the article is posted here on medium (the rest of them are listed here).

life under quarantine, with the house as an undifferentiated setting for work and life, and no access to mechanised transportation, is like a reconstruction of pre-industrial life; just with netflix and video calls added. in the midst of this arcadian existence, the element i find most jarring is shopping. there is something dystopian about the regimented two-metre-spaced queues, the guards at the door, the sense of pressure and the subtle undercurrent of fear. i recognise it’s all necessary, but supermarkets now feel unpleasantly similar to airports.

the single most disquieting aspect of visiting shops is routinely seeing bare shelves. i remember as a child in the 1980s seeing television news reports portraying empty shelves in eastern european cities, with images of housewives queuing to enter a shop. in consumerist societies we were brought up to view this as something alien and shocking, yet we are now confronted with it daily.

since 2013 i’ve been baking all my own bread (which alejandro refuses to eat). my staple loaf is a mix of dark rye and wholemeal with sunflower seeds, walnuts, figs or whatever else is to hand. whilst the initial shortages of toilet paper, tinned tomatoes, pasta and rice have all faded, the flour shelves remain stubbornly bare. apparently this isn’t due to any production shortage, it’s simply that 99% of britain’s population has taken up bread-making as a way to cope with being stuck at home. the flour crisis has become so severe that not only are the shops bereft, online suppliers are also sold out.

thus i now find myself, in a surreal reversal, awaiting the delivery of 20 kilos of rye and wholemeal flour from a supplier located in dresden; one of those east bloc cities featured on television in the 1980s, with the empty shelves and queuing housewives.

: c :

q u a r a n t i n a

[ 23:01 tuesday 24 march 2020 – old ford lock, london ]

today was the first day of britain’s mass quarantine against the coronavirus. along with most of the population i shall be secluding myself at home for the next three weeks, and i suspect longer. here in london it has been a glorious spring day. the air remains chilly but the sky was a perfect blue and the midday sun was strong enough to warm the face.

since the middle of february the storm’s approach has been creeping up on my consciousness. each day as i visited an exhibition, walked into a shop or passed a group of friends laughing on the towpath i found myself pausing for a moment to appreciate the beauty of these everyday things, and wondering how long remained before they were swept away.

the final large gathering i attended was a seminar at mansion house on tuesday 10th march, hosted by the lord mayor of london, where i chaired a discussion on the relationship between place and creativity. it was a splendid event, and a remarkable experience to observe a hundred and fifty city dignitaries bashfully experimenting with elbow bumps, waves and various alternatives to shaking hands.

my last face-to-face meeting came a day later on wednesday 11th march, from 5pm to 6pm, with the team at the trampery old street.  for the subsequent twelve days i’ve been working from home, so yesterday’s announcement didn’t feel like a particularly abrupt change.

the fashion business where alejandro works sent their team home last week, so each day he’s been working here in the house alongside me. quickly we are establishing new etiquettes and habits for these novel circumstances. when it’s sunny we each have our spot to work on the terrace outside. when the air becomes too cool for alfresco working, we perch at respective sides of the circular table in the sitting room. if either of us has a video call there’s a tacit agreement to retreat downstairs to the dining room.

yesterday’s announcement from the prime minister’s came three years, almost to the minute, from when alejandro and i first met each other at a lecture in poplar. we celebrated a slightly muted anniversary at home. a lot of the local shops had closed early so the most luxurious items i was able to forage were peach ice cream, watermelon and a chocolate rabbit.

all of my life, i’ve been drawn to solitude and generally i find myself comfortable in isolation. i chose to live on islands for most of the period 1999 to 2003; first on st agnes and st mary’s in the isles of scilly (diary entries here), then on stromboli in the aeolian archipelago. (diary entries here). i was serenely happy for much of this period. however as it became clear last week that extensive restrictions were likely to be imposed, i felt a growing terror at the possibility i might be barred from leaving the house for excursions on foot, bicycle or kayak.

perhaps in subconscious preparation, over the weekend i gorged myself on adventures in wild places in the full thrall of springtime. on saturday alejandro and i cycled out to explore the huge expanse of wanstead flats. then on sunday i did a twenty-five mile bike ride up to epping forest and back, getting completely smothered in mud in the process. finally on monday afternoon, just a few hours before the prime minister’s announcement, i dropped my kayak in the water for the first time this year and paddled up to hackney marshes.

in the end, to my relief, the restrictions leave us free to make an hour-long excursion each day. this bodes well for my sanity and for the future of my relationship with alejandro. today at lunchtime we celebrated this liberty by cycling up through the olympic park and across hackney marshes to my favourite stretch of the river lea. i climbed down the bank and stood on a stone in the flow of the river, listening to the rush of water and birdsong, with fresh green leaves glowing in the sunlight along the sides.

this is truly a remarkable moment. it will be a shared experience for almost all humans now alive, in a way that possibly has no precedent. people refer to the september 2001 attack on the world trade centre (diary entry for that day). however that was an event that happened in one place and was experienced only vicariously by the rest of the planet. even the second world war was, in truth, largely a european, western russian and pacific affair that left much of the world untouched.

i suspect many people will have felt moved to record their impressions on this first day of the general quarantine, as countless others will have done in different countries. perhaps i shall write more in the coming weeks as the situation evolves. for now i hope that you, my friends and my family, wherever in the world you are, remain safe and cheerful.

: c :

t y p h o o n

[ 20:48 saturday 12 october 2019 – hatchobori, tokyo ]

as i write, the centre of typhoon hagibis is passing directly overhead. or more accurately, it is everywhere around me. from the seventh floor window where i’m sitting the lights of skyscrapers are barely visible through a sky that is more water than air. sheets of rain comb between the buildings like rollers traversing an ocean. below me the surface of the river is tormented and whipped into leaden confusion. swollen high above its normal level from rain and storm surge, it has spread to submerge surrounding paths and vegetation. trees bend and twist, writhing wildly. the sound of the wind has become a solid element, a low constant scream like a jet engine, punctuated with high whines and screeches.

growing up in cornwall i witnessed each year the south westerly gales coming in from the atlantic. sometimes the wind was so strong it wasn’t possible to stand up straight. one year i remember huddling with my family beneath the stairs as trees and power lines crashed down around the house, whilst tiles and other debris hurtled past horizontally. however i have never seen anything like this typhoon. according to the japanese meteorological service this is the most powerful storm to hit japan since 1958. the wind speed outside is currently 114 kilometres per hour, and by midnight 130 centimetres of rain will have fallen on the city since i woke up this morning.

today alejandro and i were meant to pick up a campervan and drive north to the mountains of gunma, to spend three days at the labyrinth festival. we arrived in tokyo on wednesday, just as the forecasters began to speculate whether the typhoon’s track might lead directly over tokyo. we debated whether to collect the van a day early and get as far away from the city as possible, or sit out the storm in tokyo and hope the roads would be passable a day later. i erred towards the former, alejandro to the latter. in the end i came round to his side and here we are with ringside seats.

yesterday the weather was perfectly calm, giving not the slightest intimation of what was coming. this morning around seven o’clock the first drops of rain arrived, hesitant at first, then steadier. by ten the air was growing fitful with half-hearted gusts tugging at the trees. at midday i put on yachting oilskins, carefully packed my rolleiflex into a waterproof backpack, and ventured out into the street. all public transport was shut down, the streets were empty, every balcony and courtyard cleared of flowerpots and ornaments.

without a specific plan i walked down the west side of the kamejima river, then kept going where it joined the sumida river. the rain was already torrential, and minute by minute the wind was strengthening. i had brought an umbrella which i raised each time i wanted to take a photograph, doing my best to protect the camera. but soon the wind was so strong it below the umbrella out the moment it was raised, so the photography was abandoned.

just beyond hatoba park i decided to cross the river on the kachidoki bashi road bridge and walk home along the east bank. climbing the steps onto the bridge i left behind the shelter of the buildings. exposed to the full force of the wind, the rain came at me horizontally and i had to bend double to make headway.

returning up the east bank of the sumida river i found myself walking through a neighbourhood of tumbledown two-storey houses that looked different from anything else i’d seen in tokyo. despite the typhoon i couldn’t resist exploring. i found a small temple, a tiny shop selling a thousand varieties of dried fish and a glass-fronted building by the river with a huge ceremonial relic in its window. sheltering in the porch of the temple i pulled out my phone and discovered this was the tsukuda neighbourhood, originally an island, where a fishing village was established in the seventeenth century.

continuing back towards the hotel i had to walk across the chuo-ohashi suspension bridge. about halfway across i realised it wasn’t my imagination, the whole bridge was actually shaking. i looked up and indeed the suspension cables were vibrating vigorously across a span of several feet. everything i knew about japanese engineering gave me confidence this was well within the bridge’s design tolerances, but all the same it was a little unsettling. i arrived back at the hotel three hours after my departure, soaked to the skin despite the waterproofs.

for the past two hours i’ve been sitting here in our room, with the lights turned out, glued to the window, watching and listening to the storm. yesterday i felt a bit scared, but i wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

: c :

l a n g s h i

[ 20:19 friday 23 november 2018 – langshi village, guanxi province, china ]

the night air is mild, humid, a faint perfume of moist soil. i stand at the base of a flight of stone steps, at the top of which is the house where alejandro and I are staying. in front of me stretches the wide expanse of the li river, sensed more than seen in the darkness. the water tickles and laps around the step on which i stand.

tonight’s full moon hovers below the horizon. its glow in the eastern sky revealing the mountains on the far side of the river like gigantic ghosts, rising from the water in sheer cliffs a thousand feet high. for  fifty miles in every direction the landscape is dotted with narrow, pointed peaks, rising into the air like huge anthills. these are the so-called “karsts” for which this region of guanxi is famed.

behind me the village of langshi and its two hundred inhabitants are already sleeping. the village supports itself catching fish from the river and growing crops on the abundant flood plain. the strip of fertile land between the river and the mountains is divided into neat parcels of oranges, pomelo, banana, greens, sweet potato and ground nuts.

the house in which we’re staying was built in the qing dynasty, most likely the early eighteen hundreds, for one of the village’s wealthier families. the exterior walls are made from dressed stone, whereas most of the older houses are constructed from layers of rounded river stones bonded with mud. the roof of rounded grey tiles rests on timber beams, held up by four massive pine trunks.

at the centre of the house is a double height reception room that opens onto private rooms at two levels. at one end of the hall is an ornately carved wooden gallery. at the other end carved wooden screens fold open to reveal a sunken courtyard. the house forms part of a cluster of six houses in similar style linked by shared courtyards and alleyways. i have no evidence, but i would guess the complex grew out from this central house over time as the family expanded. the mesh of semi-public reception spaces, courtyards and private rooms would have supported a complex social hierarchy.

this is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever stayed in. we have the entire place to ourselves. indeed alejandro and i are the only tourists in the village. other than our house there is nowhere for an outsider to stay. neither is there a restaurant, a cafe or a shop.

this my first visit to china. it is an overwhelming privilege to be granted this possibility to experience an agricultural community whilst it remains almost perfectly pristine and untouched by tourism. but the experience is also heartbreaking, as we are witnessing something that i fear will soon be gone. the government is vigorously developing tourism along this stretch of the river. the current generation of farmers is likely to be the last in a chain that stretches back five thousand years.

today is alejandro’s birthday. we got up before dawn, walked through the village and waited with the schoolchildren for the ferry to take us across the river. from there we arranged places on one of the outboard-powered rafts, traditionally made from bamboo boughs lashed together, but nowadays made from moulded plastic in the shape of bamboo.

as the sun rose we set off on the fifteen mile journey down the river to the market town of xingping. we spent several hours exploring the mediaeval streets and the sprawling hyper-active market, which seems to permeate the entirety of the new town. after that we hiked back through the farmland and forest bordering the river back to langshi, where we arrived shortly after dark.

yesterday we went for a shorter hike up the mountain behind the village, following the path used by goatherds. the steep slope is covered by tall trees, interspersed with outcrops of granite. with the sunlight filtering through the feathery branches of the trees it was like being in a fairyland.

when we reached the top we stopped and sat down to admire the view. as we sat there i asked alejandro if he would marry me, and presented the silver ring i’d brought from london.  he said yes!

: c :

e q u i l i b r a r

[ 18:49 saturday 4 august 2018 – near broxbourne, hertfordshire ]

seated on the grass at the edge of a lake. droplets of water fall from my hair and run in silver trails down my body. my breathing is quickened from the exertion of swimming. even at this hour the sun is fierce, settling towards the horizon in a cloudless sky. above me willow leaves shake and rustle gently in a half-hearted breeze. the edge of the lake sparkles with a thousand azure damselflies, clasping the reeds that poke and sway above the water, each one pointing its body identically towards the sun in mysterious alignment.

this year i’m working as intensely as at any point in my life. one project has been particularly demanding. to keep myself in balance i’ve been trying to intersperse work with other activities. sometimes if there’s a gap between meetings i’ll throw the kayak in the water and paddle up the canal and back before starting again. or after a long stint at the screen i’ll bike up to hackney marshes to a curving section of the river lea, then swim against the current as hard as i can with the water weeds rippling at my belly. the lake where i’m sitting now has become a favourite escape at weekends. within an hour of closing my front door i can be here, far from the city, plunging into the dark water with not a soul in sight.

alongside these local escapes the year has also been punctuated with travels further afield; some for projects, others purely for pleasure. the spring brought trips to montenegro, helsinki, chamonix, cornwall and the basque country. summer took me to california, paris, warsaw, corsica and (again) cornwall. the next few months will see me in berlin, sailing with dad in cornwall, granada, california (again), gdansk and my very first visit to china. more and more of these journeys are in the company of alejandro, who’s been brightening my life for a year and a half now.

the strategy has worked wonders. most days i feel energised and ready to face the challenges ahead. on the occasional days when i feel weighed down, all it takes is a smile or laugh from alejandro to lift my spirits again.

time for one last swim, then i’ll head home and resume battle.

: c :

m o n t e n e g r o

[ 23:54 saturday 20 january 2018 – hotel splendid, zavala, montenegro ]

since thursday night i’ve been staying in this luxury hotel on montenegro’s jaggedly beautiful coast. the british council invited me to give a speech about the trampery for an audience of government officials and entrepreneurs from the balkan countries. i enjoy missions like this which offer a short, intense experience of a new place and interesting conversations with people working there. the speech was yesterday and went well. i decided to take an extra day to explore before returning to london.

it’s extremely rare that i stay in a place like this. usually when i travel i get a flat, or a room in someone’s apartment, or i stay with friends. there is something about the anonymity of large hotels that i find dispiriting. but being here in this cosseting environment for the last couple of days has been strangely pleasurable. at meal times i just wander into the restaurant and pick whatever i want from a buffet. in the spa i can spend hours swimming lengths in the pool then let my mind drift in the succession of saunas and steam rooms. everything is effortless. i feel as if i am floating, weightless. if i stayed longer it would start to drive me crazy but for this brief burst it’s delicious.

right now i’m in my room, all polished marble and carved wood, reclining on the gigantic bed with the laptop resting on my thighs. most of the room’s lights are off, just a dim golden glow from lamps discretely hidden in the carved wall panelling. at the end of the room sliding glass doors open onto a balcony. the doors are slightly open, admitting the shush of waves from the beach and a hint of the crisp night air.

this afternoon i walked along the coast to the old town of budva, one of the oldest settlements on the adriatic coast. it was successively a military outpost for greeks, romans, venetians, austrians and italians before becoming a popular tourist resort as part of yugoslavia and now the independent montenegro. the weather has been moody and grey with clouds swirling over the mountains, a heavy swell from the sea and sporadic showers. the conditions served to heighten the already-melancholic air of an tourist resort out of season, so i enjoyed exploring all the more for the drizzle.

the old town of budva shares the essential characteristics of many other ancient coastal settlements around the mediterranean. a ring of defensive walls (venetian in this case), a labyrinth of narrow marble-paved alleyways, a church and citadel at the centre, all ordinary businesses replaced by cafes and trinket shops. today thanks to the weather the place was deserted so i had the magical sense the whole old town was there just for my pleasure.

this afternoon while exploring i was taking photographs with my trusty rolleiflex and found myself undergoing a rather sad rite of passage. for twenty years, since 1998, i have loyally been using the same film stock: fujichrome provia 400. i love the richness of its pigment, the tight grain structure of its emulsion and its incredible tolerance for low light. the final point is particularly important since i dislike flash. until 2013 i used the film in 35mm format with canon SLRs. then i bought the rollei and switched to 120mm format, but continued using the same film.

since 2000 the rise of digital photography has relentlessly eaten away at the economics of film manufacture. gradually each manufacturer has reduced its range (or in some cases disappeared entirely). in summer 2013, just as i switched to medium format, fujichrome announced it was ceasing production of provia 400. for the last four years i have been buying up remaining stocks of the 400 from further and further afield. evenetually japan was the only place where rolls could still be found. then several months ago the final sources dried up and i began to run down my last remaining boxes.

this afternoon, sheltering from the rain beneath a tree, all alone in the little square behind budva’s orthodox church, i loaded my final roll of provia 400 into the rollei. i realise i shouldn’t be so sentimental about these things, but it felt like greeting a dear friend for the last time. i couldn’t have wished for a more melancholy and beautiful scene to mark the end of this little thread in my life. now i suppose i shall have to choose a new film.

: c :