Category Archives: Spain

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 :

v e i n t e a Ñ o s

[ 10:52 Friday 20 August 2021 – Esporles, Mallorca ]

Exactly twenty years ago today, I packed up my home in London and moved to the island of Stromboli. I planned on staying two months but ended up living there two years.

During that period on Stromboli I evolved the most productive working routine I’ve discovered to date. Each day comprised alternating periods of two-to-three hours’ intensive working, punctuated by half-hour periods swimming in the sea (in summer) or walking (in winter). I found that this rhythm enabled me to get a lot of work done, remaining consistently creative and without feeling tired at the end of the day. Coming back to London in 2003 I found it painful making the transition to working a regular eight-hour day in the office again.

A few days after arriving in Port D’Es Canonge last month, I realised that I’d automatically switched back into my Stromboli working pattern. The main difference now is that my routine includes several video calls a day, which didn’t exist in 2001. It took me a while to find a comfortable way to accommodate this new type of remote collaboration. My solution involves having a fixed point in the house where I do all video calls, and dressing slightly more smartly. I also found it best to avoid going directly from a swimming break into a video call, as the transition feels too abrupt. Another evolution from my 2001 working pattern is that I now keep my laptop on London time. Whenever I’m working, I shift myself psychologically into the London time zone. This avoids any sense of dislocation when I’m speaking with the team, and makes scheduling meetings easy. My phone, on the other hand, is set to local Spanish time.

Port D’Es Canonge, Mallorca

From our house in Port D’Es Canonge it is a five minute walk to the little semi-circular cove, with dinghies pulled up on one side and a row of boathouses lining the rear of the beach. From here the wild rocky beach of Platja de Son Bunyola is ten minutes walk to one side, with the even wilder beach of Es Berganti fifteen minutes’ walk the other way, at the foot of a spectacular cliff. Most evenings a fierce katabatic wind appears without warning and whips around the trees and houses for half an hour before disappearing as suddenly as it came. Other than this wind and the ever-present cigales, the most prominent sound in the evening is the laughter and cries of Mallorquin children playing in the street.

After a month in Port D’Es Canonge, at the start of August we moved eight kilometres inland to a terraced house in the village of Esporles, high in the Tramuntana mountains. We appreciated the luxury of having shops and restaurants within walking distance, and being excused the ordeal of Port D’Es Canonges’ four kilometres of single-track road carved into the mountainside, with its horrendous sequence of twenty-nine hairpin bends.

Our house in Esporles

However there is something magical about Port D’Es Canonge and despite its inconveniences we both miss it. Therefore on Monday we are packing our bags once again and moving back to Port D’Es Canonge, where we will remain until the end of September. After that the picture is hard to predict.

In 2001, as a citizen of the European Union, I was free to rent a house on Stromboli and stay for as long as I wanted. However in 2021 the situation is somewhat different. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, beyond the end of the Transition Period on 31st December 2020, I cannot remain in Spain more than three months without a visa.

Es Berganti, our favourite swimming spot,

When I researched the process last year it seemed straightforward so I gave it little thought. But when we arrived and I commenced the process to apply for an “Entrepreneur Visa”, the proverbial rabbit hole opened at my feet.

At this point I have had to obtain a document from the UK police stating I have no criminal record, get the document stamped with a “Hague Apostille”, get the stamped document translated into Spanish, get the translation stamped as well, request a certified copy of my degree certificate from Cambridge University, provide all my payslips for the past two years, get an official letter from The Trampery stating that I am an employee, provide a complete business plan for the project, provide a certificate proving I have purchased health insurance, submit photocopies of every page in my passport. As a passably intelligent English speaker there is no possibility I could have completed the process unaided. Alejandro has been heroic, but even for him as a native Spanish-speaker it has been an ordeal.

The greatest challenge was getting an appointment with the Spanish Consulate in London. By default every email to the contact address they provide is met with a lengthy and impenetrable automated message, explaining that the Consulate is not willing to reply to any question whose answer can potentially be found somewhere on the internet.

The harbour at Port D’Es Canonge

I would probably have given up after receiving this message three times, but fortunately Alejandro was cunning enough to apply for a different document, which elicited a human response, so he could then plead with them for an appointment, which has now been scheduled for 27th August.

If the Spanish Government doesn’t grant me an Entrepreneur Visa, we’ll come back to London at the end of September and work out a different route. The whole experience has been a bit disheartening, and drives home the appalling cost of the British population’s decision to leave the European Union. But despite the vicissitudes of the visa process, we feel privileged to be here and I haven’t regretted our decision for a micro-second.

: c :

t r a n s i t i o n

[ 17:11 Thursday 15 July 2021 – Port D’Es Canonge, Mallorca ]

On the first of July, Alejandro and I arrived on the island of Mallorca with ten suitcases and two bicycles. After eighteen years in London, it’s time for a new adventure. We plan to stay here a year, possibly longer.

I’m writing now from the terrace of a house in Port D’Es Canonge, a tiny and inaccessible village on the island’s rocky north coast, where the air is filled with birdsong and the afternoon sun hangs drowsy in the sky. We’ll spend our first month here, whilst we hunt for somewhere to rent for the rest of the year.

Our house for July in Port D’Es Canonge

Our arrival in Mallorca was the culmination of a six-month marathon, involving the reorganisation of almost every aspect of our lives. It started in December 2019 when we were given six months’ notice to leave Old Ford Lock, my home in London since 2013. It was a heavy blow, but it prompted us to think about what our next step could be.

For several years a plan had been gestating in The Trampery to establish a rural workspace somewhere in the Mediterranean. Faced with the loss of our London home, Alejandro and I decided to move away and try to realise the project. The experience of the corona lockdown demonstrated I can do most of what I need to do to run The Trampery remotely; via email, phone and video conference. However I still need to attend occasional site visits and meetings face-to-face, so a continuing base in London was vital.

After circling through various ideas, the option we settled on was to rent a house in the Mediterranean, and buy a boat as our London base. Meanwhile having assessed several Mediterranean destinations for The Trampery project, Mallorca emerged as the most promising location. The clock was ticking. We had six months to close up Old Ford Lock, put our belongings into storage, buy a boat and find somewhere to live in Mallorca.

Therefore in the second week of January we started going to visit boats that were up for sale. At first we focused on widebeam canal boats. Then we started looking at Dutch barge conversions. Finally (with a nudge from my father) we progressed to motor yachts, which seemed to be more spacious, lighter, less maintenance-hungry, and more fun on the water.

None of the boats we looked at in London were suitable, so we expanded the search and started visiting boats on the upper Thames; then the River Roach and the River Crouch. When we still didn’t find anything we liked, we broadened the search further to include the whole of Southern and Eastern England.

On 17th March I took the train to Brundall in Norfolk to look at two boats on the river Yare. The first had 2,000 hours on the engines and looked absolutely clapped out. However the second was exquisite, on a different level from anything I’d seen previously. The boat was a Fairline 41/43, built in 1991 in Oundle, powered by a pair of 375 horse-power Caterpillar diesels.

It had a spacious saloon with seating for seven, two comfortable cabins, a well-equipped galley, plus outdoor seating in the cockpit and flying bridge. It was evident that throughout the boat’s thirty-year life, each of its owners had lovingly maintained it, whilst investing in a string of upgrades. These included top-of-the-range navigation technology, a powerful heating system for the winter and an excellent sound system. The boat was beautifully built, with a light oak interior and lots of 90s design touches. Back in London that evening I went through the photos with Alejandro. He thought it was perfect. The next day we made an offer, and by the end of the day it had been accepted.

Orlando, our 1991 Fairline 41/43

Now began a hectic burst of activity. I sought recommendations for local boat surveyors; got quotes; engaged one; organised for the boat to be lifted out of the water; scheduled a trial run on the river. The surveyor’s report gave the boat a clean bill of health. On 15th April I transferred the remaining payment and the boat was ours.

This triggered a second burst of activity. I sought recommendations for an engineer to install a holding tank; got quotes; engaged one; organised for the boat to be lifted out of the water again, so the hull could be painted with anti-fouling; ordered a new anchor chain, after a byzantine process to establish what variety would fit the windlass. Meanwhile Alejandro and I assembled a list of 80 possible names before settling on “Orlando”.

Owning a boat wasn’t going to be much use unless we had somewhere to moor it. Alejandro and I systematically visited every dock, marina and pontoon within spitting distance of London. The one we picked was St Katharine Docks. Constructed by Thomas Telford in 1828, this was London’s most central commercial dock, until its closure in 1968. Then in the 1980s it was redeveloped as an urban marina, surrounded by restaurants, shops, offices and housing.

St Kats’ location next to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, with the City’s towers looming above it, has an air of unreality. However bearing in mind its central location, the dock itself it is a haven of tranquility. Normally there’s a waiting list of years to get a berth, but because of the corona pandemic several people had shifted their boats away from London, and to our amazement a couple of slots were available. We grabbed one before the situation changed.

The next task was to bring Orlando down from Brundall to London. This would involve a first leg through the Norfolk Broads, a second leg down the North Sea then a third leg up the Thames Estuary. I bought the relevant charts and pilot books and started studying them. However it soon appeared this might all be in vain.

There are only two points where one can exit the Norfolk Broads and get out to sea: at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Each route involves opening a swing-bridge that carries the railway line, allowing boat traffic to pass. However when I called the Broads Authority to make the necessary arrangements, they informed me both railway bridges were currently out of commission for repairs, and it might be six months before they were operational again. They were very apologetic, but said the only way I could get Orlando to London would be transporting it by road!

Fortunately at this point I was introduced to someone who’d been boating in Lowestoft all their life. They asked me how high the boat was, pondered my answer a few seconds, then said we might be able to squeeze under the railway bridge without opening it, so long as we timed it exactly at low tide. There was no guarantee this would work, but it seemed like our best shot to get Orlando to London, so we decided to give it a try.

On 15th May I cast off the lines at Brundall and set off down the River Yare, accompanied by my friend Sara, an expert sailor. We had a few hairy moments, provoked by my total inexperience with twin-prop motor vessels, but thankfully we managed to avoid doing too much damage. At 3.30pm we reached Oulton Broad where we tied up and waited for the lock. At 4.30pm we passed the lock, our Lowestoft skipper came aboard, and we tied up again to wait for low tide.

At 6pm we judged the tide was as low as it was going to get, untied and started creeping towards the railway bridge as slowly as possible. Initially it wasn’t clear whether we’d make it, but as the radar mast came up to the bridge there was 20cm of clearance. Everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief as we passed under the railway lines and out the other side. We carried on through Lowestoft harbour, then moored at the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Sailing Club overnight.

The next morning we pulled out of Lowestoft at 7am with a clear sky and a calm sea, dodging a flock of maintenance boats heading out to service the North Sea wind farms. It was my first chance to open up Orlando’s throttles. As we passed fifteen knots the hull lifted in the water and we began to plane across the waves. Twenty knots, twenty-five knots, twenty-eight knots. I set the autopilot and started checking that everything was working correctly.

Leaving Lowestoft harbour

The passage down the coast and up the Thames Estuary was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. The boat performed magnificently. At 4pm, an hour ahead of schedule, we reached Tower Bridge and the lock gates opened to welcome us into St Katharine Docks. Half an hour later we were tied up on the berth. The first piece of the jigsaw was in place.

The next task was to make a dramatic reduction in my household belongings. Towards the end of May I started photographing bits of furniture and listing them on eBay. Over the following month I managed to sell a five-seater sofa, a three-seater sofabed, an enormous handmade Persian rug, a set of four Danish mid-century dining chairs, a set of six English mid-century dining chairs, a pair of oak carver chairs, a pair of oak wheel-back chairs, a pair of wicker armchairs, a teak extending dining table, a Victorian mahogany chest of drawers and an Edwardian inlaid chest of drawers. With a heavy heart, I also sold the Yamaha upright piano which had been my daily companion for thirteen years.

Alongside the eBay listings, Alejandro and I started giving away anything that wasn’t saleable for free in the Hackney Wick community, and throwing away sacks and sacks of stuff that nobody would want. I went through all my clothes and donated half of them to a charity shop.

As well as reducing our belongings, we also needed to organise somewhere to store what remained. Alejandro researched hundreds of storage units across London and South-East England, finally settling on a business in Romford. At the start of June we began packing everything that was left in the house into cardboard boxes, piling them up around the house like geological formations.

The first items arrive in our Romford storage unit

On 20th June two Brazilian movers took the largest items of furniture along with our books and pictures to the unit in Romford. Then on 27th June a team of three Pakistani movers took everything else, and to our immense relief managed to squeeze it all in. The second piece of the jigsaw was in place.

On 29th June we took a van with variety of clothes, kitchen equipment and books to Orlando in preparation for it to become our London home. On 30th June Alejandro and I handed over the keys to Old Ford Lock and closed the towpath gate for the final time, concluding this stage of our lives. I walked down the towpath without looking back.

We took a taxi to St Katharine Docks in silence, both lost in our thoughts. The rest of the afternoon was spent finding places to stow everything on the boat. That night we went to sleep on Orlando, for the first time as our London home.

At 4am on 1st July 2021 we woke up and set off with our cases for the airport. A new adventure was beginning.

: c :

f o t o s : lanzarote & la graciosa, new year 2016

thirty-four images from a new year retreat on the islands of lanzarote and la graciosa. the last sunset of 2015. hiking in the stark lava-black landscape. the ever-present roar and spray of the atlantic rollers. a wrecked yacht transformed into a dinosaur. hardy plants on the beach. sinuously sculpted volcanic rocks. the tranquility of la graciosa. javi and his family house.

i also wrote about the trip here.

camera: rolleiflex 6008i
lens: rollei distagon el 1:4 50mm
film: fujichrome provia 400x
scanner: nikon coolscan 8000ed

c a n a r i a s

[ 10:21 thursday 7 january 2016 – la graciosa, islas canarias ]

after a glorious and windswept christmas in cornwall with my family i felt an urge for a period of complete solitude to clear my mind for the year ahead. by the end of 2015 there were so many alluring opportunities to expand the trampery that i realised i no longer had a clear sense of direction or purpose. i needed to get away from the complexity and noise in order to choose the right path.

thus on the thirtieth of december i booked a last-minute flight to the canary islands and twenty-four hours later i found myself stepping out of the airport terminal at lanzarote, blinking in the soft afternoon sunlight. looking at a map the most remote village i could find was el golfo on the west coast of the island, surrounded by a vast expanse of bare lava. so i booked a room, rented a car and set off.

speeding along the empty roads through the arid black landscape in the golden afternoon light i felt a sense of exhilaration rising in me. coming down the hill towards el golfo the village revealed itself as a small cluster of low white cuboid buildings huddled against the jagged black shore. a huge swell was rolling in from the atlantic. the wind tore the crests horizontally from from the waves sending feathery plumes through the air. everything was filled with the roar and spray of the surf as it crashed against the black rocks. i breathed it all in.

for as long as i can remember i’ve been superstitious about new year, looking to it for a sign of what the coming year will bring. i’ve always spent it with close friends. sometimes in a big city, sometimes in a beautiful wilderness. last year i saw in the new year with martin and jens on lyngen fjord at the arctic northern fringe of norway. previous locations have included stromboli, merida, berlin, london, the isles of scilly (for the millennium), melbourne and salvador da bahia. this is the first time in my life i’ve ever chosen to spend new year alone. i can’t deny i felt a little anxious about it, but i had a strong instinct it was the right thing to do.

after dropping my bags in el golfo i walked out to the rocks and immersed myself in the sound of the breaking surf. i walked to a small black sand beach at the end of the village where i sat and watched the final sunset of 2015. in the evening i drove into the island’s capital arrecife where i found the streets deserted. it felt as if the town had been abandoned. walking along a backstreet i was hailed from a small columbian restaurant, one of very few that were open, so i went in and dined on plantain and cheese.

afterwards i found my way to the old harbour and a neapolitan-run bar from which music and laughter were emanating. no sooner had i arrived than the staff began to race around distributing sealed plastic bags. one was shoved in my hands. i tore it open and found a party hat, a garland, a party hooter and a strange device comprising two plastic hands on a stick. suddenly everyone was cheering and honking. i thought there was another hour to go before midnight but i’d set the time zone wrong on my phone. 2016 had caught me by surprise. it seemed like a poetically apt way to begin the year. i joined the cheering, hooted my hooter, clapped the plastic hands and exchanged greetings with everyone on the tables around me.

the three days i spent in el golfo were passed in almost complete solitude; walking around the coast, swimming in the clear water and hiking across the barren lava fields. each evening i sat with my notebook scribbling down thoughts about projects, goals and possibilities; waiting for structure to emerge from the tangled mass. each day the shape become a little clearer. meanwhile i had two conversations where a tiny and exquisite island called la graciosa was mentioned. i knew that’s where i needed to go.

so on sunday day i packed my bag, bid farewell to el golfo and set off north along the central spine of the island. i drove through spectacular volcanic landscapes and small agricultural villages where vines were painstakingly grown in pits with low semicircular walls to shelter them from the incessant north-easterly wind. overnight i stayed with a couple in a fishing village called punta mujeres. after supper i went for a walk to explore. i heard music and found a group playing in a side street. gradually more musicians arrived until i counted three lutes, five guitars, two timples (tiny guitars specific to lanzarote), a castanet and a percussion instrument made from a ladder of goat knuckles worn round the neck.

several of the musicians took turns singing. the group would stand in front of a house and perform until the owner of the house opened the doors and windows to pass out small glasses of homebrewed sweet wine or pastis to all the musicians. after a few songs the music would stop and everyone would chatter for a while. then the group would start playing and proceed down the street until they picked the next house at which to pause. speaking to the musicians i learned this was a tradition specific to the north of lanzarote. for several days following new year musicians assembled and played in a different village each evening. this was their final night. i walked with them for an hour or more, delighted in my good fortune at crossing their paths.

the next morning i drove up the coast to the port of orzola on the northern tip of lanzarote. i locked the car and walked down to the little harbour to wait for a ferry. three hours later i was on a sturdy vessel pitching through the swell on the crossing to la graciosa. from the sea the island appears as three low volcanic craters sitting on a flat sandy base. two clusters of white dwellings were visible, the main village in the centre and a smaller settlement at the north with no more than a score of houses. pulling alongside the quay at caleta del sebo i was met by a young fellow called javi with whom i’d arranged to stay.

these last three days on graciosa have been sublime. my friends are all too familiar with my penchant for small islands. at eight kilometres long and four wide with a permanent population of seven hundred and no metalled roads (just sand), la graciosa feels very far from civilisation. i’ve spent the days walking for hours without seeing another soul and pausing to swim when i found a sheltered cove. the north-easterly wind and my rolleiflex have been my constant companions. the evenings have been spent talking with javi, continuing my writing and reading the pile of books i brought with me. javi has been perfect company, full of wisdom and curiosity.

last night, sitting in the kitchen, the final pieces came together and i knew i’d achieved what i came here for. now i write these words on my phone, seated by the starboard rail of the ferry carrying me back to orzola. by this evening i’ll be in london.

wherever you are, i send you my gladdest wishes for the year ahead. the darker the world grows, the brighter we must shine.

: c :

z a r a g o z a

[ 07:22 friday 11 may – hotel oriente, zaragoza, spain ]

i woke up around four and have remained awake since then. i watched the darkness melt into the blue pre-dawn light and the first rays of sunlight pierce the little plaza beneath my window. sometimes when i can’t sleep i feel agitated but today i’m serene, my mind drifting unhurriedly from one thing to the next. in an hour i’ll meet rebecca in the lobby for breakfast.

zaragoza is a beautiful city. spectacular roman, moorish and mediaeval buildings are counterpointed by bold art nouveaux and contemporary structures. it’s large (i’m told the fifth in spain) with an air of ongoing prosperity but there is no pomp or heaviness about it. few people speak english and my lack of spanish is infuriating, but everyone is generous in trying to understand my mash of italian and guesswork. i’ve visited mallorca twice. once with ben and keiran when we stayed in katherine hamnett’s farmhouse in the mountains, then with henry, which was a turning point in my life. but amazingly this is my first time in mainland spain. it makes me want to come back and explore more.

there’s something about being in a mediterranean city that makes me feel immediately at home, some deep foundation to the life and energy that’s become a part of me. there’s also a small edge of sadness, since it reminds me how lacking in delight i find london and how much more alive i feel when i come south. but i’ve long made my peace with that knowledge.

i arrived late on tuesday night for the innovate europe conference. my presentation went well, i met some interesting people, mission accomplished. back to london this afternoon.

: c :