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A Snowy Walk in Wootton Fitzpaine


With more flooding all around the country this week, here’s a more positive extreme-weather experience from the vaults. . .

We woke to find a white wilderness surrounding our little cottage. Filled with childish glee, we gulped back tea and threw on wellies, eager to be out. There had been snow in London that week, too, but it was nothing to this Narnia-like wonderland that awaited us.



The news had reported traffic chaos across South England, but in the tiny village of Wootton Fitzpaine in Dorset, just three miles north-east of Lyme Regis, all was still. We pointed our boots uphill and creaked over untouched snow towards Wootton Hill and Charmouth Forest. Snow lay in thick slices on gates and branches, and ours were the only footprints.

As we trudged towards the forest, the snow began to fall again, and we threw a few sly snowballs, reassured that the signs of our desecration would be quickly covered over again. Calling a ceasefire, we noticed some smaller tracks and looked up just in time to see a flash of copper against the white, as a glossy-coated fox disappeared into the trees. We followed him noisily and soon found ourselves floundering in snow that almost overwhelmed our wellies.

Snowy branches

Snowy branches

Locating what we took to be the path through the forest, we found our way barred by boughs weighted to the ground with snow. We clambered over these and deeper into the forest, where the silence was absolute, past columns of tall birch trees, their northerly flanks camouflaged in white while the opposite sides, hidden from the wind, were still bare.

Suddenly, we encountered a second pair of footprints; what looked like a man and a very large dog – perhaps even a bear, we surmised, our imaginations snow-dazzled. Something about these tracks struck us as confident, purposeful, and we followed them deeper into the forest. Here the trail became confused by hundreds of smaller tracks – birds, foxes, deer, and others unidentifiable to our city eyes.

We came across a digger, abandoned in a clearing and looking as though it hadn’t been used in years. Its corners and deep snow harvest provided a fitting ground for Round Two of the snowballing battles.

Rejoining the trail of our man and his bear-dog, as snow began to seep in through a puncture in my welly, we paused to glance at our ordnance survey map, in a bid to discover if we were even vaguely on our intended path.

But the white-out rendered everything strange and unfamiliar. We returned to following the tracks.

Whose footprints?

Whose footprints?

In another clearing, we built a small snowman, before numb hands and rumbling tummies urged us onwards again.

At an apparent dead-end we first began to doubt our guides, as their prints encouraged us to clamber through thick growth. Scratched and muddy, we emerged out of the forest at last and once again on a path of sorts, with fields belonging to farms surrounding us on all fronts. Peering again at our ordnance survey map, we discovered that the only possible route back seemed to take us across some of these fields. Keeping our gloved fingers crossed that any farmers and their dogs would take our trespass kindly, we stumbled on.

After having to retrace our footsteps several times owing to barbed wire, electric fences and unmapped streams, we finally arrived at the top of a hill, on what seemed to be a proper lane. For the first time in over four hours, we heard voices other than our own – children in a nearby field, sledding. Although, as we never saw them, it was hard to be certain.

Slipping in the sludgy remains of driven-over snow, we allowed the steep decline to tug our weary legs back towards home.

Lost in the snow

Lost in the snow

That night, our taxi driver into Lyme Regis cursed the state of the roads. “These lanes are atrocious!” he exclaimed repeatedly, bemoaning the lack of gritters off the main roads. We smiled out of the windows and into the dark hedgerows. The village is also without a post-office, a shop or a pub (and we never quite got up the courage to enter the village hall). A bus does call in Wootton Fitzpaine – but only once a week. Sentimental visitors that we were, the snow seemed just another tool in keeping the place isolated and to ourselves.


A Filipino Vantage Point


English: Political map of the Cordillera Admin...Hidden just outside the mountain city of Baguio – summer capital of the Philippines – sits Tam-awan Village. An artists’ colony based around a cluster of the traditional dwellings of the Ifugao and Kalinga (two of the many tribes of the Cordillera region), Tam-awan was founded in 1998 and continues to attract the more intrepid visitors from all over the Philippines, and, indeed, the world.

Baguio hills

Blurry Baguio hills

Approaching from the winding mountain road, on a clear day you can see how the village earns its name, meaning ‘vantage point’ – the views stretch all the way over hazy slopes to the South China Sea.

Inside the complex, huts nestle on their stilts in the greenery, staggered up the steep hillsides from the entrance point. When we arrived, early one New Year’s Eve, all was quiet.

Our  booking seemed to have been lost, but the smiling girl in the office assured us that one of the huts was free. A glance around at the decidedly adult artwork and décor confirmed that ours was the ‘love bug hut’ – perhaps less traditional than the others, but certainly full of character.

Tam awan Village

The rest of the huts are built of dark polished pinewood and were transported from different parts of the Cordillera before being reconstructed. One enters through a small door, emerging in a room whose walls are low, but which is surprisingly spacious due to the pitched thatch roof. Two of the larger huts at Tam-awan are employed to display the eclectic artwork of the Filipino artists who use it as a base. As part of the village’s aim to preserve and promote Philippine culture, guests can also participate in workshops and see music and dance demonstrations.

Getting ready to head into the city that first night, we stumbled down stone steps, wrapped up against the evening chill and already steeped in the smell of wood smoke. We stopped off first in the café, whose blazing lights offered the only illumination in the otherwise pitch dark. There the music was of an altogether less ancient provenance. The staff sat round the videoke (karaoke) machine with beers: they ushered us in and plied us with longganisa (Filipino sausages) and ice cream. It was all we could do to resist the enthusiastically proffered microphone.

Mornings up in the village were cold but fresh (the showers, presumably supplied by the nearby spring, even more so); the mists rolling in from the mountains adding to the other-worldly feel of the place. Nonetheless, days started early, and even here there was no escape from the clamour of Philippine life. Just as the Tokay gecko finished its nocturnal football-rattle-and-hooter call, the videoke machine would spring back into full voice, distant buses would blare their horns and visitors to the village would arrive chattering animatedly.

Tam-awan feels a long way from the tropical beaches the Philippines are perhaps better known for, a long way from anywhere, in fact. It’s a very Filipino kind of sanctuary, and I’m not sure there’s a better.

Baguio City

Baguio City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Up Close and Personal


Checking out of our Zagreb hostel, my best friend and I chatted with the owners about the next stage of the journey we had been planning for much of our twenty-year friendship. On hearing that we were travelling on the overnight train to Split, they exchanged a glance.

‘You do know there’s a Zagreb v Split football game today? The Split fans will be going home on the same train.’

Split football team


We brushed this off, smiling. On our first journey of this rail tour of Europe, gas had been pumped into our compartment and our valuables stolen while we were insensible. By comparison, a few boisterous football fans would be a reassuringly familiar experience.

We had met an Irish girl and a Finnish boy in the hostel and we all found a compartment together in plenty of time. The moon was already high over lovely Zagreb as we got comfortable, my three travel companions sitting across from me, I by the window. I read a little, distracting myself with daydreams of the Adriatic islands we would soon explore.

Five minutes before the scheduled departure time, the Split fans arrived. Zagreb had won; it appeared we would be journeying south with the losers. Still, spirits didn’t seem in the least dampened; soon the platform and carriages were overwhelmed with red and white checked flags and strips, the air thick with shouts, song and the unmistakable odours of beer and sweat.

The door to our compartment was yanked open and the two seats next to me quickly filled. All thoughts of pine-littered beaches were driven swiftly from my mind by the smell of my new immediate neighbour. Two weeks into our shoestring-financed trip and never one to prioritise hygiene over comfort, I had enjoyed a few shower-free days myself. But his was a stench that spoke of dedicated consumption of beer and garlic-infused meat products, with a hint of lucky-and-therefore-unwashable football kit and socks.

I watched wonderingly as the compartment’s five other occupants settled down to sleep, seemingly unfazed – or perhaps knocked out – by the stink. Curling my legs under me and leaning as far from my neighbour as possible, I pulled a scarf over my nose and closed my eyes.

As I focused on the rhythms of the train rattling towards the coast, I became aware of shuffling and grumbling beside me, followed a sudden pressure along the side of my body. Looking up, I discovered that my neighbour was now using my bottom as a pillow, his cheek resting against mine, arms draped over my lower back.

My exclamations of outrage went unheeded. He continued to snore gently. Attempts to shift him were in vain; unconsciousness had rendered his skinny body a dead weight. I had to content myself with scrunching even smaller, allowing his head to crash towards the cracked faux-leather of the seat.

As he snorted awake, I tried again to make myself comfortable. But moments later, the sequence of events was repeated. By the fourth time, my indignant protestations were reduced to bleats of despair.

The train was passing through black countryside by now, the compartment dark. Through the gloom I detected the Finnish boy opposite signalling to me. He mimed giving the offender a shove and pulling down the armrest between us. Of course! Sleep-deprivation and the fumes had addled my brain. There was a simple solution.

Clearly, subtlety wasn’t an option. I took a deep breath and heaved my reeking neighbour with all my strength. As he careened towards the drooling man to his left, I slammed the armrest down, threw myself against the window and feigned obliviousness to his splutterings. My personal space regained, the smell now seemed a minor concern. At last I felt sleep approach.

When the squeak of the armrest woke me minutes later, I felt no surprise. Sighing, I budged up to accommodate the weight of my bedfellow’s head, as it settled once more against me.

Split, Croatia Port

Split, Croatia Port (Photo credit: MacExposure)

While the wheezes and mumbles of the other travellers filled the compartment, my eyes found the peaceful reflection of my oldest friend in the window. I watched her familiar face until the lights at last grew closer together, and then began to fade entirely when dawn touched the cream and ochre buildings of Split.

As the train slowed, my neighbour suddenly lurched to his feet and staggered from the compartment, without so much as a backward glance in acknowledgement of the intimate night we had shared.

English: Train from Zagreb in Split station.

Train from Zagreb in Split station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only now did my best friend – who had warned me at the start of the trip that she could never sleep on public transport – begin to stir.

‘It’s so cold in here! I barely slept at all!’

I smiled fondly at her, serene in the knowledge that the first coffee of the day was on her.

Travel by the Book – a guest post by Sarah Sweeney


I have a special treat for visitors to the roadside this week. My own wonderful Sarah Sweeney – who happens to be a top editor at a major travel publishing company – has contributed her own musings on travelling, writing, reading and editing (my favourite things). Enjoy!


A visit to Vietnam, by way of Mallorca, Ireland and Chicago: par for the course in a week of my line of work. Unfortunately, these visits do not involve literally dodging motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City, admiring the Mirós in Palma or eating my way around the Windy City – instead, I am travelling in my imagination from my desk. And I’m not a bored accountant – no, I’m a travel guide editor. A great job for someone who loves seeing the world, although it’s also useful that I simply enjoy the topic of travel, as, contrary to the assumptions of most, I only journey on work’s time through the pages of whatever I’m commissioning or editing.

Not that this is entirely a bad thing. I’m a big believer that great travel writing lifts off the page or the screen and transports the reader like a low-tech TARDIS. Furthermore, I reckon that the physical travel guide is worth its weight in the bag for more reasons than simply detailing transport routes, where to find the cheapest bed in the cheapest hostel or the latest list of ‘must-sees’. From the moment of purchase with intent to travel, the book you choose as a companion helps take you there mentally  – and later, as a dog-eared memento, takes you back.

Recently, thumbing through my guide to Eastern Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of messy annotations identifying and evaluating the places that blogmistress Emily and I had chosen to visit – the extent to which we were engaging with the book laid bare. This multi-country guide was the first that I ever bought, for the first trip on which I would be actively involved in planning routes and accommodation. The exotic place names – Moldova, Belarus, Albania (none of these, I’m afraid, were actually on our itinerary) – the sense of locating how all these countries (which then, just at the moment when the EU expanded, felt very unknown to me) fitted together, and venturing into a region behind the Iron Curtain for much of our parents’ lives, and the first part of ours. . . Leafing through the pages, it was like peering into another world. On the road, the thought of losing the book was even worse than losing the diary I was rigorously keeping (this did actually happen). My passport doesn’t bear more than one stamp from that trip thanks to the Schengen Agreement (a brief foray over the Croatian border into Bosnia providing that solitary mark), but my book bears enough contemporary scribbles to take me straight back to the beer hall we targeted because it served steaks, smoke-filled jazz clubs and hostels both fairytale and prison-like.

When my next opportunity for a multi-country trip came up the following year, I threw myself into the pleasures of absorbing information on Southeast Asia, a fairly unknown entity to me at that time. Hypochondriac that I am, I spent most of the time reading the ‘Health and Safety’ section wide-eyed, worrying about rabies and making a detailed shopping list of all the medicines and mosquito repellent items I could possibly need. (I spent £75 in Boots and my washbag took up one third of my entire backpack.) Three months into my trip, I found myself alone on the other side of the world – literally, on the east coast of Australia – as my travel companions’ plans diverged from mine. Free to do whatever my dwindling finances would allow, the book provided inspiration at crucial junctures as I took sole control over my plans. Twice in Australia I shipped boxes home, packed with the kilos that were weighing me down but no longer needed on the road. My prized guides wended their long way home and remain intact instant memory-joggers, long after the traveller bags and bracelets I bought have been consigned to the bottom of a drawer.

Eighteen months after this trip, I started at the publishing house where I still work. Stepping behind the wizard’s curtain, seeing the mechanics behind producing a book, it is impossible to be quite so reverential. And yet, when inspiration strikes, when the plane takes off or when I am charting waters unknown, the busman’s holiday syndrome disappears and I am still itching to read about all the places I can go, things I can do, food I must eat. Or indeed, even as I sit at my desk, where I can easily become distracted from the nuts and bolts elements of my job to being transported to a wooden gulet sailing from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, a night market in Taipei selling weird and wonderful dishes, or toy train ascending hills into India’s northeast Himalayan region. In a practical sense, I have a travel wish list as long as my arm; in my mind, I travel all over the world every day. The wealth of travel inspiration out there online opens this up even further, and so often, I am right there on that cobbled street, up that mountain or on that sandy beach, taking it all in and planning my next move.

Guidebook action

Planning your next move

Sometimes it seems that with globalisation, the world is getting smaller – and sometimes, with the cost of travel, it feels like it’s actually getting bigger. But when you can be taken on a journey through words – whether instructive guides, inspirational tales or your own memory-jogging scribbles about adventures that you’ve had – anything and anywhere seems possible.

An Italian Odyssey (One from the archives)


Time for another tale from my earlier travels. Since today is Columbus Day in the US, I thought I’d choose a suitable one to honour the famous Italian, not to mention the spirit of exploration! This is from the Italian leg of my interrailing trip around Europe with my oldest friend, Sarah.

The year is 2004. The interrailing tour is our big adventure to celebrate turning 21 (we have the same birthday). In addition to the strange preponderance of the word ‘damn’ in much of my earlier writing, I seem to at this stage in my life to have favoured tedious ‘shout-outs’ to particular friends and family members in my emails home. You’ll be glad to know I have edited these out!

We’re in beautiful Perugia, hopefully our last stop in Bella Italia, with the exception of Bari, from where we hope to get to Greece. We shall see. . . (Just wait til you hear what a marathon we have ahead!)

. . . [I think I’ll save the Slovenian leg of the trip – detailed here in the original email – for another day!]

Venice in a day is always going to be manic, but I feel we managed to do it with a degree of style. Despite being prepared for it, going from eastern to western European prices was a difficult transition. We solved it by not paying to get into anything that day, except for our 90 mins up and down the Grand Canal on vaporetto, which I seriously recommend to anyone who wants to get an idea of the city without forking out for a gondola, and in minimal time. We spent most of the day meandering through the little side streets and alleys and getting delightfully lost. Delightfully, that is, until we had to get back to the station to catch our train to Verona. It was a manic hour’s slog through the city (during which Sarah spotted Jen from Dawson’s Creek but couldn’t draw enough breath to point her out to me). We made it to the station ten minutes after our train was due to leave . . . but ah, wonderful Italy, it was still there.

Sadly, it broke down (went ‘kaput’, in the conductor’s words) at Dolo, chucked us out and thus began a night of hell. The next train came quite quickly but took aaaages. We arrived at Verona and had to wait another ages for the bus. Then we got really lost looking for the hostel, so that by the time we arrived there it was very, very closed. Only by making a cacophony of whingy girly noises, and looking like we might very well burst into tears, did we manage to persuade the man [the owner, one assumes] to let us in.

Verona was beautiful. We happily spent the day Romeo and Juliet memento spotting. Juliet’s house was surprisingly nice – I found all the love notes stuck to the wall with chewing gum really touching . . . but the groups of old English men blushingly groping Juliet’s statue for photos less so. A noteworthy event was almost losing the sainted Lonely Planet [in Sante Croce with no Baedeker!] in a bar. I legged it the whole way back in 2 mins before the bar closed & babbled on and on about ‘il mio libro’ until the bar man wearily handed me the book, happy to be rid of me.

Piazza dei Signori, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Als...

Beautiful Verona

Next stop (oh yes, this is a whistle-stop Italian tour) was Roma – my home from home [pretentious, much?] (obviously excluding Dublin). The hostel was a dive – very, very like how i imagine jail, except there they don’t charge you 20 euro for the privilege and I expect they have some kind of mozzie control. I don’t like to be a wuss about bug bites, but I’m talking serious red, blotchy, mountainous terrain along my left arm. Yuck. However, on the plus side, our one full day in Rome happened to be National Tourism day – i.e. all sites free (with the exception of the Vatican – different state, doncha know?)! We did old St Pete’s, then one of the national museums, the Colosseum and the Palatine all for freeee! Our first night there we met some friends of Sarah’s living in Rome who sweetly put us on the wrong bus home. Ah! Never mind, we found our way. Of course, I managed to make time for a good old Tre Scalini ice cream, which for me is always the highlight of a trip to Rome. Um um . . . that’s it for the main Roman points, I think.

We nearly killed ourselves getting to the station in time for our overnight to Palermo [are we detecting a pattern here?]. The poor Spanish boy we encountered en route was left spinning. We made it, however and had the best night’s sleep I’ve had so far on an overnight. Some sweet girls who got on at Messina drove away any noisy boys who might have contemplated making us move from one of the four seats we were hogging. I have long wanted to go to Sicily. The coast we travelled along on the train was stunningly beautiful. And Palermo was fascinating as a combination of European, Arab and African cultures. However, it did rain for a day and a half of our 2 days there. And a city as run down and dirty as that does not look its best in the rain. Best bits – the classical concert we tipsily attended at the fabulous Teatro Massimo and the charming Sicilian we spoke to there. Oh and when the sun came out on the afternoon we left and everything looked better.

Teatro Massimo opera house.

Teatro Massimo, Palermo

Our impression of Sicily was not improved by the 30 euro supplement we paid to get back to Rome. It was a couchette-only train – surely it’s illegal not to give people the option of slumming it? Tsk is not the word. [I have since returned to Sicily and loved it –
again, a story for another day.]

Then from Rome onto here (despite having worked out that it just barely fit into our schedule). It was so worth the risk we’re now running with getting to Greece (though you can ask me again afterwards. . .). It’s beautiful, chilled out, full of students who’re just starting at the uni here. It’s also like the chocolate capital of Italy, so needless to say we’ve been sampling the local delicacies. I’m dreaming of a master’s here.

Which is just was well, cos here’s the plan for the next few days. . . Tomorrow crack of dawn train back to Rome. Then 25 mins to connect to our train to Bari (the odds of our train not being late are slim to none, I know), then arrive in Bari and head straight to the ferry terminal from where we hope to get an overnight boat to Patras, Greece. Then a nice long train journey to Athens, where we’ll prob have to spend a night before hopefully, hopefully, hopefully getting onto a beautiful Greek island or two to stock up on sunshine before returning to greyer parts of the world (did i mention the weather in Perugia is gorgeous?)

Station of Patras, Greece

Station in Patras, Greece


Enjoy the Revolution!


Tahrir Square was a sea of Egyptian flags – they appeared on pins, children’s faces, packets of tissues, even one lady’s toenails. On our first evening in Cairo we found ourselves gravitating down there, not sure what to expect from the site that had filled all our TV screens for much of February, following the start of the revolution on 25th January.

Of course, it’s easy for a tourist to say – not having lived through the fear and danger of the revolution and the government’s reprisals – but there’s no getting around it: the atmosphere when we were there was one of carnival celebration.

‘Enjoy the revolution’ instructed one graffitied sign that filled the whole of a building side. ‘Welcome to Egypt,’ people called as we passed by, ‘Mubarak is gone.’ Egyptian families gathered on the central roundabout drinking tea bought from street vendors and taking photos of each other on mobile phones. Car horns wailed and teenagers haggled for T-shirts with ‘25th January’ printed across them in bold colours.

In an arty, student-filled café across the river in Zamalek, we leafed through a free magazine celebrating the revolution and all things Egyptian. ‘Egyptians are absolutely invincible,’ declared the editor’s note, ‘especially when we are all working together as one.’ The doodled artwork on the walls, left behind by other customers, reflected a similar attitude.

The normal tourist sites – even at Giza – were relatively quiet, and we were the only people haggling for a sunset felucca at the Dok Dok landing. Later we ate garlicky hummus, stuffed vine leaves and tagine in a smoke-filled restaurant, where locals chatted animatedly and the TVs showed in-depth analysis of the military operations in Libya.

Drinking Stellas in the Cap d’or in Alexandria, with Edith Piaf blaring in the background, we got talking to Rames, a middle-aged Christian Egyptian who wasn’t joining in with the celebrations. ‘Egypt needs a nice dictator,’ he insisted, ‘and Mubarak was a nice dictator.’ Having lived his whole life in Alexandria, he now believed he would have to leave the country.

But a few nights later, we were taken for tea in a market in a crumbling Greek town house by diving instructor Amir. As old men played backgammon and sucked on sweet-smelling sheesha pipes around us, he talked animatedly about how there is plenty of money in Egypt – but under Mubarak it went round and round in one small circle. He was feeling more hopeful, but was sceptical about how much would really change.

Outside the children’s library in the wonderful Bibliotheca Alexandrina were models of Tahrir Square, complete with tiny protestors and tanks.

Returning to Cairo, our taxi driver had to let us out at Tahrir Square, where a demonstration of construction workers was taking over the streets. Hitching our backpacks further up our shoulders, we prepared to walk the rest of the way to our hotel in downtown. Egyptians have certainly developed a taste for revolution – and the atmosphere of optimism is infectious.