I’m a frequent traveller – but I’m also five foot two, fond of solo adventures and look glaringly foreign in whichever part of the world I travel in – so safety is something I always try and take seriously. I’ve had a trusty “nude” travel belt for years, which makes me feel more secure – if not comfortable. So while planning a solo trip to Colombia I was more than happy to try out an alternative.
Dovetail’s travel set arrived in the post looking much like a lingerie-stuffed jiffy bag; my boyfriend stood keenly by as I pulled formless straps, nylon and sheer mesh from the package – before the postcard tucked inside revealed what it was.
The “travel wing” sounds ultra sleek – it’s a pocket held in place in the middle of your back by what look like a series of bra straps. But the straps lack one vital element: adjustability. It fit me poorly, and I ended up not giving it a go.
The travel band, however, was fantastic. It fit comfortably, and worked under skirts (without riding up), shorts (without a belt strap to dangle out the bottom) and – remarkably – skinny jeans. It’s genuinely been designed for women’s hips; I forgot I was wearing it. The “portfolio” (a soft, fabric wallet) is a neat idea for storing cards and notes, as well as my hostel locker key. Crucially, it can also be accessed if necessary. Many would argue that this defies the point of a concealed travel belt, but as a keen photographer, one of the things I’m most anxious about losing when I travel are my SD cards. I could tuck these into the belt, then walk to an internet café to back them up – removing the portfolio discretely once I was sat behind a computer, and tucking it all back in at the end. The black nylon is a nice touch – if it peeked above jeans, it didn’t scream “I’m a camouflaged moneybelt!” in quite the same way as my nude original would. It also doesn’t assume all travellers have the same skin tone.
The portfolio’s water resistant fabric is also welcome. It might detract slightly from Dovetail’s sexy, feminine image – but lower back + backpack + tropical climate does not make for a happy environment for important documents. Or SD cards.
Colombia turned out to be far, far safer and friendlier than my South London neighbourhood, and I thankfully never got to test if it stopped me from getting robbed. However, peace of mind is everything while on holiday – whether that’s being protected from pickpockets, muggers – or just my own absentmindedness. So ultimately, Dovetail did the trick, and knowing I had it on me as a precaution did keep my boyfriend back home happy in the end, too.
This was a guest post from my fellow travel writing colleague and pal, Vicki Brown, who writes her own lovely blog La Nomadita.
The minute I unwrapped my new toy, the children had whisked it away to play with it in minutes. This is the TRTL, or turtle as it has become known in my house and it is one of the most ingenious inventions for travellers in a long time. In short, it is a neck support that you don’t have to inflate, and that looks rather chic when you are wearing it too. Made of soft fleece, you wrap it around your neck in one easy move and so it looks just like a scarf. Except that it has a cleverly disguised bit of plastic inside it, which offers just enough support for your neck to make that all important ‘loll’ as you dose off on the train or plane. Or indeed, the back of a car. This bit of patented plastic, aka an Internal Support System, is extremely adaptable and can be worn anywhere across the front of the neck – either side or under the chin.But whatever way you wear it, you don’t look like a dork, and it is gloriously warm and comfort blanket like. I love also that the manufacturers describe it as ‘dribble proof”….never a good look.
My kids didn’t believe it would work, but within seconds they were squabbling over who was going to wear it in front of the telly that night. The older one won, using revision as the trump card, whisking it off to his room for a study session. Apparently it made for very comfy Spanish vocabulary learning. My advice, however, if you have boys, and sorry for sexism, get it in pink like I did. There is no way they will nick it from me on our next journey together. Sorry, if that seems like adhering to stereotypes, but sometimes a mother just knows her kids’ limits. Exam season reward for my son is an Interrail Card, however, so I feel a gift coming on. In a more sombre grey perhaps. And having tried and tested it on a three hour train recently, when I did sleep for an ache free 45 minutes (and no sign of dribbling I might add), I have no hesitation in buying a second one.
Two other pros of this ‘napscarf’ as the manufacturers call it – first, it is a Scottish creation and brainchild of a young kickstarter and second, it is also only 139 grams in weight, so no big issue when it comes to luggage weight limitations. The only downside is that the plastic inside means it doesn’t roll up so easily to pack, but it is no big deal as it is still very neat and small. And as I always suffer from aching neck syndrome, and I hate those inflatable pillows, I would sacrifice something else in my bag to bring this guy on any trip. If I can ever get it away from my kids. Who summed up their review of the TRTL as, simply, ‘This is sick’.
The audience cheered at the end of Jimmy McLaughlin’s rendition of ‘Dear Old Inishowen’, not only because of his fine a cappella accomplishment but also because he was singing it in McGrory’s front bar in Culdaff, the heart of his dear old Inishowen . He was here because his family was the subject of an Irish television series called Dúshlán 1881 – Living the Eviction, about famine evictions from the nearby village of Carrowmenagh, and they were having a screening in the hotel to celebrate. I was there to begin exploring the wilderness that remains all around this northernmost point of our island, but right now, in this cocoon of Culdaff, my cultural immersion was like an unexpected and delicious appetiser.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better start to my weekend on Inishowen where my ultimate aim was to get to Inishtrahull, the northernmost island in our waters, just ten kilometres off Inishowen’s Malin Head. I was to kayak to this now deserted island with new adventure company Far and Wild, based in Derry, which explores Inishowen in the most eco-friendly ways possible. By paddling, hiking and, most exciting of all for this recent convert, coasteering. Coasteering is the good old fashioned way of traversing a coastline, clambering through sea arches, swimming across otherwise inaccessible inlets and jumping off rocks into the waves. “I’m sure my mother warned me not to go away for weekends with men like you” I shouted to Lawrence McBride, founder of Far and Wild, as I stood on top of a pretty high rock just after he had jumped into the water and was waiting for me to follow suit. Which I did, and loved every second of my boldness.
The weather was also bold that weekend however and, after several checks with the coastguards, the Far and Wild team of expert guides decided that we wouldn’t be able to get to Inishtrahull this time around. They might jump off rocks and kayak into the waves but they aren’t stupid, and from beginning to end I felt secure in their knowledge and expertise. “Because the conditions are extreme and unpredictable up here, our itineraries are never fixed in stone,” said Lawrence. I rather loved this organic interaction with nature and, in particular that they include wild camping as part of their break. You never know in advance where you might end up sleeping that night, but if our chosen bay at White Strand was anything to go by, these guys don’t settle for any old patch. There was no one around for miles, soft and sheltered grass to pitch on, and a stony beach to create a camp kitchen. Not forgetting the stunning views across Trawbreaga Bay, the Isle of Doagh peninsula with Fanad Head glistening beyond that and Mount Errigal towering above West Donegal in the distance.
Mind you, I would have slept in the back of a kayak I was so tired at the end of the day. After we realised that Inishtrahull wasn’t going to happen early that morning, and we got clearance from the coastguard, we headed off in our state of the art kayaks from a tiny inlet, just east of Malin Head, where an ancient well, church and hermit’s cave called “The Wee House of Malin” marks the spot. I was in the front of a double kayak with Lawrence who, along with another of their kayaking experts, Gareth Blackery, guided confidently and firmly. “Paddle straight into the swell, not alongside it, and you’ll be grand”, he shouts as I relished each stretch I take into these Atlantic extremes.
We paddled like this for a couple of hours, admiring the cliffs and sea stacks from afar, but staying clear of the white water which smashed against the coastline. Then suddenly it hit. Although the waters weren’t crashing out here, they were definitely swelling. My stomach started to move in syncopation and, almost without warning, I was feeding my breakfast to the fish. “Better out than in”, Lawrence said, reassuring me that this was normal but it was best to be sick onto the spraydeck which covered our kayak rather than over the edge. There is always a tipping point in a kayak after all. A quick splash of the face with seawater and I was right as rain and ready to tackle the next headland.
I even tackled lunch, a picnic prepared by the company, which we had on Breasty Bay, tucked in behind some whale like granite slabs to provide shelter from the omnipresent winds. This was the point when I remembered my extra warm layer tucked into a dry bag with my lunch. Never have fleece and a flask felt so welcome. After a couple of hours’ more kayaking further west, we let the current carry us into the more placid Port Ronan, where the team had cleverly shuttled our minibus earlier, so that we didn’t have to transport camping gear on kayaks.
Farren’s Pub, our nearest drinking hole before zipping ourselves up for the night, was also a welcome shelter from the wind, after pitching and pasta-ing at the beach. This is Ireland’s most northerly pub, and there is nothing like a day’s kayaking around Malin Head to get the conversation going in a region that is pretty much off the tourist trail. When we told them that we might be swimming in the sea tomorrow, they just gave us another hot whisky and looked on sympathetically.
No sympathy was needed, however, and no skills either for the next day. After a fine sleep, with layers of down and fleece to combat the untimely near zero temperatures and a vat of porridge, we started a hike down the beach in the direction of Five Finger Strand, a few headlands away. In Far and Wild’s inimitable style, we negotiated the rocky shore as we went, “Use four point contact” Lawrence said at points where we need both hands and feet to scramble up grassy slopes when beach walking became impossible. Those of us who wanted a little more adventure had wetsuits and helmets in our backpacks and, just as Five Finger Strand came into view, we changed on the rocks, gave our gear to those who were hiking and coasteered our way back to camp. The high quality neoprene covering us from top to toe, buoyancy aids and helmets meant that we could jump and jiggle our way along these wild Donegal surroundings in comfort, caution and with childlike cheer.
As we swam back into White Strand, the words in Neil McGrory’s (of McGrory’s Hotel) on the history of Inishowen – Inishowen: A journey through its past revisited. Yes, that’s the sort of bar they have in Inishowen. One which has its own historian at the helm. At one point he quotes James McParlan’s 1801 Statistical Survey of Donegal who writes about pilgrims at Malin Head. Apparently, after prayers they finish with “a good ablution in the sea, male and female, all frisking and playing in the water, stark naked and washing off each other’s sins”. I for one, was fully cleansed in that case. Although I will always swap neoprene for nakedness in the Atlantic.
They do like to do things differently up here on Inishowen, however. According to Liam Campbell, a brilliant cultural historian who joined us as a guide on day two, “Inishowen is isolated but independent, with people trying to do things a little differently here. Which is a good thing and why I like helping out with Far and Wild’s trips. They take a holistic approach. They not only bring people out into the wilds of Donegal, but they show how these landscapes have shaped the people who live here. That is rare in tourism”. It is also rarified. In that this ‘Dear Old Inishowen’ is a place to have pure, unadulterated fun.
Far and Wild offer a variety of packages. The two night adventure costs €375 sterling pps including all equipment, two dinners and breakfasts, one packed lunch, expert guides, airport transfer, one night’s accommodation at McGrory’s Hotel and one night of camping (+44 (0) 7775 911198, farandwild.co.uk) . An edited version of this article by Catherine Mack was first published in The Irish Times.
I despair of cool boxes sometimes. They are always blue and boring, usually don’t do the job properly and, ultimately, they just never look cool. So, with a heatwave finally hitting Northern Europe, I decided it was time to celebrate and went in search of something substantial to keep my goodies cool.
I had two missions. First, I have a garden cabin where friends stay from time to time and I wanted something that could sit in the corner and not scream ‘I am blue, plastic and pretty damn ugly’. I had tried the mini fridge thing in the past, but they are just a waste of space. My other mission was, of course, picnics and camping expeditions, so this thing had to be cool and multitask. An online search was feeling like a waste of time, a sea of blue blocks coming up all over Ebay, until finally I spotted it, under a sneaky search for fishing gear. Fishermen don’t mess with keeping their catch cool, I reckoned, and I was right.
I found myself on www.coolboxesuk.com and face to face with the monster of coolness. The Yeti. White and tough, this cool box claims to be the one that keeps ice frozen longer than any other. It has a wonderfully contemporary, rounded design, with big rubber fasteners and a heavy duty lid, which make me feel slightly bad that I am not throwing a huge freshly caught salmon into its chilly depths. It’s big, burly and boysy but also curvaceous and girly in a weird sort of way. No sexism intended, I promise. It just suits everyone. I also liked the website’s Icey-Tek range as they come in a greater range of colours, but don’t have handles, so I stuck with the Yeti range.
Fully moulded, it means it is super durable and as these guys don’t come cheap (my Yeti 14L Roadie comes in at £109.95) you would want it to last for life. Made in the USA, their larger Tundra Model is designed to be bear proof, not something that was necessary on an afternoon’s picnic in Greenwich Park. However, given that I often leave it outside our garden cabin at night, stocked up with fresh ice packs for guests who are coming back late, there is no way that our fox pests are going to get through this baby.
The Yeti caused quite a stir at our friends’ picnic party in Greenwich, however, with people keen to know where we got it and how we found it in terms of keeping things cold. In terms of coldness it is unarguably good. My wine and beer was still cold at sunset, after a day in full on heatwave glare, although if you want to store lots of wine, you will need the bigger model, as this one only holds one, at an angle. The Yeti is not really designed for picnic prettiness after all, in spite of it causing a ripple of excitement among the great burghers of Greenwich. It is too heavy, and although it has a handle, it isn’t something you want to traipse great distances with. Great for campervans and campsites, but hiking heaven it aint. But if it’s cold, contemporary and classy you are after, the Yeti should be yours.
It’s not every day you get a hug in the post. I opened it up and wrapped it around me immediately, and it was so all embracing that I was unable to separate myself from it for about a week. Luckily, I am also able to bring it on all my travels now, as a Hug is the name for the most stunning wrap or shawl, made from recycled woollen jumpers and crafted into a cocoon of cosiness that will keep me warm in winter and chill free in summer.
Made in Shropshire, UK, by Turtle Doves, I couldn’t recommend this company more highly. Before ordering my Hug (incredibly good value at £45), I chatted about the colours I like and, as I really wanted to be able to take it on my travels with me, and have a pretty boring ready to go travel wardrobe, I knew exactly what I was after. Pale blues and greens mostly and, as Kate Holbrook, the founder of this ethical enterprise told me, she thought the Mermaid one might be perfect. So, as wild swimming spots are usually top of my travel itinerary, I knew this was the one with my name on it. I was a little concerned about the applique heart on it, as I don’t usually go for that sort of thing, but I just wear it with that bit on the inside.
The Hug really is perfect for travellers. I had a hug after surfing and coasteering during my recent trip to Preseli Venture in Pembrokeshire, Wales. You can wrap it round yourself like a giant scarf, or cover your head with it if you are camping, and you can’t seem to get your hair dry on those damper evenings, or you can just cover yourself with it as you collapse into a holiday chill out. And if flying is your chosen mode of transport, you can wrap up when the air con hits that chilly max, or use it as a pillow when you need a doze. It also means you have to pack less layers, and you can wear it travelling, thus minimising your load in terms of luggage limits. To see Kate’s suggestions of ways in which to wear your hug, check out her video here.
The most lovely thing about a Hug is that it makes me smile every time I wrap myself up in it. It is charming to think that there are stories behind every patch of wool that warms my body. Kate sources 95% of her jumpers from registered charity shops, although she does welcome donations too of course. If you want to sample her craftsmanship on a smaller budget, check out the cashmere fingerless gloves. You can have a pair for free if you send in your old cashmere jumper. This way, she gets to use the cashmere for other products, and you get a pair of Turtle Doves in the post. You can also buy online from a wide selection of gloves, as well as hats, scarves and snoods or, if you are in the Shropshire region, you can find them at various markets.
My kids are now after my Hug all the time, and so there is a bit of a plan brewing to gather up lots of our old wool in the house, including some of their baby bits and pieces and have them made into blankets by Turtle Doves for Christmas. That way they can use them for camping or just collapsing on the couch at home. Backed with fleece, and given a patchwork feel using buttons, these are hugs from heaven really.
The celebrated poet Maya Angelou once said that “Every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back”. I couldn’t agree more, but my new dilemma is that now I have the best hug in the world, I don’t really want to share it.
Long before the words ethical or eco started creeping into the tourism industry’s boardrooms, there was one man who was quietly laying the foundations of fairness in travel. Thomas Arthur Leonard (or TA as he was known)) founded HF Holidays in the UK a hundred years ago and, although his achievements have been relatively uncelebrated to date, the centenary of an organisation which still remains the only UK holiday provider that is a truly co-operative society, gives us a good opportunity to take stock of this pioneering philanthropist’s achievements (www.hfholidays.co.uk).
I found there was no better way to get to grips with his greatness than by hiking up to the top of Pen-y-Ghent, one of the three peaks of the UK’s Yorkshire Dales, on an unseasonably freezing day. So cold, in fact, that I was sure the HF Holiday guides would cancel the walk, with snow flurries concealing the summit. But no, they are made of stern stuff at HF Holidays. This organisation was created in 1913, after all, seeking to, against all odds, get people into the outdoors so that they could still enjoy the landscapes all around them, in spite of a growing sense of worldwide angst. And also, to do so on the cheap. Leonard had already created the Cooperative Holiday Association in 1894, but feeling that this had been swamped by the middle class, he created the Holiday Fellowship (HF), a Society which sought to provide basic, accessible walking holidays at in the UK and abroad. In the 1930’s he also helped create the Youth Hostels Association, keeping rambling real for generations to come.
Although HF has moved on from single sex bunk rooms to superbly equipped country manors, such as Newfield House in Malhamdale, Yorkshire, the base for my Yorkshire Dales walking break, there is still one core ethos of this walking society which has stuck with HF Holidays. All their guides, or ‘leaders’ as they call them are volunteers. Or good fellows, Leonard might have called them in his day. Many of them have grown up with families who went on HF walking holidays, and now they want to share the love. They are all passionate about walking, cycling as well as a plethora of other outdoor activities. They are also all warm, generous people who celebrate the notion of ‘fellowship’ without being in your face, let’s all hold hands and thank God for life sort of people. In fact, if I could sum these guys up, they are what you imagine the perfect grandparents to be and, if I could, I would like to adopt each and every one of the guys who led us around the Yorkshire Dales for that role in my children’s lives.
So, as much as this centenary is about celebrating the achievements of TA Leonard, it is his legacy that lives on through people which what makes HF a very special company to holiday with, if outdoor activities are your thing. And of course, their walking leaders are hard core, which you need in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia or Glencoe, just to give you that added incentive to climb the next stretch which, in our case, we couldn’t actually see because of snow. But on we trekked, feeling with every step that we were in very safe hands, the route being judged with expertise along the way. We took a steep, slow climb up to the peak, but due to the extreme and icy conditions our leader guided us down a gentler route down Pen-y-Ghent.
The rather stark, boy scout feel that HF Holidays had in the past has gone a little softer round the edges in modern times, however, as we all jumped into the swimming pool at Newfield House on our return, pampered ourselves with a little pilates, and massaged those well stretched muscles with a petit Pino Grigio by the fire. Not sure if that would have passed TA Leonard’s middle class radar, really. Not to mention the fine selection of packed lunches, with poached salmon sandwiches and fine local cheese.
International walking holidays was also part of TA Leonard’s vision and this has now become the biggest growth area for the organisation. An organisation which is still, by the way, a truly cooperative and non-profit organisation. You can sign up to be a member and shareholder, attend the AGMs and have your say in how they move things forward in a world that is being swamped by 1 billion travellers, the majority of whom are still being seduced by pure profit driven travel. HF Holidays also realises that it needs to sustain its set up for the next generation, and so it has created a young person’s membership which adults can sign up to on behalf of anyone under 16. Too cool for school, really.
Another development is the (great value) Freedom Break, whereby you just use one of HF’s accommodations as a base for independent walking, but get full board accommodation, an OS Map and plenty of detailed information on best trails etc. These are just applicable to a certain number of UK locations at the moment, however, such as the Isle of Wight (superb coastal walking just a couple of hours from London), the Cornish Coast Path or the Lake District. However, I was glad to be in the safe hands of a group and our superbly informative and affable guide, Mervyn Flecknoe, as we climbed up Pen-y-Ghent. As we took our final steps down from the peak, we strode across some massive flagstones made from local limestone. For an organisation that proudly promotes ‘Leave No Trace’ as part of its outdoor ethic, this is one impressive exception. Because, although they don’t shout about their conservation and care practices at HF Holidays, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. These flagstones, which prevent erosion caused in hiking hot spots, were funded by HF’s Pathways Fund, a charity which guests can donate to, and which not only works with leading conservations charities to protect landscape but also provides assisted holidays to those who could not otherwise afford one. Like I said – Foundations of fairness. For a hundred years. Fair play, HF, and happy birthday.
For more details of HF Holidays, including walking, cycling and outdoor activity holidays in varied locations from Barbados to the Brecon Beacons, or Kenmare to Kenya, see www.hfholidays.co.uk. Or follow them on Twitter @hfholidays or on Facebook (HF Holidays).
We Irish have to live with the rain. We cycle through it, walk through it, canoe through it and party through it. That is not to say that we don’t get miserable about it too, sometimes. We do. So the more people out there who help us catch a glimpse of that rainbow just bursting to come out from behind those clouds, the better. And Georgia Scott is one of those. She has designed a quirky range of rain gear, mostly for cycling, but they are so cool, you could wear them most places really.
I opted for the D1 high visibility vest, as I my current one that looks like I just stepped off a building site just doesn’t really do anything for my middle aged crisis. Nor, it would seem for my ten year old’s who hates wearing his high vis vest, as he says it looks like ‘ a kid on a school trip’. So, he’s now pinching my new vest which is according to him, ‘totally sick and cool’ (‘sick’ is a compliment from anyone under about 21 these days by the way) and, according to me, based on a Mondrian design with olive green and bright green squares, intercut with silver ‘light up in the dark’ stripes.
The high vis vest is called the D1 after the Dublin postcode, which lies just north of the river. This is just many areas which boast Georgian architecture that Dublin is famous for and so, rather cleverly, Georgia has named her company Georgia in Dublin. Simply stylish and cool, just like her range. Most of their products are designed to have at least two functions. The Dorothy Cover protects the contents of your bike basket from rain, wind, and stuff hopping out as you go over bumps while also doubling as a drawstring bag to put your other rain wear, lights, hats, gloves etc. in. Similarly the Rainwrap can be worn over skirts and trousers keeping your legs dry while cycling and walking and it also doubles as a picnic blanket .
Georgia, who launched this company with her mother in 2009, told me that “We envisaged a range of clothing that women could wear both cycling and walking to work or to the theatre, wherever, whatever the weather. We wanted to help elevate and celebrate the bike as a means of transport for women as well as men”.
All of Georgia’s products are designed and the prototypes made by them in Dublin. Sustainability is important to them and they use good quality cloth and collect used inner tubes from bike shops to make fasteners for the Dublette, the stunning, expandable waterproof jacket and soles for the Leggits, which are like something out of a theatrical costumier’s studio. But if you can’t be theatrical in Dublin, where can you be? Except Paris, New York, London, Milan, Berlin….the list goes on, and this Georgian show will travel, I have no doubt. The Leggits have already won an iF International Design Award for design innovation and production quality at Eurobike 2011 and they won a Brand New Award at the Munich Bike Expo in 2011 for the Georgia in Dublin range. So, instead of letting it rain on your parade, check out Georgia, who will have you singing your way through it, and singing in style.
It is always uplifting to hear the sound of the organ playing when you enter a cathedral. But nothing was going to prepare me for what followed when I visited St Columb’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry City last week. I was already ensconced in the guided tour of the city by Martin McCrossan of the eponymous guided tours company. He had come highly recommended as the man to get if you want to tour the city, and within minutes of walking the walls of this extraordinary city, crammed full of history and stories, I knew why people talked so highly of him.
As part of his tour within the city walls (Derry is the most intact walled city in Europe, built 1613-19 by English settlers), Martin led me into the Cathedral. He was just telling me about the cannonball perched in the porch of the cathedral, which had been fired into the church during the infamous Siege of Derry in 1689, when the organ struck up. “That’ll be the Dean playing– he plays brilliantly. You want to hear his Danny Boy. Amazing.” Martin said, when suddenly the Dean, the Very Rev’d William Morton, appeared and said “Hello there, Martin, good to see you. They chatted and Martin was curious to find out who was playing the organ, if it wasn’t the Dean. At this point, the Dean led us up the aisle to meet the source of this heavenly sound.
At the foot of the organ steps we were introduced to Father Paul Farren of Derry’s St Eugene’s Catholic Cathedral and a Franciscan friar, in full robes, who divulged the source. “That is Franciscan Friar Alessandro Brustenghi who is visiting us from Assisi. He loves to play the organ, so the Dean has kindly let us try it out”. It took a few seconds for me to click. Alessandro Brustenghi, the gifted and recently signed tenor, was playing up above, sending ethereal echoes all around this magnificent building. And we were his sole audience.
I was just managing to resist every urge to shout up a request for a quick Ave Maria, when the beautiful friar floated down the stairs and over to join us. The Dean introduced us, and we talked a little about music and his trip to Ireland. “I believe you play a mean Danny Boy” I said to the Dean, at which point the affable Martin persuaded him with a mere wink of the eye and a bit of Derry charm to go up and play it. I don’t think I ever heard a finer rendition, so how could I resist my chance to teach a famous friar the words? Father Farren joined in as we attempted the high notes together, and Allesandro smiled throughout.
I couldn’t help wishing the media was here to see this quiet act of reconciliation, but then I realised that just as these people of different denominations were standing side by side, connected by music and uplifted by song, so many more are doing the same in Derry all the time. Quietly, out of the public eye, because it is the right thing to do. Friar Allessandro wasn’t here for a big press event. He was here, according to Father Farren, to take part in the Pope Jean Paul Awards, which celebrate achievements among the young people of Ireland.
I had come to Derry as part of its City of Culture celebrations. But it’s only by walking with the likes of Martin McCrossan, or meeting the other people who live and work in this progressive city of reconciliation, such as those who run the moving and fascinating Museum of Free Derry, that you will find the quiet corners of culture. Or just stop still in the city and listen for a while. Because you never know what voices you might hear.
Catherine stayed at one of Derry/Londonderry’s finest hotel, Beech Hill, with beautiful walking trails around the grounds, and an impressive policy of local food sourcing for their legendary ‘Legenderry’ menu. For lunch in the city centre, check out the very cool, and culturally connected Legenderry Warehouse No.1 Cafe (Irish stew a must).
Guided tours with Martin McCrossan and his team cost a mere £4. The best guided tour you will get for this money, anywhere. See www.derrycitytours.com for details. And absolutely don’t miss the Museum of Free Derry, as one of the most important museums representing civil rights in the world.
For the last couple of years I have been watching my neighbours’ behaviour with keen attention. The cool ones, that is, who flash phones at their cars to open them, and drive off in a metaphorical puff of smug smoke which, if it were a cartoon, would formulate the words ‘I’m so cool, I’m a Zipcar user’. Zipcar is the UK’s leading car club organisation, with cars parked at locations all over London, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford and Maidstone which you can reserve to use whenever you need. It also has branches in USA, Canada and Barcelona and growing.
My curtain twitching has meant that each time the dreaded annual demand (with proverbial price hike) for car insurance to be paid on my battered but faithful old family Volvo arrives, I have sat and done the sums and tried to work out whether I could make the leap from car owner to car club cool. The fact is that the sums came out pretty equal, when I also included the cost of hiring a car once or twice a year for longer excursions if and when necessary.
But for two years I have put off making the decision, mostly out of laziness I admit as it clearly wasn’t going to cost me any more money. But with two kids who need transporting here there and everywhere, I confess that I love the convenience of my car. I always have. However, we live minutes’ walk from a London underground station, the kids walk to school, we all own bikes and so in reality we only use the car twice a week at the most. So, in my heart of hearts, I knew which way I had to go with this car attachment issue.
And then the decision was made for me a few weeks ago, when the Volvo finally passed away peacefully into its own little puff off knackered radiator smoke and I knew exactly whom to call. Zipcar. After checking on their website that there were about five cars within a 1.5 mile radius of our home I called them up, and within half an hour I was reserving my first shiny new Volkswagen Golf.
The whole transition from car owner to car clubber just kept getting cooler after that. The annual fee is £59.50 with an additional hire cost of £5 an hour during the week or £6 at weekends. And here’s the best bit – as long as you don’t do over 40 miles, the petrol is free too, and of course no insurance. And you don’t pay London’s Congestion Charge either, although I always use public transport to go into the city centre during the week anyway. The staff were incredibly helpful when I phoned up to register, without a hint of hard selling. Within minutes I found myself having a conference call with the DVLA to approve my driving licence details, during which I downloaded my Zipcar app, and then I was done. Free to drive. Plus they do have special offers, so keep an eye on their site. You also get a Zipcar card sent in the post which enables you to do everything you need to use the cars, but if you have a smartphone you can drive straight away, simply by using the cool app.
I just reserved the car that I needed for a couple of hours using the app, and then walked over there, which took five minutes, hit the ‘unlock car’ button on the app, and click, the door unlocked. I chanced my arm to see if I could get the use of it earlier than planned, as the car was sitting in its special car club parking space not being used, but it wouldn’t unlock until bang on the time I had reserved it for. When the car was unlocked, I found the ignition key inside, and off I drove. Well, after adjusting my head from manual to automatic, that is, and calming my kids down as they played with all the new buttons and revelled in the fact that there was actually a CD player, not an archaic cassette thing.
If you are late returning the Zipcar to the place you got it (it’s not like city bike schemes where you just drop them at any old Zipcar location, you do have to bring it back to where you got it) there is a fine of £35 per hour which is steep, so you have to be organised. Which generally, I am not, but I am learning. So, for example, I drop the kids at one of their things, while I take the car to the supermarket, collect the Christmas tree or whatever and then ‘zip’ back to get them. And if you are running late, you can extend your reservation when you are out and about, no problems, as long as it hasn’t already been reserved by someone else.
The only thing that I have to adjust to is the notion of paying £20 to do a rugby club run. That still feels like a lot of money to me, so of course you have to change your mindset about this, and remember that you are not paying petrol, insurance, breakdown tax, MOT and car maintenance costs. Plus the car which is closest to my home isn’t always available, so I have got into the habit of cycling to the nearest alternative and locking my bike to the Zipcar post (which has a convenient metal loop on it for this purpose I presume).
With petrol, the deal is that you are a good club member and fill it up when it goes under a quarter of a tank, using a payment card which is in the car. Because, again I say, I don’t pay for petrol! And all in all, my kids love the fact that I have a ‘posh’ car, I love the fact that I have a reliable one (it comes with full breakdown cover if anything does happen), and we are all coming round to the realisation that we don’t need to own a car in the city anyway. I have booked it for every rugby and cricket training session for the next year, as you can reserve it well in advance, and have had no problems so far booking it at short notice. We are still in transition, but it feels good so far. If the kids were still babies, I would think differently for sure, but now it suits us all fine. And if I were young, free and single again, this would be just ideal. In fact, it has to be just about the best present to buy any young city dweller, which might solve a few birthday or Christmas present quandaries too. In the meantime, check out the video below and get zipping. It might be just up your street.
Note one year later: I have just renewed my subscription and loving my Zipcar. Couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Wild Swimming France is full of warnings about health and safety, and how wild swimming must be treated with caution and care. However, what it did not warn me about was the extreme pain I was going to get when reading it, caused by an acute case of resentment that I wasn’t jumping off the white dolomite rocks of the Mercantour National Park into the turquoise pools beneath, or letting the River Dordogne carry me downstream on my back, as I float under fern adorned rock arches. Or, I admit it, that I wasn’t married to the guy who wrote it.
As I lay in bed leafing through every river, lake and gorge, in a Sunday morning lazy lie in sort of a way, groaning each time I looked at an even more seductive wild swimming location my (equally wonderful of course) husband became rightly curious about the fantasy land the book was taking me into, as he listened on from the kitchen making coffee. My greatest ‘When Harry met Sally’ moment had to be in The Var, however, where Daniel Start, the author, slides down slot canyons into concealed plunge pools using waterfalls as modes of transport from one pool to another. This is extreme wild swimming, however, and he rightly advises readers to only attempt this with canyoning experts. The majority of the swimming locations (and there are over four hundred of them) are more accessible, all inland, and mostly in the southern part of France.
The book is a brilliant guide to France too, especially if hiking is your thing, offering the perfect introduction to the French pastime of ‘aqua-randonnée’ , where you scramble your way along rocks and through water wearing good aqua shoes and a waterproof back pack. Divided into regions, with excellent maps, and more detailed latitude and longitude readings, as well as details on how difficult a walk it is to access the swim point, Wild Swimming France will make you want to explore parts of France you may never even know existed before. More groans.
Another handy breakdown in the index is the ‘themed’ swimming points, so if you love waterfalls you can check out all of Daniel’s G-ushing spots in one go. Or if freestyling past a chateau, such as the glorious Chenonceaux in Normandy which sits on the River Cher is your scene, then you can find several such bourgeois bathing points. There is also a great collection of locations suitable for families, as well as some with small camping facilities nearby, such as the riverside tipis at Les Cournoulises on the banks of the River Lot.
I love the fact that this book isn’t all health and safety obsessed either, although it does warn you about the dangers of wild swimming, of course. For example, there is a useful explanation of how many of France’s river levels are controlled by the EDF (Electricité de France) due their being an important source of hydropower. The book points out that there are EDF signs on many of the rivers to warn that water levels can suddenly increase due to dam release, and that care should be taken at these times.
However, Daniel does turn a blind eye to rules and regulations in the book sometimes, making the book even more readable, of course. For example, at the magnificent waterfall Sillans-la-Cascade in the Haut Var region, where the main pool is closed to swimmers due to a freak rockfall, Daniel tells us most local people ignore the signs, and there is a photo of someone, possibly the author himself, diving into its stunning waters. And although wild camping is illegal in France, he isn’t afraid to admit that he, like many others, do partake of it, albeit responsibly, and reminds us to ensure that wild campers should arrive late and leave early, should not light fires, and must absolutely leave no trace.
So, buy the book as a gift to yourself or any other water loving Francophile you know, or just to drool over on a Sunday morning, if that is your thing. Daniel has also written Wild Swimming (UK) and Wild Swimming Coast and there is also an app for these. He is one Smart guy. But not as smart as the woman who married him.