Category Archives: Wanderer

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 :

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 :

c o a s t s t a r l i g h t

[ 17:16 thursday 2nd november 2017 – amtrak coast starlight, oakland to los angeles ]

like a gigantic migratory creature this train left seattle at 9am yesterday morning on its southward journey. 24 hours later at 9am this morning, heralded by a mournful tritone whistle and clanging bell, the huge double-decker tube of shining corrugated steel snaked alongside the platform at oakland jack london square beneath a crisp blue autumn sky and i climbed aboard. the journey will reach its conclusion when the train pulls into the art deco splendour of los angeles union station at 9pm tonight. i’ll have been on board for 12 hours of its 36 hour journey.

for all america’s supposed abandonment of the train for its devotion to the automobile, this service is a true inheritor of the nineteenth century trans-continental trains that have all but disappeared from europe. as well as seating carriages equipped with deep reclining armchairs there are sleeper cabins with en-suite bathrooms, an observation car with full-height windows and swivel-chairs, a dining car with linen tablecloths and napkins, even a cinema car.

the train crew is like a troupe of actors assigned slightly over-written parts. the earth-mother cafe attendant who had to deal with an armed war veteran’s post-traumatic meltdown as the sun rose. the irascible dining car host whose announcements mimic a television game show and whose timings for meal sittings seem to be entirely arbitrary. the senior conductor whose messages elaborate an evolving narrative of her grudge towards one of the junior conductors regarding some money she loaned them which has yet to be returned.

meanwhile the mix of passengers is almost unfathomable. on european trains one finds a fairly representative cross-section of society, rich and poor alike. on this train it feels like 99% of american society is absent and instead the train is populated with just a handful of narrow niches. people on low incomes with too much luggage to carry by greyhound bus (the only travel option that’s cheaper); wealthier people who don’t like flying and can’t be bothered to drive; hardcore railway buffs; folks like me who are doing it for the sheer adventure.

for most of the journey i’ve been camped in the observation car with a couple of dozen people scattered around the banquettes and swivel chairs. leaving oakland we passed through the decayed industrial residue and salt pans of the east bay to the bland techno-architecture of san jose. this gave way to the hyper-fertile agriculture of the salinas valley followed by baroque twists and curls through hill country where the grass gradually paled from lush green to dry yellow. in san luis obispo the train stopped for 40 minutes so i took the opportunity to run into the centre of town, buy myself a mango smoothie and run back; pressed on by the thrilling fear the train might continue on its way without me.

after san luis obispo the track joined the pacific coast for a spectacular sequence of dunes, wild beaches and rocky promontories. i couldn’t help being reminded of the stretch of brunel’s great western railway where the track runs beside the atlantic coast along the red sandstone cliffs of teignmouth and dawlish. but of course this is california and everything is a thousand times larger.

as the track reached the coast the atmosphere in the car shifted perceptibly. conversation became muted and everyone turned to gaze at the ocean, as if drawn by the same primal urge towards the sea. a lady with steel-grey hair hanging to her waist and a sequence of trembling chins struck up a running commentary on the passing coastline, uniting the rest of us as her audience.

for half an hour either side of vandenburgh air force base the coastal scenery was punctuated by rocket launch towers and radar installations. california has the power to make even such surreal intrusions seem as much part of its landscape as a rock outcrop or river. shortly after point conception i watched a pair of whales breach the surface close inshore and send twin fountains of steam rising from their blowholes.

almost a decade ago i performed one of the canonical american journeys driving down highway 1 along the coast from san francisco to san diego (photographs here). it was a magnifient experience, particularly the stretch down the big sur coast. ever since then i’ve been yearning to travel the same route by train.

in los angeles i’m looking forward to visiting my friends paul and sarah who moved there a couple of years ago. i’ve always felt slightly afraid of the city. the prospect of traffic-infused suburbs stretching to an infinite horizon and a perma-tanned culture of insincerity have been enough to keep me away. but it’s high time i brushed off these prejudices and explored for myself.

these have been happy months. the trampery is doing great things, i feel in harmony with myself and a new romantic focus has appeared in my life. the only note of sadness has been learning of the death of robin murray, a remarkable economist and human. i met him at an event on democratic innovation hosted at the very first trampery building in 2010 and we became friends. his childlike curiosity, brilliance and compassion reminded me of michael young. now he is gone i realise how much i will miss his advice.

my journey continues.

: c :