Saturday, 29 October 2011

Northern Lights

I'm feeling excited. I've just booked a trip to Iceland over New Year. I normally feel as though I can't do much over Christmas as Christmas Day is usually in the middle of my time off school and I often have family staying with me. But this year I break up right before Christmas and so don't have to be back at school until the 9th January. And I don't have family staying. It's far too good an opportunity to miss and the obvious thing to do with a holiday at this time of year is to try to see the northern lights. I've been to Iceland before and I love it there. I've only been in summer when the daylight seemed never ending, so it will be interesting to be there in the heart of winter when there's very little daylight.

I'm staying in two different youth hostels in the city as I was only allowed to book a maximum of 7 nights at either one. I've found a tour company that does tours each evening hunting for the northern lights. They check the weather maps and go to where ever the best chance of seeing of the lights is. If the weather doesn't look good they'll cancel the tour and reschedule for the next night. If we do go out and don't see the lights we can go on the tour the next night free of charge.

As I'll have 11 nights there, surely I'll get to see them??? I can't have all those chances and still miss out. And if I'm really lucky maybe one of the volcanoes will erupt again and I'll get to tick lava of my list as well. Oh to get one of those iconic photos of lava spewing in front of a background of aurora borealis ...


Antarctica must be the most intriguing and magical place on earth. I don't just want to visit it, but to live there for a while, spend time, get to know it. I've researched working, studying and doing my own research there, but nothing is really feasible at the moment.

Whilst in Norfolk this week I was chatting to my friend about the things we'd both like to do and the places we'd both like to go. Along with Kilimanjaro, Antarctica is on both of our lists. Sitting in the pub on Sunday evening I browsed through a local tourist magazine whilst Valinda was at the bar. There was nothing of particular interest until I got near the end and saw an article about winning a trip to Antarctica. This just reinforces my belief that if you talk about things, write them down, bring them to the forefront of your mind, then things happen. This isn't magic or fate, it's just a case of tuning oneself in to the opportunities that are around us all the time. Even if I hadn't been thinking of Antarctica, that article would still have been in the magazine. Only difference would be that I would have just flicked over the page and not paid any attention to it.

So, now I have a competition to enter. I've looked on the website and it all seems very simple - just take some award winning photographs in a wetlands centre. Hm, well with my simple point and shoot camera and my lack of award winning photography skills it might be a bit harder than it looks. But even though I don't have much hope of winning, by entering and taking it seriously I should improve my photography skills, get to go to Martin Mere wetland centre (which I've never been to) and improve my knowledge of birds which is something I'm trying to do anyway.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Blood of Flowers

By Anita Amirrezvani

The un-named narrator is a a girl in her early teens. She lives a contented life with her parents in a small village in rural Iran. The unexpected death of her father leads to severe poverty for her and her mother. They take the decision to travel through the desert to Isfahan in the hope that relatives will care for them. Although the relatives take them in they are treated as servants rather than family and feel powerless to change their situation. The narrator has always been interested in making carpets and as luck would have it her uncle is a well-known carpet maker. He sees her interest and recognises her skill and so becomes her teacher and mentor. At the same time as learning to design and knot carpets and working as a servant, her aunt and uncle arrange a sigheh for her. She spends many nights as a rich man's concubine and is often completely exhuasted. Eventually she ends the sigheh and is thrown out of her uncle's home. Both she and her mother now have to fend for themselves and find themselves in their worst situation yet. Through her resiliance and carpet making skills the narrator manages to begin building a new and independent life for herself and her mother.

I found Amirrezvani's depiction of 17th century life in Iran fascinating and her descriptions of Isfahan make me even more desperate to get there than I already was. Iran has interested me for a long time and I wrote my Master's disertation on the practice of temporary marriage (known as sigheh or muta). This is the first novel I've read that features this practice and this made it all the more interesting for me.

I almost got to Iran last year, but it fell through at the last minute and I had to make alternative holiday plans. This book has brought it to the forefront of my mind again and inpired me to have another go at getting there.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Norfolk Coast Path day 3

Monday, 24th October, 2011

The final day was our earliest start yet. We had to pack the car up and drive to Cromer at the end of the walk in time to get parked, buy lunch and catch the first bus back to Blakeney.

The path took us straight back out onto the sea defences through the marshes, which followed in a big loop to Cley next the Sea. This is a lovely, little village with the windmill at which we'd orginally hoped to stay.

It was then back across the marshes to get to a very long shingley beach. We walked for 4 miles along here straight into a constantly strong headwind. The going was hard enough on the shingles without having to battle against the wind as well. The beach felt like it went on forever; it stretched out as far as we could see in both directions. Apart from a few fishermen we had it all to ourselves.

A very long beach
Ugly caravan park in Sheringham

At Weybourne the beach reached a grassy area that soon climbed up to become high sea cliffs (well, high for Norfolk). We followed the path along the top of these cliffs until it dropped down into Sheringham. Our first view of Sheringham was of vast ugly caravan park. I'm not a fan of these parks at the best of times, but at least the one where we were staying in Wells had lots of trees and so the caravans didn't stand out so much. This one had nothing. Really ugly.

We walked through Sheringham looking for a nice place to get coffee. Everywhere seemed to be plastic tablecloth, egg and chips type places and nowhere appealed. Eventually we settled on old fashioned tea shop with a carpet from the 1970s. The coffee was good and the staff were friendly, so despite the carpet it was ok.

The final stretch took us up over Beeston Hill and then inland through fields and woods, past farms and caravan parks, to arrive at the back end of Comer. We then walked down through the town to the pier and the end of walk.

For such a lovely walk the start and finish leave a lot to be desired. Both Hunstanton and Cromer are both shabby seaside towns long past their heyday. And, disappointingly, neither end has a nice sign to mark the start or finish of the walk.

Norfolk Coast Path day 2

Sunday, 23rd October, 2011

Another early start. As the buses don't start running till later on a Sunday morning, we decided to drive to Burnham Overy Staithe and leave the car there. Then we could get a bus back in the evening to pick it up.

We were walking before 9am and headed back out to the marshes. We saw a group of birdwatchers with their telescopes all set up and stopped to chat. They were from Switzerland and watching a spoonbill which isn't particularly common. Also it was awake and apparently they're usually asleep. They offered to let us have a look, but it flew away before we could get to telescopes.

We walked for a long time over the sea banks. As Norfolk is so low it needs these sea defences to prevent flooding. It reminded me a lot of walking in the Netherlands. We saw lots of joggers and lots more birdwatchers. It's a lovely place to run and the marsh atracts lots of birds, particularly now that we're going into migration season.

After a few miles we were walking on beach again. We walked for quite a way along the tree lined beach before turning inwards to have a look at a bird hide in the woods. We then walked through the woods which were lovely with several pools and more marsh. The actual path followed the path further along the beach before turning into the woods, but we were ready for something different.

Finally the path led to the beach at Wells and we walked the long straight road back into the town. This was my first chance to look around Wells and it is a really nice little town. There's one main street which is narrow and pedestrianised. We sat outside a small cafe for lunch before heading out of Wells back on the path again.

Although we were walking at the edge of the 'land' the sea was far away in the distance. Between us was a vast expanse of marshland. We bypassed Stiffkey (pronounced 'Stewkey') and came to a stop at Morston. This is a National Trust place with toilets (yay!) and a place to get drinks. It was a lovely day again and I was really in need of a long, cold drink by this time, so it was a very welcome stop. It's also possible to do boat tours from here out to Blakeney Point to see the seals. They have their pups with them at the moment so now is a really good time to go out there. There were crowds of people waiting for the boats so no doubt it's something that has to be booked in advance. We had no time anyway as we were on such a tight schedule with the walk.

From Morston we followed the path through the marshes to Blakeney. We were about hour early for the bus, but didn't think we could risk going further as the path loops far from the road and if we didn't make it back to the road in time we would miss the last bus. We wandered round Blakeney - more boat trips to the point - and then sat in the courtyard of the Blakeney Hotel having coffee. It was very posh, but quite reasonale prices.

Once we picked the car up we drove back to Wells for dinner. There's a lovely area with houses and a couple of pubs set around a green. We had a drink in one of the pubs and then went for food in the other one. It was nice, but I preferred the pea soup we'd had the night before. We couldn't go back to the boat though, as there was a private party on. After dinner it was nice to be able to drive back to the caravan instead of having to walk along the long dark road.

Norfolk Coast Path day 1

Saturday, 22nd October, 2011

Up early to walk the half mile to the main road in Wells to catch the 8.15 bus to Hunstanton. It was a lovely sunny morning with just a slight nip in the air. The early light was so lovely over the harbour. It had been pitch black last night when we arrived at the caravan so I hadn't seen any of it.

Early morning light over Wells harbour
The boat where we later ate pea soup

The bus arrived and we bought 3 day passes for £15 each. This means we can hop on and off the coasthopper buses as much as we like. The journey took us through some lovely villages and it seemed a shame that because of having to do the walk in 3 days instead of four, I wouldn't get time to explore them. Ah well, just have to come back then.

We got off the bus at the lighthouse in old Hunstanton, then realised we should have been in the main part of Hunstanton about a mile up the road. We walked along the road to it and hunted for the sign to mark the beginning of the walk. The best we could find was a rusty old way marker. It was so inauspicious we really weren't sure we were at the start and so walked further back along the coast to make sure we'd definitely included the start.

Soon after the leaving the town we had the chance to walk along the beach below some dramatic stripey cliffs. The stripes are white limestone, red limestone and carstone. We chose to do this even though the route took us along the tops. We walked for ages along the beach, all the time being aware of the saltmarsh that kept threatening to cut us off from the mainland and the path. We kept seeing paths through and so didn't worry too much until it was too late and we could get no further. We either had to cross a fairly deep channel to continue on the beach or pick our way through the marsh to get back to the path. We opted for the marsh and pulled off our boots and socks so we could wade through it barefoot. Each way we tried the mud got too deep and gooey to continue. We ended up having to backtrack even though the path was so close. Frustrating, but we'd had fun doing our 'barfuss' walking in the marsh.

By this time we were ready for lunch and so perched on a sewage drainage thingy at the edge of the car park to eat our sandwiches. Not the nicest of places to sit on a nice walk, but there was a distinct lack of places to sit down and this was the best we could do.

The path then took us inland through Thornham and across the busy A149. It climbed (yes, I know this is Norfolk, but it really did climb) up away from the coast and we walked inland for quite a way before dropping back down into Brancaster. We wended our way along narrow lanes and paths through farmers' fields and got some quite good views of the coast and the wind farm out at sea.

Narrow boardwalks through the marsh
From Brancaster we were back to walking along the coast, through saltmarshes on a boardwalk. It took quite a bit of concentration as the boardwalk was narrow, generally only two planks wide, and had some drops of at least a foot on either side straight into the bog. It was strange to see boats stuck in what looked like fields, but what we knew was really marsh and would get flooded at high tides.

At Burnham Deepdale we came back to the road and stopped for a coffee at the White Horse pub. This doesn't look much from the road but was lovely inside. At the back was a verandah with a half-height glass wall. We sat here with a really good cup of coffee, looking over the small harbour and feeling completely sheltered.

After our coffee break we were on our last stretch of the day. The path wound over sea banks in a big loop away from the road. We felt like we were on this stretch for ages, though it was probably only felt like this because it was the end of a long day and we were getting tired. We could see the windmill which was on the road just before Burnham Overy Staithe and knew we were heading for it. For a long time it never seemed to get any closer. Finally, with fading light, we made it and walked alongside the road into Burnham Overy Staithe to catch our bus back to Wells.

As we knew that once we got back to the caravan we wouldn't want to come out again, we stopped for dinner whilst we were in Wells. There's an old sailing boat in the harbour which has been converted into a pub. It's owned by a Dutch guy and has a large pancake menu, and Dutch pea soup on offer. It was getting a bit chilly to sit on deck so we went down the very steep steps to sit inside. It's very basic with a tiny bar with 3 small beer barrels sitting on it. There are a few tables and benchs and the walls are papered with old maps.

We spent a really nice couple of hours here eating the best pea soup ever and of course we had to have a pancake. I didn't think much of the Norfolk beer though. Maybe it's something to do with the water which is really horrible. If I'd known I'd have brough a car load of Manchester water down with me.

Finally we walked the last half mile back to the caravan in complete darkness. Luckily I had my head torch in my pack. My body felt like it had seized into postion which I blamed on all the flat walking. It might seem easier than hills, but it's a whole different impact on the body to just keep doing what is essentially the same step over and over for a whole day. A hot shower and bed helped to sort me out though and I felt fine the next morning.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

This and That

Three more getups and then I'm off to Norfolk for half term. I'm looking forward to walking the Norfolk Coast Path and intrigued to find out what sort of weather I'll get. Every weekend has been so different recently and now I keep hearing talk of snow. Bring it on! - I'll enjoy the walk whatever the weather.

I've been googling and searching Amazon looking for books set in Norfolk that I can read whilst I'm there, but haven't had any luck finding anything. Then this evening my eyes alighted on my copy of Bill Bryson's 'At Home'. A bell started to ring in the deep recesses of my mind - didn't he settle in Norfolk when he moved back to the UK? A quick check, and yes, the book is about his house in Norfolk. So that's the one I'll be taking with me. It's very chunky and so I doubt I'll get much of it read, but at least I can start it. My habit of reading books set in, or about, the places I visit isn't helping me get through the BBC Big Read challenge, but I'll get round to that at some point.

To prepare for the walk I've been very good about going to the gym. I hadn't been for ages as life just kind of took over and ate up all my time. But this past few weeks I've been going regularly and feeling good for it. I'm surprised that my fitness level is still pretty good, but maybe all the walking I did in the summer has paid off there.

I had been hoping to go back to the local college this week for a bit more waxing, but decided I'd rather spend my available evenings in the gym instead. So stage two of that challenge will have to wait until after half term.

By the time half term is over it will be almost November and time for me to start NaNoWriMo. I still haven't thought about what I'm going to write, but that's ok. I'm just going to use the month to let my thoughts flow free and see what happens. I'm going to concentrate on quantity not quality. If I'm able to write 50,000 words in a month then at least I'll know that I do have the stamina and patience to think seriously about writing in the future. Then I'll think about quality.

I finished my first aid course last week. This is only a basic course, but has given me confidence to tackle the more full-on course that I'll need to do for walking group leader's qualification. I'll think about doing this in the spring. That'll give me plenty of time to read up on first aid and consolidate what I've learnt.

So all in all, things are ticking along quite nicely.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

First Aid

I've spent the last two evenings at the Red Cross training centre with a couple colleagues doing a basic first aid course. School has paid for it (bonus!) as it means I can teach first aid skills to my health and social care students in the new year. The course included bits of everything and was quite a lot to take in. I'll have to do a bit of reading up as well, before I feel confident to either practise first aid or teach it.

This level of course is not meant to make me an expert so there was no formal assessment. At some point I'll need to do the specialist outdoors first aid course for my walking group leader's qualification. This is a full weekend course with assessments and is quite expensive. I'd hate to fail it and now feel more confident that I won't because I now have basic knowledge and skills and won't be starting it cold.

Doing the course meant I had two very long days and feel completely knackered, but it seems well worth it.

Monday, 10 October 2011

New York hostels

As owning my own hostel is something I would like to do one day, I get regular updates on my facebook page from a hostel management site. This discussion in the forums has interested me not just because of my general hostel interest, but also because going to New York is also on my list and when I go I'll be looking for cheap accommodation.

It seems that lots of hostels have recently been raided and shut down because of changes in a local law about the number of transient people allowed to stay at any one time in an apartment building. This could be due to pressure from the big hotels wanting everyone to stay with them, so they're trying to squeeze the small guys out of business. If this is the case, then I don't see how they think it will work. People with a budget of $20 a night are not suddenly going to be able to stump up $200 a night. Instead they'll just stay away. When these hostels were suddenly shut down travellers staying in them found themselves having to sleep rough. So if the law and the raids are because hostels are deemed 'unsafe', then how can sleeping rough in New York City be seen as a safer option? It all seems very short-sighted and bullyboyish to me. If they went after the truly unsafe hostels then fair enough, but that really doesn't seem to have been the case.

My sympathies go out to the travellers and tourists who have found themselves homeless and the hostel owners and employees who have found themselves businessless and jobless.

The YHA seems to be unaffected by this. Maybe they have dedicated buildings for their hostels and so are exempt? Or is it because they're a bigger business they don't get trampled on so easily?