Pilot light still on –
when I find inspiration
it bursts into flame
Pilot light still on –
when I find inspiration
it bursts into flame
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and strategically separates Europe from Africa. Here on the southern edge of Europe King Minos once ruled; the legendary Minotaur roamed deep in the labyrinth of Knossos and Zeus is claimed to have been born in a cave in the Lefka Ori mountains which form the backbone of the island. To walk along sections of the south west coast of Crete is to travel back in time. In places, where the limestone cliffs fall vertically into the sea, the old sea level is clearly visible. Seismic activity has violently tilted the land upwards until it is three metres higher than in ages past. As well as a journey through geological timescales there are also events which occurred in more recent times. Shortly after leaving Chora Sfakion, where over 20,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were evacuated when the Germans occupied Crete during World War II, a walker travelling west comes to the steep descent down the cliff face to the long sweep of Sweetwater Beach. So named for the freshwater springs which emerge here after percolating from high in the limestone mountains. St. Paul landed here as the ship he was travelling on collected fresh water. Two kilometres further west from Sweetwater one comes across the tiny church of Aghios Stavros perched above a semi-circular bay. On a hot day a swim here in the silky waters of the Libyan Sea is refreshing before continuing the walk along the oleander fringed path to Loutro, five kilometres further on. Half way round Loutro Bay is the Blue House restaurant and their fish soup makes a perfect first course followed by tender artichoke hearts in lemon sauce. Take your time at the Blue House if you are waiting for the 5.00pm ferry back to Sfakia but be warned, as Loutro may work its magic on you and you decide to find a room here for a night or two.
Oh, the disappointment that comes upon a happy wanderer when awoken from a dream! She was there, so vividly, where house martins had added mud nests and their carefree joy to the aged splendour of coffee coloured stucco, beneath the solemn tolling of the Euphrasian Basilica’s bells, and the notes of choir practice spilling over the polished cobbled paving beneath the Sacristy window.
She saw and heard the returning of the colourful fishing boats and the ancient, creaking shutters bleached silver, dishevelled on rusty hinges, rendering their seeming-permanence miraculous.
And – just as it had been since 1951 – the battered blue bicycle leant against the wall, no longer going places, basket now bright with garden flowers, energetic pedalling having given way years ago to sunlit evenings making embroidered shawls on the doorstep, geraniums glowing as buttercups might at her chin, beneath a deeply wrinkled concentration.
Clear too in this reverie was the small glass of something or other beside a basket of chocolate brown bread and olive oil on the little outdoor table, and needles in the orange pin cushion. Yes: in tonight’s gentle evening breeze this quiet, embroidering, sometime cyclist was recognised again as mistress of her universe.
But the heat? 32 degrees, perhaps. One didn’t feel heat like this in dreams. Heavens – and she meant ‘thank heavens’ – this was no dream! Wide awake, our chief travel writer Becky Buckley was actually, here and now, standing right in front of her old Croatian friend – who, in familiar broken-English, looked up from her craft-work and called to Becky – as she may to you – ‘welcome back to Poreč.’
Every year, when the air becomes sweet and warm with Spring’s green promise, and trees burden themselves with blossom and birdsong, my mother would take us on the pilgrimage. Sandwiches packed, the youngest crammed into the pushchair, we’d set off on the 5 mile round journey.
Stopping only once along the way we entered the municipal cemetery, and my mother would begin to unravel Time. Pointing to this or that headstone we learned our lineage and paid homage to ancestral bones.
Leaving the Joshuas, Jeremiahs and Sarah Annes to enjoy their eternal rest we headed west, through the council estate. And every year my mother pursed her lips and grumbled at the litter and told us in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t like this in her day, when fields stretched as far as the eye can see.
So it was with a sense of relief when we finally reached the track to the Hall and the green pasture of the farm. Surrounded by the familiar She would settle into the tale. This was where she had spent her childhood, an arm waved vaguely in the direction of the Hall giving us a false sense of ownership. Passing by the wall that separated the Hall from the farm, she pointed to the ivy covering virually every brick.
“I remember that being planted,” she’d say.
Awed by our mother’s great age we barely took in the row of cottages opposite where my mother and her sister spent the first years of their lives. And then, at last, the woods green and beautiful and effervescent in a bluebell haze.
Sitting by the beck she kicked off her shoes to rest weary feet on a flowery cushion and the stories would begin.
“Look, over there, that’s where Grandad found us the day we ran away because we’d lost half a crown on the way to the shop.”
Two little girls dabble sticks in the brown water, wrapped in a dream. And again we see them scooped up into their father’s arms, hugged close and carried home, their arms curled around his neck.
Passing Snotty Hill where She and her sister go shrieking down on a home made sledge we stop by the ruins of two tumbledown buildings. And another story, this time of the Victorian skirted grandmother who lived in one of the once-upon-a-time cottages. I gape as Little Red Riding Hood comes to life.
When, at last, we reach the path which runs through the centre of the wood, there is one final story. She and my father join other couples to walk out, arm in arm on a Sunday evening. Once more we see the girls in their Sunday best arm in arm with their uniformed beaus – for this is war time – heads close in happy conspiracy.
The last time my mother came here she was in her eighties. But as soon as she stood under the trees a younger self emerged. Spinning round on her heel, arms spread out she smiled up at the trees.
If she haunts any place, it is here in Judy Woods where on a windy day the trees sigh her name: She-Shee-She-lagh.
A thousand million years. The Torridonian sandstones are almost the oldest rocks in the world and they were, in effect, an American import. Scotland itself was born and bred in the North, hitching itself to England who had made a long journey, from South of the equator, to seal the match. In Torridon you don’t need to imagine these elemental, earthly forces – you can sense them. And it was only the blink of an eye since there were bears and mammoths. Their bones are still here. This is not the land that time forgot but rather the land where time still lives.
Travelling down the gradually narrowing single track road, West from Kinlochewe, you will also notice a narrowing of the gap – between you and earth. You may arrive in the diamond-studded freeze of February or in June’s everlasting light. You may come for a daring climb on Ben Eighe’s Triple Buttress, a stout day’s walk over Ben Alligin and its horns, or a stroll by the Loch or a bracing dip. Whatever your mission I would recommend the T Room, open from Wednesday to Saturday. Black pudding butties, with an egg too if you’ve earned it, worth a Michelin star at least.
But it’s the presence of the place, the mountains, the sea and the way they breathe together. Their conversation will pull you in and it’s easy to forget who you were the other side of Kinlochewe. All the things which make you separate – money, job, the things you own, the names you are called by, the story you tell about who you are. Looking down the Loch from the shore or up on the Liatach ridge,you might as well be a red deer or an eagle. It’s easy to forget to take photographs when you are no longer an observer.