Diving in

Diving into Cassowary Falls

You know that old platitude about feeling the fear and doing it anyway? The picture above embodies that for me.

But alongside the fear, it was a moment in which I felt intensely, joyously, indescribably happy and alive. Pretty much as only diving into a hidden, waterfall-fed pool in the middle of the world’s oldest rainforest can make you feel.

So while fear and that incandescent spark that punches you in the lungs with joy every now and then are uncomfortable bedfellows, they are fellows nonetheless. For me, anyway.

I actually did this trip to Far North Queensland 12 months ago (and yep, have been meaning to write about it since then – I am not awesome at keeping up at the moment) but as we are about to embark on another couple of trips I feel the clammy hand of fear and worry mixing with the sweet anticipation. I kind of accept that this is how it will always be for me now. Post-Bali bombings I am a much more frightened, cautious person. But if I let that go to its natural conclusion I would also be a hermit. I’m tempted sometimes.

Creek fed by Cassowary Falls

Instead, I keep on diving in. Because I just cannot let the fear take up the whole bed. I deserve at least half the space. And all the doona.

The trip to this waterfall was extraordinary.

We usually go to Far North Queensland for our annual family holiday anyway but this time I had tagged along as a spouse on a conference handsome husband had been asked to speak at.

The conference organisers arranged for the attending partners to explore either the rainforest or the reef. I was the only one who chose the rainforest tour. Which meant I got a private 4 hour tour of a part of the world I am obsessed with. My idea of total heaven.

Coincidentally, the group booked to run the tour, Daintree Discovery Tours, was the company we have always gone out with the three other times we have explored the Daintree and my guide that day was the owner of the company, Grant, whom I had met before. So when he realised it was just me we changed all the plans (as I had already done a number of the things he had planned) and devised a custom trip instead.

The highlight of which was Cassowary Falls. The falls are on private property and access to them is very limited. We drove in through the rainforest, across a croc-infested tributary of the Daintree River and onto farm land.

I have always loved the farm land in this area. It’s such a beautiful contrast:  the manicured green pasture with the wild rainforest in the background.

Daintree River tributary and pasture

It’s not all green and pleasant though. The cows that graze along this river are sometimes taken by crocodiles if they stray too close to the edge. Yep, they’re bloody big crocs.

So we drove in and then swapped cars for the final kilometre into the falls.

This was the view behind us – and you can see it’s a serious truck with those roll bars…

Daintree pastoral land

and this was what lay ahead.

The track to Cassowary Falls

We forded creeks, and bumped our way over muddy tracks through fields and into the forest again.

Crossing the creek to Cassowary Falls

You have to walk the last 100 metres or so and then, suddenly, you find yourself in an oasis. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to stand on the rocky edge of a tranquil pool, the falls thundering down and the rainforest looming all around, lush and persistent.

And not another soul. It was pretty much a religious experience.

Turtle on a log - Cassowary Falls

Grant convinced me two swim over to the falls and then dive back in. I knew the minute I saw the place that I was going to do that.

I mean, I knew it was safe to dive where I did because Grant did it first and showed me where to aim for a shallow dive. And I knew it was too high and cold for crocodiles. But still.  There are cow-eating crocs just a couple of kilometres away and, well, what if genetic mutation has bred a cold-water tolerant, waterfall pool-loving man-eater of some kind?

It’s funny, the fear is there but something else takes over: the overwhelming desire to experience, to make the most of the moment regardless of the risk – real or perceived.

The next shot gives you a sense of the scale. You can see my little head floating below, looking back in wonder at the falls. Actually I’m watching a water dragon lizard scramble up the rocks but you can’t quite make him out.

Cassowary Falls in the Daintree

So if there was a croc lurking in the deep he did not grab me. The turtles sunning themselves on logs stayed well clear and my only wildlife encounter was with the tiny leeches that attached themselves between my toes. Again. What is it with me and leeches? Grant said he’d never come across one in all his time bringing people into the falls.  I, however, as this post attests, have now had more than my fair share of encounters with these suckers in this part of the world.

This photo makes me laugh.

Zebra truck

I mean, any day you get to go off-roading in a zebra truck is a good day.

The road to Port Douglas - sugar cane fields

After Cassowary Falls we had lunch at a private spot at Mossman Gorge. Once again, a beautiful experience. And once again I got to swim in the crystal clear waters of the gorge all on my own. I still can’t quite believe it.

Mossman Gorge through tree

 

Aboriginal artefacts

The year before when we were in Port Douglas for our annual family holiday we did a guided walk through this part of the rainforest (near Mossman Gorge) with one of the elders of the Kuku Yalanji tribe, the traditional owners of this land. It was one of the highlights of all our trips there.

Tall trees in Daintree

I know I’m swiftly running out of superlatives but this part of the world does that to you.

Daintree canopy

Our guide was Harold and he is a revered elder and a renowned medicine man who not only uses the rainforest as his pharmacy but is also used by the North Queensland police as a professional tracker in hard-to-crack cases. He uses his peoples’ traditional song lines to navigate and locate people who are lost in the rainforest.

Harold the healer

A thick book Harold showed us at the end of the walk attests to the fact he has healed hundreds of people from all over the world. As an interesting aside, he is also Cathy Freeman’s uncle and officiated at her wedding!

Aboriginal body paint

Here’s a hot n’ sweaty baby Betty!

Hot baby Betty in Daintree

She appreciated the swim at the end in this magical place.

Mossman Gorge

Harold was a superb  guide and pointed out the eleventy billion things that can kill you but also talked about all the natural remedies and tools he uses ranging from plants and berries through to the pincers of the ubiquitous green ants that can be used in place of stitches  or surgical staples to keep wounds closed.

Daintree flora on a tree

There are berries that look so similar that pretty much only a Kuku Yalanji member could tell apart; one heals, the other send you blind. There are cancer-inhibiting plants. These are just starting to be explored by western medical interests. Happily, any profits that flow from future medical discoveries  from this area – and the potential is HUGE –  will be fed back into this community. That gives me comfort.

As we walked through dense forest the rhythmic echo of wood on wood became louder and louder. Suddenly a clearing emerged; a natural amphitheatre and there we listened to stories of the aboriginal dreamtime from this area.

IMG_5012

I can’t recommend both of these tours enough. Daintree Discovery Tours  for a general tour of the area and a Dreamtime tour with the Mossman Gorge Centre.

I don’t know why I feel such a strong pull to this part of Australia.But I just can’t get enough of it.

Cane fields with burning off FNQ

Here are some of my other posts about Port Douglas and surrounds:

Our Holiday

I survived 

Far North Queensland

Summer Snapshots

Summer Snapshots 2

River Drifting 

Listen to Sir David Attenborough’s endorsement of the Daintree Rainforest over and above even the Amazon!

So tomorrow morning we head to the airport for our next adventure. One familiar place and one entirely new for us.

Deep breath. Dive in.

Villa Vajra, Ubud, Bali

Pool reflections Villa Vajra

Bali seems like a long-ago dream but fragments of our trip still pop into my head almost every day and I am still contemplating the effect the trip had on me.

Jungle baby

In some ways, with hindsight, I can barely believe I did it. Old neural pathways, as plastic as they apparently have the capacity to be, can be deeply entrenched grooves and some days I wonder at how I had the courage not only to go back but to take the kids and my parents.

Dragon fly

I think in some ways I had to kind of shut down a bit in the lead up to the trip in order to be able to do it. And in the aftermath, even now almost 6 months later, I’m still examining how I felt and how I feel now.

Just outside Villa Vajra's gate

As blissful as it was, I have to confess, that not all of the trip was smooth sailing for me. After the high of arriving and reaching our beautiful villa, I kind of slumped a bit around the third day. Long-time readers here will know the harrowing back story to the this trip you’d be forgiven for wondering why I didn’t anticipate that. I’ve been asking myself the same question.  But after such a euphoric arrival and a strong sense of “I made it”,  I don’t think I wanted to concede there might be more hard work to do. But there was. And the ferocity of the way in which it manifested was, frankly, a pain in the arse.

Javanese tea pot, batik placemats

I spent large swathes of my time attempting to control the negative thought loops that played on a never-ending reel in my head. The noise was not always Bali bombing-related but equally horrifying; terrifying fears of loss and pain writ large in the silent pre-dawn. This usually started around 3am when I would be jolted awake by an amorphous but powerful anxiety. It didn’t really abate until 8am when we all met for breakfast and the distractions of the day gave me an opportunity to divert myself from the internal cacophony.

Meditation view (full size)

I tried to summon peace. To coax calm. To meditate through it, around it, despite it. To reason it away. To surf it. To accept it and allow it to take its course. None of which really worked. And yes, I know effort and meditation are diametrically opposed but I just could not let go. I felt deeply upset that despite the beauty and serenity of my surroundings I could not make my inner landscape reflect the outer one during those blue hours.

Meditation bale

I read a quote recently that resonated with me. In a nutshell it said  “the only zen you find on the tops of mountains is the zen you bring up there.” My zen, as it turns out, did not really come along for the ride.

Girls in rice field

But that’s okay. I’m not surprised or conceding failure or  judging myself. I just felt a bit disappointed that there was such a mighty daily struggle.

Dancing girl before performance

One day, Olive developed a pretty severe and sudden infection the pain of which made her hysterical and not an hour after we had calmed her with pain relief medication and started a swift course of antibiotics, Sophia stepped on a wasp the size of a small bird. These big black Balinese wasps do not muck around my friends. They fly semi-vertically, dragged down by their weighty, poisonous behinds.

Tropical breakfast

Thankfully, she did not have a severe reaction, but she had some pretty serious localised swelling and if her screams were anything to go by, quite a lot of pain.

The utterly heavenly staff at the villa were amazing. They quickly retrieved necessary medicine, calmed anxious parents and, most importantly, soothed upset children with some kind of magical, relaxing massage to the afflicted areas.

Ketut

I found though, I guess unsurprisingly, that my capacity to cope with these relatively minor stressors was severely diminished. Even though I knew in my rational mind that they were okay and their lives were not endangered, I had felt, even if briefly, that they might have been. Just as I felt all those years ago in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. That made me freak out. Later. In the privacy of our bedroom. Not in front of the kids. So, yeah, that bit was not relaxing.

Offering with mini biscuit

But if I’ve made it sound as though it was 10 days of pure mental anguish then I’ve misled you. When I wasn’t trying to deal, I was absorbing with wonder our very beautiful surroundings at Villa Vajra and, paradoxically, loving every minute of being back in Bali. I was relaxing and laughing with my family.

In spite of the pretty robust processing going on in my mind, I couldn’t fail to be soothed at certain times by the breathtaking beauty of our immediate surroundings.

Javanese tea house

The staff, as I’ve alluded to, were beyond perfect. They became a part of our family.

Girls and Balinese dancers

Joel and Nirgrantha, who own the villa and live nearby, were beautiful hosts. Recently Joel  sent me pictures of the stunning  new ironwood boardwalk they have just put in through the rice paddies. They are also in the process of bedding down an extensive organic garden.

The fact I am still in touch with all of them should give you a sense of how amazing they all are.

If you want a little more detail about the villa, you can read my review on trip advisor here. I review there as ‘trovamiqui’. Which means “find me here” in Italian.

Villa Vajra - light and palms and bliss

Meals were extraordinary. The brilliant chefs  prepared whatever we felt like ranging from Balinese dishes to fish and chips for the kids when they craved something familiar. After the first 5 days or so we just gave free reign to the chefs to prepare whatever Balinese specialities they thought we would enjoy. Each meal was a veritable feast. An abundance of fresh, locally-sourced, authentically Balinese food. We were in heaven.

Nasi campur

Other highlights included getting some young, beautifully-costumed Balinese dancers into the villa one night, some traditional rindik musicians the next and of course the wonderful Galungan parade I talked about in this post.

We also had classic family times, the best of which was Pool Olympics. We spent a whole morning competing individually in such little-known events as “swimming with pearl earrings” (an event inspired by my elegant mother who swims with her neck thrust high out of the water using delicate strokes to keep both her hair and pearl earrings from getting wet) , “canon bombing”, “water pistol target shooting ” (no fun unless the target is a human face)  “creative diving”  and “underwater smooching”.

Kids and Andrew in pool

Andrew and I even performed an opening ceremony in the pool. Seeing the combination of amusement and embarrassed horror on my kids’ faces as their father and I did (badly) synchronised swimming, generally thrashed around like dead weights and concluded with a spectacular finale complete with high lift was hilarious.  For us. There is a video of it. That I will never show you!

I have so many hilarious photos  and videos from that morning but given our antics and the fact we were all in our swimming costumes, the rest of my family would kill me if I posted them here.  I choose life. So here’s one of Olive’s medal-winning canon bombs instead.

Olive pool bomb gif

Frangipani medals were awarded at the end (I won swimming with pearls, btw, like mother, like daughter) and Sophia cites pool olympics as the highlight of the trip. It’s the biggest little things, yes?

Mum and I outside Villa Vajra

So an amazing trip overall. Not as relaxing mentally as I would have liked but, as with everything I’ve ever done, I wouldn’t change the experience one iota. I suppose because I trust, with the benefit of hindsight at least, that that is how my experience at that time and in that place was supposed to unfold. Now if I could just learn to do that in the present…

Villa Vajra's vajra

A gentle slide into 2014

Well I dunno about you but I am almost pathologically avoiding engaging my mind with the new year in any way other than holiday mode.

We went on a road trip just after Christmas that took in Metung in Gippsland, Mollymook on the NSW South Coast, Sydney and back again. Only when we got back to Metung I couldn’t bring myself to leave for Melbourne on the appointed day so the girls and I hung around for another week. It was blissful.

So we’re just back and I am still kind of drifting along. And I’m going to just keep going like this for a bit I think. Not least because tomorrow’s predicted high of 43 degrees signals the start of what is shaping up to be a blistering heatwave. And in my books, temps like that give me carte blanche to move very slowly indeed. I mean, it would be bad for our health to do very much, you understand.

So these pics. Now I know I am pretty much the absolute last to the party but joining Instagram has meant I’ve used my camera phone a lot more than I ever have. And it’s been a bit of a revelation. All the shots in this post were taken with my iPhone 5S. The camera is fantastic and it’s kind of a relief not to lug around my big DSLR every now and then.

If you want any more information click  the “Instagram” in the top right corner.

I wish I could work out how to embed just the pictures and not the “likes”. I gave it a desultory go last night but as my head still thinks its sitting on a deck chair looking out over water it refused to comply.

There are lots more on my Instagram feed including a v cute koala we spied on Raymond Island (which is no great feat as frankly you do have to be blind not to see a koala on the island) and a shot taken 60 metres underground at Buchan Caves of a miraculous crystal formation. If you follow me, let me know you’ve come via the blog. I’ll love you even more than I already do.

Is anyone else feeling as dreamy and drifty as I? I hope at least some of you are – because that would be indicative of equally happy holidays.

[EDITED TO ADD: It looks as though my Instgram pics aren’t showing up in the WordPress mailout.  If you are subscribed that way and can’t see the pictures,you’ll have to click through to the blog. Bugger. Sorry.]

A glimpse into village life during a Balinese festival

The Balinese year (of 210 days) is rich with celebrations and ceremonies. Galungan is one of the most important of these and celebrates the victory of good over evil.

Gusti at temple gates

On the first day of Galungan, our friend, Gusti, took us to two local village temples to observe the ceremonies and rituals taking place.

Boys at the temple

It was utterly fascinating. I was worried we would be intruding but Gusti assured us we were not only not intruding but welcome. Such a beautiful, Balinese response.

Blessings at Sebali temple

We felt so very privileged to be able to see some of the blessings and rituals being performed and I was particularly thrilled to see this dukun at work.

Dukun (holy man) at Sebali temple

Dukun are holy men: spiritual healers, custodians of custom, tradition and ancestral knowledge, diviners, mediums and even sorcerers.

This is one of my favourite photos from our entire trip. My dad and Gusti : two fathers, two cultures, two friends.

Gusti and dad at the temple

Even the youngest members of the community participate in these rituals.

Kids getting blessings at the temple

That lifelong participation is, in part, what makes Bali such a cohesive society but also what feeds the almost tangible sense of spirituality on this island; a richness that seems to ripple in the atmosphere around you – unseen but palpable.

Leaving temple

Village streets are lined with penjor  – tapering bamboo poles adorned with elaborate palm leaf decorations –  and specially constructed bamboo altars.

Whole penjor

Just like the ubiquitous palm-leaf trays of offerings, each penjor is a work of art. And a much faster thing to put together since the arrival on Bali of the stapler! Before staples, each elaborate twist and turn of decoration was secured with little bamboo tooth picks. We were told that there is good-natured competition to prepare the most beautiful penjor although it turns out you can go too far. One penjor on the road to our villa was lit up with electric Christmas lights. According to Gusti that one “didn’t count”.

Penjors and offerings Sebali bud

This is Gusti’s gorgeous wife Narie, his two beautiful boys and his dad holding an offering they were taking to their family rice field.

Narie, Gusti's dad and the boys on motorbike_edited-1

That evening we sat on the edge of the street in our village (yes, I adopted it wholesale) and waited for the Barong (a lion-like creature from Balinese mythology) to come past.

There were no cars on the road and only the odd scooter every 15 minutes or so. So in between those  rare modern intrusions it was easy to pretend we had been transported back in time to a Bali of 100 years ago. All along the little street, in front of their houses, women and kids were dressed in their beautiful holiday finest awaiting the arrival of the Barong with the men of the village. As they waited they prepared offerings, lit incense, chatted.

Sate lilit offering

Occasionally the women sitting across the road from us would nod to us and smile gently.

Entering the Sebali temple

Then from the dim dark came the distant sound of drums and bells and laughter and slowly the village Barong snaked its way along the street in front of us.  it was gone almost in the blink of an eye but that half hour will stay with me forever.

I couldn’t get a decent shot in the darkness but I do want to show you how fearsome the Barong are. I found this beautiful photo on Flickr. Attribution below it.

Barong by Hoks on Flickr

(Above photo only: Balinese Barong Dancer by Hoks. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I took the next photo blind, i.e. literally just snapped it into the dark to see if I could capture any of the magic of the moment not only without the harsh effect from the burst of a flash but also so as not to intrude into the simple acts of devotion these women were making.

The resulting shot kind of made me draw breath. I know darkness and a long exposure makes for blur and distortion but  this has an especially other-wordly feel. Maybe blur accounts of much of it but there certainly seem to be more figures here than there were women. And so I keep coming back to the fact that Galungan is also when ancestral spirits return to earth.

For me, that evening was one of those moments that sinks deeply into your soul and reminds you, no matter what your fears, to keep travelling…keep striving for the moments.

Galungan women Sebali 1

Sewing for the tropics

Back of Soph's Liberty Jumpsuit

I love saying “the tropics”.  Puts me in mind of Joseph Conrad novels and Frederic Church paintings.

As usual, I went into a frenzy of sewing clothes for the kids just prior to our recent trip to Bali. I don’t know what possesses me but it happens in the lead up to nearly every single one of our annual holidays.

Soph in jumpsuit seated

This time the urge bit me even harder than usual and I wonder whether the meditative qualities of sewing were a way for me to calm my mind in anticipation of our return after so long. Well whatever the motivation, it worked and everyone won: I felt calm (ish) and the kids got some new duds. Which, because they’re still tiny poppets, they wore not only without complaint but with some excitement. Making the most of that window.

I made countless pairs of simple shorts but the slightly more involved items this year were this jumpsuit (or romper):

Close-up Soph's Liberty jumpsuit

and these linen pants.

Soph in flat fronted white linen pants

I bought this beautiful Liberty fabric from the Liberty department store when I was in London in July. From the moment I saw it on the bolt in that venerable establishment, I envisaged a jumpsuit.

Liberty tana lawn fabric

So its fate was sealed and, luckily for me, there was an excellent tutorial for just such a suit.

This was a slightly more complicated project than I usually commit to (pleats at the front etc) but the tutorial is so good that there was only minimal swearing involved. I wish I could tell you it was under my breath.

Profanities aside, Sophia and I were delighted with the outcome.

Soph in Liberty jumpsuit

Of course, as you all probably already know, it is actually illegal to travel to the tropics without a pair of white linen pants and far be it from me to flout the immutable laws of the land.

I used a pattern for shorts that I bought from here (and highly recommend – it’s simple to make your own but this saves time and has some really gorgeous variations) to make the pants, just extending the legs myself, hoping for the best. Turned out okay, thank Gaga, as the linen was $30 per metre.

I also used this very useful tutorial to insert simple pockets into the pants, the addition of which  I found ridiculously exciting. As did my model.

Flat front white linen pants

Check out the modelling face on this one will you?

Soph in white linen pants

And here she is strutting the moss-covered catwalk.

Sophia gif 2

I do truly love a linen pant. Almost as much I love saying “pant” in the singular.

6.15am, Ubud local market

I love local markets. Always such an insight into a culture and on Friday we spent a wonderful early morning at the Ubud traditional markets. The smells, sights and sounds were heady.

The meat section can be confronting for those not used to staring their next meal in the face  – literally. To my surprise, Sophia (my eldest daughter) was not only interested but unfazed – even by the claustrophobic interiors and gory bits. Bodes well, I think. Not sure for what exactly, but ummmm, I’m pretty sure keeping your cool  in the face of a mountain of chicken feet, bags of blood and pig carcasses can only be a positive life skill. It possibly helps that when your mother sees them she thinks only of their potential deliciousness.

Apologies to any vegetarian readers whose stomachs I may have inadvertently just turned!

If you want to see any of the photos at full size, click on it to enlarge and you can then also view each shot as part of a sliding gallery.

Island of the Gods: a trip to Bali

Silhouette temple Ubud golden light

Every morning I wake at 5.30am, just as the insects start their relentless stridulation and the roosters their crowing in earnest.

Rice fields Ubud with yellow flags

This early rising is unusual for me. Then again, the tropics have always agreed with my body clock.

Entry Balinese house_edited-1

I sit on a wooden platform, set within the lush jungle on a steep hill, perched high above the rushing river Os below. As the sun rises slowly behind the palm trees on the ridge opposite, it gently burns away the thick, morning mist drifting up through the lush valley.

Os River Valley

Through the trees are glimpses of emerald-green, terraced rice paddies and the still morning air, is broken only by the occasional whooping bird call or the sound of over-sized foliage falling from the canopy.

Rice fields Ubud and edge of Villa Vajra

As the sun finally rises above the treeline, its golden light illuminates the garden. Delicate spider webs appear as if out of nowhere, suspended between over-sized fronds, last night’s rain drops sparkle like jewels on deep green leaves and pale leaf tips glow with a bright translucency.

Offering at Villa Vajra

From the other side of the river bank the rhythmic tok, tok, tok of a temple drum starts slowly, increases in urgency then slows again until the last, lone, beat fades to silence.

Sunset over rice fields in Ubud

And the scent. Well, I wish I could tell you it is the heady fragrance of frangipani and tuberose but it is overwhelmingly eau de DEET-infused insect repellant. It’s cloying but essential at this time of day.

Ricefields near Chedi Ubud

I am in Bali. And I apologise for coming over all overly sentimental, but I feel like I’ve come home.

Palm silhouettes against sunset

I haven’t been here for 11 years. And that time was for one short terrifying night and day. Long-time readers might remember the story but if you are newer here, you can read the background to all of this in this post I wrote from Jakarta last year. I feel the need to warn you that it’s a bit of a harrowing story. But if you are interested in why being back here in Bali, in paradise, after so long is making me cry (in a good way!) each and every day, then that post gives you all the background you need.

Old Balinese lady, Sebali

However, if, like me just now, you don’t really want to contemplate anything that came before or the whys and wherefores, but just sit and be, then I hope my photos will simply convey a small sense of the deep beauty of this place.

Young rice with water droplets, Sebali, Ubud

It’s so good to be back.

Looking down to living bale, Sebali

PS: I have finally got around to starting an Instagram account. You can see some other Bali shots over there and I’ll be updating regularly over the next few days of our trip so follow along if you’re interested. Click here.

London, you blew my mind baby.

Union Jack flag flying

Everyone knows London rocks but in the most perfect of summer weather in July, it was going off like a frog in a sock. I have rarely experienced such joie de vivre and atmospheric buzz in a city. It was contagious.

Big Ben clock face close up

The city was spectacularly described in the sunlight – bright and blue by day, soft and golden in the long, light evenings. And it was  heaving with people.  And squirrels.

Squirrel London St James

Packed full of tourists (of course) but the bright young London things were out in droves too. It was a people-watcher’s dream.

Horse Guards London

I was last in London some 25 years ago. I was all of 11 and I flew over on my own (WHAT were my parents thinking?) to spend a month staying with my beloved cousin, aunt and uncle over Christmas.

Buckingham Palace exterior with guard

It was a complete revelation for me, a bush-raised child, and I fell utterly and irrevocably in love. So much so that when I returned I couldn’t even read the glossy brochures I had brought back as souvenirs; it was too painful to be so very far away. This was back in the olden days when long-distance phone calls cost a bomb and  snail mail was the only other alternative.

St James Park

The first thing I noticed about London, even at that tender age, was the way in which each and every atom of it seemed to exude its history. It felt so wonderfully old.  London’s history sang me a siren song and I absorbed it, if not the details then the atmosphere it created,  into my pores. I used to bore my cousin silly crapping on about how beautiful a small stone shop on the high street was. Or a street lamp (which was no doubt reproduction but that didn’t detract from its magic on a misty night).  I couldn’t get enough.

Georgian tea lady Mason and Fortnum London

My aunt and uncle introduced me to Indian food, Tetley’s tea, washing your hair in the bath, Selfridges, The Body Shop and Aled Jones singing “Walking on the Air” on Christmas Eve as we peered out the tiny casement window from my cousin’s bedroom watching fat, sparkling snowflakes slowly blanket the backyard. We had prayed fervently for snow and when it arrived, I had my first travelling “moment”.

St Paul's Catherdral facade London

My aunt and uncle owned a fine china shop literally just around the corner from Covent Garden. My cousin and I would spend countless hours walking around the cobbled streets and covered markets, sniffing Body Shop products ( it had just opened), looking with longing in shop windows at cute fimo bear brooches (it was the 80s and we were young) and trying to scrounge enough pence together for a bag  o’ crisps (we were pre-teens and we were ravenous).

Unicorn on Buckingham Palace Gates

Then, exhausted and freezing, we would go back to the shop and curl up in its toasty-warm bowels  below the showroom floor and snooze on vast squeaky clouds of packing peanuts.

Summer berries Marlyebone Farmers' Market

All of these memories came flooding back as I walked around London. I even managed to find my way from Covent Garden market to where my aunt and uncle’s shop was. It’s now a bodybuilding supplement shop. Not quite as atmospheric.

Norfolk Samphire

The heat wave made everyone crazy – in a good way. It was such a pleasure to see people dipping their feet in fountains and spilling out of quaint pubs, chatting to friends and enjoying a drink in the golden twilight at 10pm.

London pub with flowers

There were so many highlights on this trip. It was all one big highlight really. The Tower of London blew my mind (especially in light of watching The Tudors and reading Wolf Hall). Traitors’ Gate with the murky Thames seeping in underneath and the fierce – looking portcullis ready to slam shut behind as a prisoner was rowed inside was particular moving.

Porticullis Tower of LondonPoor Anne Boleyn. Poor all Henry VIII’s wives.

Cherries Marlyebone farmer's market

This is Boudica. We are obsessed with her at our house. She wouldn’t have stood for any of  Henry’s shite.

Boudicea statue Westminster London

There are no words for just how incredible the British Museum is. As a language-lover, the Rosetta Stone just blew me completely away. Not least because I hadn’t known it was even there and so just wandered up to it and read the plaque. When I realised what I was looking at, I nearly fell over with excitement. Nerd.

This is the bust of a statue of Ramses II that, among others, inspired Shelley’s “Ozymandias“. Yaaaah, no biggie.

Ramses II statue British Museum

These Roman helmets – one from a soldier and one a venatores (net-wielding gladiator) were particularly awesome. Even in Rome it’s rare to see such well-preserved specimens.

Roman soldier's helmet British MuseumVenatores gladiator helmet British Museum

Another highlight for me was the National Gallery. It was just a 5 minute stroll from our fabulously situated hotel (the Sofitel St James). Whenever I had an hour or two to kill I would spend time just drifting from one spectacular work of art to another. Such a treat. I visited 5 times in 6 days. And I may or may not have shed a little tear over the sheer beauty of a painting and my good fortune to be viewing it in one of the National Gallery’s light-filled rooms. I spent a lot of time in front of this: the Hay Wain by Constable.

Constable's The Hay Wain

We ate elderflower jelly on a deck chair in St James Park, and browsed through the beautiful farmers’ market just off Marylebone High Street. We spent lots of time in the oldest bookshop in London where I bought Sophia an Enid Blyton book (she is obsessed with Ms Blyton at the mo) Paddington Bear for Olive Enid Blyton used to read excerpts from her books to children at the store so that all felt very fitting. We also loved this beautiful bookshop in Marylebone.

Buckingham Palace Coat of Arms and Union Jack

It was in Marylebone I spied this beautiful private garden. I wanted to jump the fence and roll on the grass.  I restrained myself. Much to my handsome husband’s relief.

Private Garden Marylebone

I loved the soft, green grass of England so much I took photos of patches of grass. Just an ordinary patch of grass. About 3 times. You know, I do nothing to dispel my husband’s fears that I am insane in the membrane. In the best possible way.

Gooseberries Marlyebone Farmer's Market

The food scene in London is phenomenal at the moment. Utterly amazing. Highlights of our dinners out were here, here and here.  For quick lunches on the go during the day, I became obsessed with Itsu. Healthy, utterly delicious food. I so deeply wish we had a chain like this in Melbourne.

Apple and blackberry slice Marylebone Farmer's Market

I had some boxes I wanted to tick this trip, among which: climb a country stile, have kippers and a  hot, strong cup of tea for breakfast, stroll through extra green and pleasant bits of the land, eat great Indian food, eat great British food, have a Pimms in the English summer sun. I ticked all those boxes and more. It really was an extraordinary trip.

Can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get this posted that I am about to embark on my next trip…

The Roman baths at Bath

Roman baths at Bath with statue and abbey

I totally nerded out in Bath. My great love for and obsession with all things Roman (including my first born child!) is well-documented.  So I was in heaven.

View-through-an-arch-Bath

We had the most fleeting of visits – really just enough to do the Roman baths –  but driving in and catching the train out also gave me a sense of the beautiful Georgian terracing the town is famous for.

Bath from the train

Because Sophia was born in Rome I always feel the need to buy her anything even vaguely Rome-related.

Roman jewellery from Bath Roman baths

So I was in heaven in the gift shop here – replica coins, bracelets, necklaces (above – love their simple elegance), spoons and soap. Yes, now you too can smell like a Roman. A heady scent of horse shit and blood in the dust. Actually, it’s lavender.

Main-Roman-bath-in-Bath

These ruins are so spectacular and the display that forms part of the site is a collection of the most fascinating things discovered on the site. Including the complete skeleton of an inhabitant and a perfectly preserved original lead pipe that still carries the waters around the complex and looks as though it was laid last year, not 2000 years ago.

Balustrade and arch at Roman baths

This is me, lovin’ it. Holding a gun.  Oh no, hang on, it’s an audio guide. That’s a relief.

Met at Bath

Loooooords of the Manor and a last glimpse of Upper Slaughter

Front-of-Lords-of-the-Manor

If you’re off to Old Blighty, I can highly recommend two things to get you in the mood:

1. The tv series The Tudors. If Jonathon Rhys Meyers can’t get you in the mood then you may be clinically dead; and

2. Hilary Mantel’s book “Wolf Hall”.

Lords of the Manor garden

Both deal with the same infamous period of history: the bloody, head-strewn reign of Henry VIII. The Tudors is a visually stunning (although only partly historically accurate) soap operatic portrayal of the period whereas Wolf Hall, while still a work of fiction, is a far more dense but less dramatic account told from the perspective of Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell.

They are both brilliant and deeply evocative and so I was pretty much beside myself when I learned that our hotel in the Costwolds, Lords of the Manor, was a former rectory that once formed part of one of Henry VIII’s properties.

It’s a charming, atmospheric building with lots of period features; exposed wooden beams, tiny casement windows, creaky floors.

View-from-bedroom-window-Lords-of-the-Manor

This is Upper Slaughter Manor which is next door and was the main building of the larger estate way back when.

Upper Slaughter Manor

Can you not imagine Henry thundering down that driveway on his horse? Looking all the while like Jonathon Rhys Meyers thanks instead of the slightly paunchy, pale fellow made famous by Hans Holbein.

Upper-Slaughter-Manor

We took these photos very early in the morning so the light really brought out the depth of colour in the lichen-splattered stone and illuminated the golden lettering.

Upper-Slaughter-manor-sign

Dinner in the Michelin starred restaurant within the hotel was a revelation. To be honest, I did not have the highest hopes because the photos I saw on their website made me think there might be a bit too much foam and tricky stuff going on. In fact, our dinner here was one of the best of my entire life. Clever but without being tricky for tricky’s sake, every single mouthful was a study in balance and flavour.

We started with canapés in the garden.

Canape-at-Lords-of-the-Manors

After that we moved inside to the restaurant proper and had dishes the highlights of which were lobster, quail, pigeon and turbot. To describe the food with just those four simple words is criminally reductive but I could never do justice to the sublimity of their taste and complexity withy mere words.

Lords of the Manor enormous trees

The cheese course was yet another highlight.  We had a choice of over 20 cheeses,  most small-batch and locally produced. Among other things we chose a Stinking Bishop. Wouldn’t have mattered if it was aged in a cow pat, there’s no way I could have gone past a cheese with a name like that. And it was stinky and delicious. The other standout was called May Hill Green, another Gloucestershire cheese, with a rind covered in chopped nettles. I’m a tad obsessed with nettles and this too was a study in balance; the mineral tang of the nettle offsetting the creamy cheese perfectly.

Lords of the Manor side front

Chamomile tea rather than a post-prandial coffee was the order of the jet-lagged day and we had that sitting out on the lavender-ringed terrace with a small and perfectly formed macaron (as if we needed anything after the cheese AND dessert) at 10pm just as  dusk began to creep in. What that meant, in keeping with general perfection of the day, was that the stone walls glowed with an amber hue, the grass and sky took on a deeper green and blue and I sighed pretty much the most enormously contented sigh of my entire life.

You can’t quite see the terrace in this shot but this is the aspect we were looking over as we sipped our tea and contemplated our great good fortune.

View-out-to-fields-from-Lords-of-the-Manor

Next morning, I rounded out my perfect English countryside experience by having kippers for breakfast (much to the chagrin of the otherwise worldly Italian water who told me he had to hold his nose as he brought them to the table).

Upper-Slaughter-church

My childhood literary experiences were littered with vignettes of  kettles boiling on the hob, mugs of hot, sweet tea brewing, kippers in the pan and toast browning slowly on a fork over the fire. So no trip back for me is ever complete without kippers. It’s a nostalgic nod to the England of my young imagination. Smothered in brown butter and chopped parsley, they were bloody delicious.

Wardens-Way-sign

The other pictures that punctuate this post are from Upper Slaughter; the church, picturesque churchyard and surrounds.

Cotswold's beer

Although the Tudors tv series features lots of shots of beautiful countryside as Henry makes his way hither and thither, if it’s a novel set in the Cotswolds you’re after then it’s hard to go past Miss Read’s Thrush Green series for evocative descriptions of a fictional but immediately recognisable Cotswold idyll. This is very much a novel from a different time and world; lots of “terribly”s, “horrid”s and tea-times interspersed with descriptions of babbling brooks, scented Spring meadows, wild rose-strewn stiles and cathedral-cool woods . It makes a charming escape.

Madonna keeping watch over grave

I know this is a long post – forgive me – I hope it hasn’t bored you and might even have brought you a speck of pleasure of the arm-chair traveller variety.  It was just SO.VERY.PERFECT.

Next stop: Bath then on to London. I’ll try to keep them shorter, I promise!