Category Archives: Wanderer

p o r t h a l l o w

[ 17:35 sunday 16 april 2017 – porthallow cove, cornwall ]

today is easter day. i’m sitting on the broad pebble beach of porthallow cove with mum and dad accompanied by a thermos of tea and homemade apple cake. the sky is a deep azure. the sea laps lazily on the shore. the air is filled with birdsong. a family is trying to light a fire at the other end of the beach. a pair of swans bobs inquisitively at the water’s edge. otherwise the cove is deserted. this is cornwall at its most sublime. i took the train down on friday evening and return to london on tuesday.

porthallow is on the eastern side of the lizard, the rugged peninsular of serpentine and shale that juts south into the atlantic between falmouth and penzance. the lighthouse at lizard point marks the southernmost extremity of the british mainland. the western side of the lizard is windswept and rocky, exposed to the fury of the atlantic’s winter gales. the sheltered eastern side is shrouded by a canopy of trees and cut with humid, mysterious valleys.

earlier we walked along the winding coastal track to nare point and back. the path was engulfed with a firework display of spring blossoms. golden yellow gorse and celandines; snow white blackthorn with its long spines; deep pink campions; pale yellow primroses; azure spanish bluebells and the deeper indigo of their native cousins; pale purple violets; a thousand shades of green in the lush foliage of trees, grass and ferns. everything blazes with the exuberant joy of life and growth.

how lucky i was to grow up in this landscape. as i child i was only partially able to appreciate it. but unconsciously the beauty and savagery seeped into my soul. now i am able to find solace simply by standing on this turf, feeling the breeze on my face and letting the sound of waves fill my mind.

: c :

i m p r o m p t u

[ 18:15 sunday 26 march 2017 – old ford lock ]

late last night elaine came round. we watched a 1970s documentary about the inhabitants of the (now demolished) tower blocks of hackney wick’s trowbridge estate then chatted about life and love. we both had things to do on sunday so around four in the morning we decided to call it a day. i accompanied elaine downstairs to see her off. as we reached the front door i observed a slight rhythmic vibration in the walls. somewhere nearby an unusually powerful sound system was playing. i suggested we should go and hunt it down. elaine concurred. i donned shoes and a jacket, turned off the lights. we went outside and locked the door.

coming out of the gate onto the dark towpath the sky was clear and, in the absence of street lamps, populated with more stars than the usual meagre london ration. the surface of the canal was inky smooth and black in the windless night. a swan grunted from its nest in the centre of the lock, protesting our disturbance of its sleep. straining our ears we followed the faint rhythmic sound of bass. we crossed the footbridge over the lock and proceeded down dace road. walking past the edwardian red-brick stables on the left and the construction hoardings on the right. there wasn’t anyone around. i was about to turn up bream street but elaine suggested the sound was coming from further down so we continued to smeed road. the bass increased in intensity. half a dozen people were huddled on the street outside one of the warehouses. elaine said “let’s see what the door charge is”. we approached and found the door open. we walked in.

over the years i’ve visited a lot of the warehouses in hackney wick but never this one. the pattern was familiar; a two-storey brick structure with a pitched roof of corrugated asbestos, the interior subdivided with stud and plywood to create a large open living space, kitchen, bathroom and several bedrooms. at first floor level a dozen bicycles were mounted on a rack. decorative gewgaws were displayed on the walls and floor. the kitchen area had been turned into a makeshift DJ booth with decks, a mixer and a tangle of electronics. a video projector played abstract images across the side wall. a laser scanned patterns like an oscilloscope. speakers were stacked two metres high in the corners opposite the DJ booth , explaining the vibrations we’d felt from the house. a hundred or so people were in there, ranging in age from twenty to forty .

elaine and i started to dance, weaving through the crowd until we found a welcoming space. after a few minutes we realised the music wasn’t being played from a recording, it was being generated by a curly-haired man working a suitcase-sized modular synthesiser with a mass of dials and patch cables. we kept trying to leave but it was too intoxicating. we stayed and danced until our limbs could dance no more.

experiences like this are what make me feel alive in london. the event itself was beautiful. there might only be half a dozen places in the world where one could encounter a live performance with a modular synthesiser like this. but the fact we walked out of the house and discovered it through pure serendipity is what makes it truly transcendent.

ten years ago it might have been commonplace to encounter something like this in hackney wick. but every month that passes brings the demolition of another warehouse to make way for a bland apartment block. nowadays each time i stumble across an event of this kind it requires an effort of will to appreciate its beauty straightforwardly without allowing myself to feel a sense of impending loss.

: c :

a r c h i v i n g

[ 13:12 saturday 31 december – perranwell station, cornwall ]

for this final day of the year i’m back in cornwall, where i grew up. i’m sitting in mum and dad’s conservatory with a vase of daffodils blazing yellow beside me. outside the sky is dove grey and the air hangs motionless. three chaffinches and a pair of robins hop and chatter in the lichen-covered tree beyond the window. cornwall has been especially beautiful in these days. every morning i wake to a different world. there have been spring-like days with clear blue skies, golden sunlight and waves lapping at the sand. there have been stormy days with atlantic gales, surf crashing on the granite rocks and squalls driving in from the writhing ocean. finally there have been damp mysterious days like today when moss and gorse blossom glow in the diffuse light.

2016 has been an unsettling year for the world. old certainties are fracturing and dark fears start to creep in through the cracks. for my part, i end the year with a greater sense of clarity, purpose and optimism than i’ve felt in a long while. across several strands of my life this has been a year of addressing unresolved legacies from the past and preparing for new stages of my journey.

the most personal part of this has been the process of sorting through my archived papers. when i was six years old i asked my parents for an album to store postcards received from grandparents, aunts and uncles. they got me a beautiful big book with a forest green cover. whenever i received a postcard that was too large i’d snip off the edges to make it fit. thus began a habit of preserving ephemera which expanded through my childhood to include scribbled notes, ticket stubs, concert programmes, pieces of art and design, recordings on cassette and minidisc, newspaper articles mentioning me; anything really that carried some personal significance or memory. it was completely disorganised. i’d put things in a pile. when the pile got too big i’d sweep its contents into a plastic bag. when the plastic bag was full it would be thrown into a cardboard box and i’d start a new bag. when a cardboard box was full i’d close it and find another.

this process of accumulation continued steadily through my childhood in cornwall, sixth form in cheltenham, studies at cambridge, establishing my first businesses in london, the year-long project in the isles of scilly, back in london with michael young and the school for social entrepreneurs, my two years living on stromboli and my return to london to set up trampoline systems. then finally a decade ago it began to abate. throughout this period the cardboard boxes kept on filling up. until the end of my time at cambridge the boxes all gravitated back to mum and dad’s attic. after that, each time i changed location i’d find somewhere new to stash them.

five years ago when my parents were preparing to move back to cornwall i was given an ultimatum that i could either pick up everything deposited at their house or it would be thrown on the tip. i rented a van and drove down with mattia. climbing the ladder to their attic i realised shamefully that it contained more of my stuff than theirs. i brought everything back to london and hid it in my spare room. then a couple of years later i moved from dalston to old ford lock and gathered the boxes in the dining room. it was the first time i’d seen them all together at once. dozens of them, all different shapes and sizes, with nothing to indicate what place or period they represented. it was obvious i needed to go through everything, throw away as much as possible and organise the bits worth keeping. but it was such an appalling prospect that i kept putting it off so month after month the boxes sat there reproachfully.

finally one evening last october i decided the time had come. i pulled out one of the cardboard boxes, took the uppermost plastic bag, emptied its contents onto the dining table and started sifting through its contents. every free evening since then the work has continued. i’m about three quarters of the way through at this point. fifteen foolscap folders have been filled with preserved material ordered by period, whilst sacks and sacks of rubbish have been jettisoned.

i was expecting it just to be a tedious housekeeping job but it’s proven a lot more charged than that. the experience has been like an intimate and merciless biography. everything is in there. hopes, failures, loves, triumphs, anguish. the fact the boxes are in random order has made it more gruelling. one moment i’ll be wading through notes on social structure from stromboli, the next it’s adolescent poetry from cornwall. thus my picture of each period has developed in a fragmentary and jagged way.

all kinds of treasures have revealed themselves. poetry and paintings from my infancy. copies of the magazines i printed with a friend at truro when i was thirteen. letters from my grandparents filled with love and wisdom which i could barely appreciate at the time. proposals for scores of mad projects from my early twenties.

one of my favourite artefacts comes from my first year at cambridge where i always kept a piece of notepaper clipped to the outside of my door on A staircase cripps, along with a pencil on a piece of string. i would leave messages for friends, friends would leave messages for me; and friends would also comment on each other’s messages. every scrap of paper is preserved. it’s a wonderful and self-contained collective document, distilling the shared life of my group of friends at that moment in our lives.

though leavened by the discovery of delights like these, i’ve found the overall process rather harrowing. the teenager who emerges is cripplingly shy, searching for a role and a way to engage with people. the person i see in my twenties is self-centred and burdened with an overmighty will, unable to acknowledge failures or properly learn the lessons they provide. going through the papers has brought me face to face with who i’ve been at each stage of my life and it hasn’t been an entirely comfortable experience.

this discomfort however is greatly outweighed by the therapeutic value of the process. in a very tangible way it’s forcing me to acknowledge all the shades of my personal history. after this there will be no ghosts left lurking from the past, nothing half-forgotten or swept under the rug. it’s helping me to foster a deeper acceptance of who i am which is perhaps something i needed.

the question remains what drove me to archive all this stuff in the first place. was it born out of narcissism? or a manifestation of my broader tendency to hoard things? or was i subconsciously laying the ground for the process i’m now undertaking? i don’t have a clear answer.

having thrown away so much of what i’d stored and organised the remainder, there remains a lingering thought in my mind that the day will come when i also need to throw away what i’ve kept if i wish to release myself fully from the weight of the past. this may come to pass, but it’s likely to be some years away.

for now i send my love and wishes to family and friends for the year ahead. sometimes it is the moments that seem darkest that give birth to the brightest light.

: c :

l e v r n a k a

[ 04:29 thursday 29 september – island of levrnaka, croatia ]

i’m sitting on the limestone ridge which runs like a spine across the island. the air hangs motionless and warm. on every side below me the sea is an indigo mirror, its surface punctuated by the silhouettes of islands comprising the kornati archipelago.  the sky above me is a flood of stars, overwhelmingly dense and brilliant. the sea is so perfectly still that the reflected patterns of constellations can be seen laid out across it. a white anchor lamp atop the mast of a yacht in the bay below is the only artificial light in my whole field of view. i doubt there are more than fifty people within ten miles of this rock where i’m sitting.

on saturday i met my parents in split and we travelled up the coast to zaton to pick up a yacht. since then we’ve been sailing each day and stopping each night in a different harbour. this evening we moored at levrnaka in the early evening then took the dinghy out into the channel to watch the sunset. i went to sleep around midnight but half an hour ago i woke and felt an urge to see the sky. trying not to make any sound that might wake mum or dad i pulled on some shorts, crept off the boat and picked my way up the path to where i’m sitting now. the night is so profoundly still that as i was getting off the boat i could hear the crackle of fish nibbling weed below.

as a child i used to sail with my parents in the solent and later in cornwall. more recently dad and i have done little voyages together in cornwall each summer. but this is the first time the three of us have sailed together for a whole week. it’s a testament to my parents’ patience that they can survive being cooped up with me in thirty-three feet of fibreglass for such a long time. it’s wonderful that we’re able to share experiences like this together.

in general this has been a magnificent summer for me. in june i travelled to the island of linosa, far to the south of sicily, with clarence. in july i spent a week sailing around the coast of brittany with arthur and gregoire. then in august i spent a week in cornwall with my family. between these trips i’ve made lots of small forays by foot, bike and kayak from my base in london.

these days in the croatian islands will be my final burst of sunlight and broad horizons before returning to london and the autumn. now it’s time to put my phone back in my pocket and sit perfectly still, allowing myself to dissolve into the magical stillness of the night and the stars.

: c :

p r i m r o s e c e n t u r y

[ 23:01 tuesday 19 april 2016 – old ford lock cottage, london ]

primrose harris, my grandmother, was born on a farm in worcestershire on the nineteenth of april 1916. today would have been her hundredth birthday. her parents named her primrose as a result of queen victoria designating the nineteenth of april as “primrose day”. this was a tribute to victoria’s favourite prime minister benjamin disraeli, who loved primroses, and who died on that day in 1881.

i adored granny. she had magical abilities to make flowers flourish. everywhere she went she’d take clippings of plants that caught her eye and sure enough they’d spring to life in her garden. she had great creativity that was allowed expression in her garden, in flower arranging and in knitting. my childhood and early adulthood was clad in a torrent of wonderful jumpers, many of which i still treasure today.

granny was the only person in the family whose enjoyment of my piano playing remained undimmed as i continued to hammer away hour after hour. she was the only person whose conviction of my saintliness was undaunted on occasions when everyone else had concluded i was behaving like an arrogant brat.

on her ninetieth birthday i placed an order for flowers to be delivered to her each month for the rest of her life. for her ninety-second birthday i recorded six movements of bach’s goldberg variations along with a dedication. i wasn’t there in person as i was speaking at a conference in san francisco. the next day she fell and her leg didn’t heal. she died a few weeks later in hospital in ludlow. the days i spent with her before her death remain the most powerful experiences of my life.

i wanted to find a way to mark today. last night i went through all the 35mm slides i took between 1998 and her death in 2008 (more than 12,000 slides) to pick out some of my photographs of her. here are seventeen of them along with photographs from her garden that i took on the day of her funeral.

bless you granny.

: c :

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 :

s k o p j e

[ 12:07 sunday 29 november 2015 – gradski trgovski centar, skopje, macedonia ]

this is simultaneously my first visit to the balkans and my first despatch written from a shopping centre.

here i am in skopje, capital city of the republic of macedonia, nestled in the southern balkans with serbia and kosovo to the north, greece to the south, bulgaria to the east and albania to the west. the british council flew me over to give a speech at a summit about supporting entrepreneurs across the region. they were kind enough to let me stay for a couple of days extra so i could explore the city.

over the last few days i’ve met a lot of people involved in technology and the creative industries. but in parallel with this the trip has become an impromptu pilgrimage for brutalist architecture and urban planning.

it was in my early teens, living in cornwall, that i first started taking an interest in contemporary architecture. during my time at truro school a new crown court was constructed the city. it was unlike anything else in truro, designed in a modernist style with geometric massing, undecorated white surfaces and a circular tower at its centre. it’s the first building i ever remember catching my interest architecturally. around this time i started sketching imaginary structures, exploring the relationship between different spaces and functions.

by the age of fifteen i was thinking seriously about a career in architecture. with my parents’ encouragement i arranged a visit to the father of one of my classmates who ran a small architecture practice in cornwall. i spent an evening with him looking through plans he was working on, listening to him explain the logic behind each element and hearing how he designed buildings to reduce energy use by harnessing heat from the sun. i was transfixed. it felt like i’d found my calling.

all too soon mum arrived to collect me and it was time to go. as i was saying goodbye my friend’s father hesitated for a moment then took me to one side. he looked me in the eye and said “listen, you go into architecture thinking you’re going to change the world but you end up designing petrol stations and supermarkets. don’t do it charles, find something different.”

i’ve never forgotten those words. i was devastated. i don’t think i said a single word on the journey home in the car. mum must have thought something awful had happened. in that moment my friend’s father changed the path of my life.  all thought of becoming a professional architect was abandoned and my life developed in a different direction. my passion for architecture, however, remained undimmed.

arriving at cambridge in the 1990s architectural discussion was polarised into two camps: proponents of modern architecture and those who advocated a return to traditional forms and styles. this seemed like a totally bizarre dichotomy to me. it had never occurred to me there might be a serious body of architectural opinion that set itself against new ideas. i found myself cast as an arch-modernist and forced for the first time to justify my beliefs.  it was a valuable experience and helped to clarify my thinking. it was during these years i realised that many of the buildings which excited me the most were lumped together under the term “brutalist”. generally these were large-scale projects with experimental geometric forms and undecorated concrete surfaces.

this is where the story returns to skopje. in july 1963 a huge earthquake levelled eighty percent of the city and killed more than a thousand people. the yugoslav government called in the united nations to run an international architectural competition to rebuild the city. the winning entry came from kenzo tange, a young japanese architect with a penchant for avant garde brutalist design. tange proposed a bold masterplan for skopje structured around a semi-circular “city wall” of tall housing units with a “city gate” axis running from a new railway station through a business district to the city centre. the genius of tange’s plan was taking familiar mediaeval models and translating them into a futuristic vocabulary.

only about half of tange’s plan was actually implemented, but the city government continued to commission extremely abstract brutalist designs for new construction projects until the mid 1980s. as a result  skpoje has a higher concentration of full-blooded brutalist experiments than anywhere else on earth that i’ve seen. for someone like me it’s like arriving in the promised land. a lot of the buildings are now run-down but they’re still being used as they were intended. indeed the biggest threat they face is the current regime’s desire to turn skopje into a surreal theme park of las vegas baroque.

i spent yesterday exploring by foot with my trusty rolleiflex, visiting a dozen sites. the highlight was the university of saints cyril and methodius, a jaw-droppingly complex ensemble built around a central courtyard with beams and towers sticking out in all directions. today one of the british council officials (a fellow brutalism fan) was kind enough to drive me to some of the more inaccessible sites, including the beautiful but decrepit goce delcev student accommodation complex, and tell me about their history. i’ll put up the photographs once they’re developed and scanned.

for many people buildings like these are hideous and misguided failures.  i’m often asked disbelievingly why i like them. part of the answer is aesthetic. at their best these buildings represent the freest use of architecture as a sculptural medium. they seek to deploy materials in new ways that are expressive as well as functional. but more important to me is the deep sense of social purpose they embody. most brutalist buildings i’ve encountered were created by architects who sincerely believed in their duty to lay foundations for a better society. this sense is absent from most large buildings constructed since the 1980s and i believe that is an important loss.

the shopping mall where i’m currently seated is a fine piece of work in its own right. we’re so used to the american template of the mall as huge sealed bubble with just a few entrances and exits, like a fortress for retail, we assume that’s the only possibility. this place is certainly huge, occupying several city blocks and spread over three levels, but in every other respect it defies the familiar model. most radically this mall is completely porous. a series of side streets connect it to the city grid enabling pedestrians to criss-cross it twenty-four hours a day. sections of it are also open to the sky so rain and light can enter small courtyards. the impression is of a modern reinvention of the labyrinthine mediaeval bazaar just across the river in skopje’s old town.

it’s ironic that having decided against a career in architecture i’ve ended up designing buildings anyway. when i founded the trampery in 2009 it was an experiment in fusing architecture with sociology, entrepreneurship and community development. six years later i find myself working on projects that apply this recipe to startup workspaces, corporate offices, housing and whole city districts. life is full of surprises.