Tresco 2016

My parents have been visiting the Isles of Scilly for over a decade. Over half term we finally got to see what the fuss is about, spending a week with them on Tresco. The tl;dr is easy: Tresco is amazing. Even if you have seen pictures of the azure waters of the Scilly archipelago, the 28 mile flight on the Skybus from Land’s End still offers a great reveal. It may have been October but it was mild and often sunny; one can only imagine what it is like here in warmer weather.

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St Martin’s

From the main island of St. Mary’s, a boat took us to Tresco, a private holiday island managed by the Dorrien-Smith family as a timeshare business. Our week was spent in the Sea Garden Complex in Old Grimsby.

Sea Garden
Sea Garden

I was entranced all week by the view to the east to the islets of Northwethel and Teän and other evocatively named rocks. The archipelago may have been formed as little as 1500 years ago due to post-glacial rebound in the north of Britain which would have pushed Scilly down (which was once known by the Tolkienesque name of Ennor). I also discovered that I am a pharologist — a fan of lighthouses — and gazed over at Round Island lighthouse as often as I could (as well as the remarkable Bishop Rock far in the distance).

Looking east
Looking east
Round Island lighthouse

Tresco island is divided into three: a wild north coast, all heather and wind; a woodland interior, home to the sub-tropical botanical marvel of Abbey Garden; and glorious white beaches on three of the four sides.

The King(s) in the North!
The King(s) in the North!
Pentle Bay

I travel quite a bit and see some wonderful things but was really taken by Scilly (and Tresco in particular). Next time I shall aim for warmer seas so I can get out in a kayak.

M leaves her mark

(Sound track to Scilly.)

Cotswold break

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“Headlife” album cover

This was my fortieth birthday week and as usual — because I am a lucky git, I suppose — my birthday fell during half term. And so it was off to the Cotswolds for a few days to stay at Lower Mill Estate, part of the Cotswold Water Park mega-complex.

Our first outing was the National Trust property at Chedworth which has the remains of a pretty large Roman villa complete with some lovely mosaics.

We had two other outings: one to Cirencester where the cold rain dampened our spirits and to Malmesbury where the warm sunshine took the edge off our annoyance at finding the Abbey — where we had hoped to visit King Aethelstan — full of skateboarders. To the Church of England: no-one goes to church on a Sunday because they were allowed to skateboard in the nave during the week.

I have reviewed our holiday property on Trip Advisor (short version: unimpressive). On the up side, the house let us relax as a family by a lake and enjoy the spa, the best part of which was the outdoor eco pool that allowed a freezing post-sauna plunge.

Only a few metres from the house was the entrance to a nature reserve that connected with the Thames Path and the lagoons and fens which make up the Cotswold Water Park. The recent heavy rains and floods made a full circuit impossible unless you had tall wellies and did not mind breaking ice. That would be me.

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Hunters ftw

The reward was a view of Somerford Lagoon and a very young Thames.

 

Portugal 2015

About equidistant between Becky and my 40th birthdays lay the allure of some summer sun away from December’s wet gloom. Our budget stretched as far as Portugal, which turned out to be a great choice.

I had been to the Algarve before but remember little beyond the golden cliffs and a language that sounds like Spanish spoken by Russians. We chose a hotel that seemed to maximise its location, especially in the off season when many places shut down. The Rocamar in Albufeira was a delight — modern, clean, kid-free, and both right on the beach and next to the old town. This picture says it all, really:

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Albufeira from the Rocamar hotel

To the west of the beach was a little headland where we enjoyed our picnics of bread and cheese bought from the little convenience shop down from the hotel.

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Lunch spot in Albufeira

Albufeira isn’t the most broadsheet of resorts but the cobbled old town has plenty of atmosphere, good restaurants, and a great little museum of sacred art in which I found this great bust of S. Francis:

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S. Francis

One of the other religious sights in Albufeira is the statue of S. Vincente, whose missionary efforts in Japan saw him burned to death in 1632.

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The Algarve (from the Arabic al-gharb, “the west”) was once Moorish territory and a short drive away from the coast brought us to the spectacular Moorish castle at Silves. Mental note: revisit in the spring when the cafe culture and almond trees are in full bloom.

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Silves castle

Back at the coast we found the weird and intimidating rock formations at the remarkable Algar Seco. I have seen pictures of people snorkelling here in the tranquil summer seas; when we went, the sea was menacing and seemed likely to pull down the cliffs at any moment.

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Algar Seco

Four relaxing days went by far too fast but left us wanting to return. Unhurried trips are always the best and so I would simply offer this tip: When you fly to Faro, don’t be in a rush to zoom off to wherever you are going. Just out of the airport follow the sign to Praia de Faro. It’s about 5 minutes away and the chill pills are plentiful.

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Faro beach

Seek the good

Given at boarders’ chapel, Loughborough Grammar School, 16.ii.11.

A reading from Zechariah 8:16-17

These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.

A reading from Philippians 4:8-9

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

____

It cannot have escaped your attention, unless you do truly spend all of your time playing Football Manager doing homework, that a popular revolution has just swept Egypt, ousting the president and laying the foundation, we hope, for democratic elections later in the year. Mobilised through Facebook and Twitter, the youth of Egypt have inspired us all and struck fear in the hearts of despots throughout the region.

I love the Middle East and would like to tell you something of my own travels in Syria. A few months after we married in 1999, and with son one safely deposited in utero, my wife and I travelled around Syria. We visited museums in Damascus and Aleppo, archaeological sites on the banks of the Euphrates, and crusader fortresses high up in the anti-Lebanon mountains. The worst thing that happened was a severe case of Hammurabi’s revenge gained from eating dodgy bedouin food in the desert near Palmyra. The good things are too innumerable to list. Here are a couple:

Somewhere outside of Homs, just as we entered the Syrian desert, our rental car overheated. The rental had not come with Syrian RAC, so we sat there grimly wondering what the hell we would do. A local guy on his moped pulled up and offered to help. We ended up riding around various desert villages looking for parts which he then duly used to fix the car, offering us dinner at his home in the meantime. He refused payment.

Syrian hospitality also informs the second story. Rebecca flew home from Damascus a week before I did. One afternoon I was strolling back from reading newspapers at the British Council when a Syrian man approached me and invited me for coffee. He was a lawyer and wanted to speak English. We chatted for a while and he eventually brought me to his home to meet the family. He lived in the mountains outside Damascus where we spent the evening eating, laughing, and watching CNN. His whole extended family came to the home to meet me and I ended up staying the night in their guest room.

To this day, I remain deeply impressed by the friendliness and hospitality of Syrians. I could tell other stories — like the one where I ate dinner with a work crew at Damascus airport (my flight left at 3am) — but these will suffice. I have had similar experiences in Egypt, Turkey, and Israel. I remember arriving back in Heathrow and feeling deflated by the busyness and isolation of my own culture. There is no way in hell that I would eat and drink with some random stranger who approached me on a London street, let alone sleep in their home. And yet in Syria it felt perfectly natural and utterly safe. You would have to have been there to fully understand.

Most people thought we were insane to spend any time in Syria. Vague ideas about Arab/Muslim violence, Syria’s support of Hezbollah, and the Assad dictatorship, translate in many people’s minds to a country where westerners would be lucky to retain their heads. This notion will only have increased since 2001. It is, of course, utter nonsense, completely opposite to my own experience and that of many others who have enjoyed Syria.

We have a tendency to judge things by the worst in them. For Syria, we condemn a whole people because of their government and the sins committed by a few of their Muslim brethren. We fail to recognise that we would fall by the same sword. I like to think that my lawyer friend remembers me as a friendly Englishman who enjoyed an evening of shared humanity with him, and not as the caricature (deserved or not) of an empire-hungry, Muslim-hating, morally decadent crusader that is a popular Arab view of the generic westerner.

We so often take the worst and judge the whole. Roman Catholicism is defamed because of the sins of medieval popes; the Church of England is brushed aside because of Henry VIII’s foibles; Mormons are mocked because of Joseph Smith’s polygamy;  Jews have suffered centuries of abuse because of what was perceived to be the crimes of a handful of their leaders two millennia ago.

The admonition of Paul asks us to instead seek out the best in people, in cultures, in religions, and in philosophies; to seek out the true, the honourable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, the praiseworthy.

In Egypt, Muslims and Christians did exactly that. Rather than dwell on the theological and cultural differences that divide them, important though they are, they instead worked to promote a common good for all Egypt. A month or so ago, after a Coptic Christian church was bombed by Islamist extremists, many Muslims attended Coptic services to act as human shields. During the Tahrir square protests, Christians similarly protected Muslims from the police during prayers.

I do not wish to be naive. Christian/Muslim relationships are often poor and I suspect this will continue, alas. The revolution in Egypt also remains a fragile thing. However, it seems to me that when we seek the best in each other, good things, remarkable things can happen.