Old vs New

It’s been a mad week. Over the last week I’ve had to fret over dwindling career prospects, squeeze answers out of a class that don’t appear to have improved at all in two years, hurdle a new wave of needlessly ambiguous admin, wrangle with pushy internet dealers and, to top it all off, deal with a flatmate and a friend who could still disappear at any given moment should a better offer arise. It’s not been easy. The first few weeks of term are always an uphill struggle but I’ve never known one week quite this bad.

Five days of mental block were torture. None of my attempts at writing came to fruition. I needed a break. I had to get away from it all. And Fate, as she often does in such situations, came up with the goods. At the end of an afternoon spent filling in forms for Student Finace and the local Junta – and venting my hysteria through last week’s Have I Got News For You – an offer to join the other auxies for a Halloween Party came through. I ummed and ahhed and was on the verge of turning it down when I had one of my spontaneous urges and decided to go for it. I had no time to prepare an outfit, so I came as an un-ironed shirt. Perhaps that’s the least of the small-world horrors I’ve had to deal with this week, but it was easier to explain.

It was an enjoyable if tame night, for which I was truly grateful. I had the chance to discuss my music withdrawal issues with a kindred spirit, and to gather opinions from the new auxies on their new home. I also got to put my dancing shoes on at Concha when Billie Jean came on. I needed that. But most importantly of all, I got to spend some quality time with two of the brightest stars of the Tierra de Barros, Tasha and Miguel.

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If I needed a reaffirmation that I had made the right choice in coming back to Villafranca and not striking out somewhere new, this was it. These two are perhaps the greatest of all reasons for my return. Vultures, Hornachos and migas were waiting, but these two goofballs were a greater lure yet. And it isn’t often you can so easily allow yourself the luxury of moving your workplace to be near to your friends.

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We spent the day in Mérida, where Fate once again showed me a kind hand for my spur-of-the-moment decision. Because I spent time with Tasha, I learned that the Junta needs a stamp from the bank and a paper copy of our ICPC, which have to be mailed, not emailed. Even though I went to the Orientation days this year, that detail wasn’t spelled out, nor was it included in the emails. It’s a good thing I spent Friday morning hunting for envelopes and stamps, albeit for a different purpose. If the man at the estanco hasn’t been so dishearteningly begrudging at surrendering two rows of stamps rather than the twenty I was asking for, I might have used them all. Forewarned is forearmed.

She also demonstrated a knack for knowing my desires by meddling with Miguel’s car’s CD player. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD kept pausing, so he put on a Galician band who played the unmistakeable lullaby-dream of Erin Shore, albeit to the name of Romance de Novembro with Galician lyrics – this, after gallego has been so on my mind after my parents’ visit this week. Fate, or whatever it is that organises these things, sure knows what she’s doing. At twenty-three years old, I still cling to the storybook belief that everything that happens happens for a reason. It’s hard not to see the lines when you want to.

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 We had a couple of beers in a Bremen-themed bar on the curiously named John Lennon Street, complete with memorabilia of the former Beatle plastered on the wall beside buxom stein-bearing belles and German insignia, whilst the bartender bemoaned the loss of jobs in the wake of Catalonia’s defiant pursuit of independence. Spanish flags still hang from balconies across the region a week and more after the Día de España celebrations, in solidarity with a nation that’s being pulled apart by old wounds. My beer tasted like strawberries and wasn’t unpalatable. I guess beer is like tea, coffee and sitcoms: unappealing at first, but you learn to appreciate it over time. Effort leads to endurance, eventually, enjoyment.

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Lunch was superb. We visited La Taberna del Sole on the recommendation of a student of Tasha’s and we were not disappointed. Four courses (including a green asparagus and almond pâté and the ever-reliable croquetas de jamón) left us fit to bust, and at under twenty euros a head, it was a steal for a fancy lunch. The city is finally opening up to me.

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Despite having already lived here for a year, I never visited Mérida’s famous Roman theatre. Tasha and Miguel thought it was high time that was remedied. I guess I’m spoiled from having wandered the ancient beauty of Jerash and Petra, but Mérida’s reconstructed theatre complex is nothing to be scoffed at. It’s hard to believe it was all but underground a few decades ago, back when the city was confined to the north bank of the Guadiana and the Los Milagros aqueduct still marked the northern edge of town. Stradivarius and Burger King now adorn the old streets, rubbing shoulders with the Temple of Diana and Saint Eulalia’s basilica. Times are changing quickly here.

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The amphitheatre is equally impressive. Complete with a sunken arena that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Pokémon, the building is in remarkably good nick for its age. It’s always a little hard to tie the two together, the sophistication of the Roman Empire and the bloodlust of its citizens who paid to watch men and beasts kill each other. Man, the noblest of all beings, and the one who delights most in killing his own kind. In Rome we see man for what he truly is, perhaps. A vainglorious hypocrite.

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I entered via the dens where the wild beasts were kept for venato fights, ducking low so as not to bang my head on the way out like I had on the way in. I wonder what unwilling denizens of the Empire were caged here for the sport of a Roman carnival: boar from the surrounding hills, bears from the Cantabrian hills, lions from across the Strait… Maybe they even had aurochs here, mighty shadows of the toros bravos that still fight on in the Roman games of a land that saw fit to preserve them. I wonder how many beasts in all lost their lives in this arena.

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We crossed the Roman bridge on the way home. I looked, I listened and I spotted the swamphen that often haunts the reeds on the island, gnawing away at a reedstem clutched between its gangly toes. I wonder if it’s the same bird that I so often saw here two years ago? It always brings a smile to my face to see it, and it was a pleasure doubled to share it was my friends. Durham had its goosanders. Mérida has her curious calamón. Overhead, the impressive silhouette of a black vulture glided noiselessly to the west. For all the fury and doubt that the modern world brings in its wake, there is such beauty left in the old world.

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The storm has passed. The last of the rain fell during the night. I woke up this morning and opened the window to a cold breeze that had not been there before. I smiled. Everything seems better in the cold light of day. I can do this. Autumn has come at last. The long, dry Extremeño summer is over. BB x

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NB. It’s a pain when you have to write a blog post twice. This time it was because I wanted to italicise Have I Got News for You, erased it by accident, and, when Undo didn’t return them, rebooted to save the effort of writing those six words again. This will all be so much easier when WiFi finally comes to the flat in just under two weeks’ time…

Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

Buck

Autumn is creeping into the Weald. The trees haven’t turned brown yet – I don’t suppose I’ll see that before I go – but the leaves are beginning to fall and there’s a whiff of cold in the air, mingled with the damp, rotting smell of mushrooms. From the top of Turners Hill you can see for miles, sometimes all the way to the high hills of the South Downs on a clear day. Not so much at the moment, with the Weald mist of early autumn settling in on an almost daily basis, but every once in a while.

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England truly comes into its own at this time of year. It’s a season of green forests, Scotch mist and crows calling overhead. Acorns adorn the oak trees, the hedgerows are full of blackberries of varying tastes and conkers grin from their spiny shells in the horse chestnut trees. The pheasants have moulted and are roaming the country roads and fields, looking in a very sorry state, robbed of their handsome gloss and tail feathers. For so foreign a creature – most of today’s birds are descended from eighteenth century Chinese imports – the cork-ok of the pheasant is as much a part of the English country soundscape as the crow or the woodpigeon. It’s a soundscape I miss dearly in the silence of the Extremaduran plains.

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Leaving the road for a while, I wandered along a winding country lane and went blackberrying in the verges. Over the distant drone of a bandsaw from behind the barn, a pair of buzzards called to each other. A phone was ringing in the farmhouse. It was a reality check, a ‘Moment’, as I call them. I wonder what it’s like to live on a farm, out here in the old country. Sometimes I think that I’m isolated here, but at the very least I live on a main road. Farms like this one are so far out that any experience of mine pales in comparison. The phone had stopped ringing by the time I’d come to my own conclusions, and I ate a few more blackberries. I swallowed them rather than chewing them, because if I don’t then one of the pips always manages to get itself wedged in my molars.

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I thought I’d run a short distance, regardless of the endlessly clinking two-pence coins in my camera bag. I didn’t get far up the hill before I stopped, because a sixth sense told me the noise might flush something up ahead. Sure enough, there was something up ahead, and it hadn’t heard the coins at all: a young roe deer buck, grazing at the edge of the woods.

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It was just one more of those ‘why didn’t I bring a longer lens’ moments. After my trip to the Farne Islands, I really should have been better prepared on that count. These days, however, I’m not so fussed by the photos. The buck continued grazing idly as I crept down the hill towards it, either completely unaware or completely uninterested in my presence. After a minute or so it found a fallen tree and busied itself with scent-marking, scraping its horns repeatedly on the branches.

I must have been within fifty yards or so, close enough to see the white circles on its nostrils, when it finally caught my scent and saw me. It didn’t bolt at first, but stared at me for a few moments. I think it was more curious than frightened. Eventually it made up its mind and tore away through the grass, leaping through the tussocks and over the fence back into the copse from which it had come. I followed it, but could not find it. I sat on a stile at the corner of the field and wrung the water out of my socks as the rain came down. Sheltered under the oak trees, I waited out the drizzle barefoot.

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After a quarter of an hour, I put my socks and shoes back on. They were still wet from the thick grass and squelched on each footfall, but I didn’t really care anymore. In the Weald a lot of the footpaths run over old watercourses, where thick slabs of stone jut out of the earth. One such dark gully ran down from the corner of the field and I followed it, soaking in the sound of the wind in the trees overhead.

A short way ahead I stopped to check the white balance settings on my camera, and – there it was again. That sixth sense. I looked up and, sure enough… there it was again. The roe buck, at the bottom of the gully, looking right back at me.

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He held my gaze for a little longer this time, and when he scampered off, it was a little slower than before. I felt so alive. Mum said she saw a muntjac on her morning run the other day. I know I heard them in the woods when I was working here in the summer. I’d sure love to see one; they’re one of the oldest kinds of deer in the world. There’s something more primal still about the roe deer, though. They were here long before the muntjac, the sika and the fallow, perhaps even before the mighty red. I’ve had brief encounters with them in the mountains of Spain and the forests of France, and seen them many more times in passing from trains, grazing away at the forest edge in some field or quiet garden. Bambi was a roe deer, in the original story by Felix Salten. Having watched the bold curiosity of the young buck this morning, it makes perfect sense.

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I read in a magazine once that encounters like that are what you call ‘RSPB moments’. Granted, it was the RSPB magazine, so they would use the tagline, but it’s what I’ve come to associate with such close encounters. There are Moments, when you open all of your senses to the world around you in that instant: the ringing of a telephone, the organised cluster of objects on your desk that tell a few stories and none at all, the never-ending sound of your own breathing. And then there are moments grander still, like an encounter with a wild animal. There is a power in nature I get from nowhere else, and it feeds me still. BB x

Entitlement

I didn’t make it to Spain.

My bags were packed. I had my lightweight hiking clothes laundered and folded and neatly placed at the top of my rucksack. My flights were booked, hold luggage inclusive, my tent rolled up and my roll-mat tucked in along the side. I’d even learned a couple of lessons from last time, and I had stocked up on plenty of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and up-to-date maps. In short, I was readier than I’ve ever been before. But I still didn’t make it to Spain.

In the end, budgeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five weeks ago, when I’d bought myself a decent tent at last and was eager to put it through its paces, it seemed perfectly logical to book a return flight to Spain and see what happened. I had a tent, so this time I could camp out in the wild for free and have a cheap trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in fact, so much. The more digging I did, the more dangerous a notion it became. Wild camping is a legal grey area – that much is certain – but as the economic situation worsens, those countries hardest hit hit harder. Where there is money to be made, the freebooter and the vagrant are unwelcome. Whilst a local farmer may take no issue to you setting up a tent on the edge of his property, a passing local just might – for a quick buck. For a simple denuncio, one might expect to receive a small cut of the fine meted out by the police which, depending on the whims of the officer in charge, can be hefty. I’ve heard of cases of campers fined up to 600€, which is a good 590€ more than what you might pay in a campsite, if you can find one. If Spain didn’t still cling on to such legacies of the Franco era, it might not be so risky a venture. But as it stands, when a local shepherd stands to make more money by turning you in to the police than in an entire week’s work, it gives him little incentive not to do so.

My girlfriend’s mother passed onto me a keen insight on my last visit: we see a lot less danger when we’re younger. At eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that by setting up camp in the middle of the woods on the slopes of the Guadarrama I might be putting myself at the mercy, not of hungry wolves, but of hungrier shepherds. I just did it and moved on. Now that I’m older and wiser – and more wary – I find myself second-guessing a little more.

It’s just a damned shame that Spain does not have as many campsites as England does. Northumberland, for example, has over a hundred campsites. Extremadura, which is more than eight times the size of Northumberland, has twenty-two, with twelve of them concentrated in one mountain range in the north. Perhaps the Spaniards don’t enjoy camping as much as the English do, but they’re missing a trick. Spain is absolutely stunning, with scenery – in the very biased opinion of this author – second to no other country in Europe. Without campsites, or the option to wild camp, they’re missing out on the chance to reconnect with their supreme natural beauty.

When you can put a name to something you see, it means so much more to you. Your friends matter because you know them by name, just as the pupils whose names you recall stand out in your mind. Neglect to know the world around you and it will never mean as much to you as it will to the naturalist, the tracker or the mountaineer. It’s a natural connection we sorely need as tech takes over the world. Going camping offers that connection to the next generation. Or at least, so I believe.

Part of the reason I so hastily splashed out on flights to Spain which I now can’t make or change without incurring heavy surcharges (thanks a bunch, Easyjet) was a disgusting feeling of entitlement that I just couldn’t shake. Having been up to the Edinburgh Fringe for one last, loud fling with the Lights, I needed to get out. To be myself. To travel. Isn’t that what everybody else does in the summer? Instagram certainly seems to say so, as does Facebook. You can hardly move for photos of Cuba, Malaysia, New York City, the French Riviera, German markets, Polish cafés, Incan ruins and Thai elephant baths. It’s a storm of what-a-wonderful-time-I’m-havings and wish-you-were-heres that build and build until you ask yourself why you aren’t out there seeing the world. A FOMO more potent than any shot, and one that, like a bad drink, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sooner or later, the travel bug gets to be like any other addiction, and after mowing through the next barrage of Phnom Penh sunrises and Carribean bikini lines you get itchy feet. I want to be there. I want to see that. What about me?

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It’s not the Inca trail, but it’s still bloody gorgeous

Let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is not for everyone. It’s just not. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s never free. Time is money, and if you’re not spending one, you’re spending the other, which means you can afford to spend it. Now that’s a privilege few of us have.

It isn’t often that I feel bitter about the affluence of the world around me, but it’s at times like this that I realise with a nasty jolt that it’s nothing short of madness to expect the same luxuries as one’s contemporaries. Life would be an awful lot easier if we stuck to telling people face-to-face about our adventures rather than bombarding them with photos twenty-four seven, and even then, do we have to yell? The blogger in me says yes. The writer in me isn’t so sure. I’m just a student fresh out of university with a modest job already on the cards, and that’s a luxury I can’t overstate highly enough. It’ll be many, many years before I can afford annual transatlantic summer holidays, and by the time I can, I don’t suppose I’ll want to.

Fringe, I accept, was my holiday. It was expensive, more than any holiday I’ve ever had, and I was a fool to think I could afford another, summer job or no summer job. In the end I was saved by the budget and, more poignantly still, saved by the bell. A couple of friends of mine are getting married in a couple of weeks, and it’s because of them that I had to return from Extremadura before flying back out again. The folly of making two trips to the same place became apparent only once I’d decided not to go.

I still have my dreams. I still dream of South Africa. But I can wait, until such a time as I have the time, the money and the maturity to go and to really make the most of it. For the time being, I’m going to focus on the humbler side of life. I have plenty of books to read and lessons to plan. I, too, am privileged to be where I am and how I am, and I should be grateful for that. Autumn is here, and autumn is always such a beautiful time of year in England. I should be making the most of it. BB x

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Purple Skies

My days left in England are numbered. There’s still a few things I have left to do before I leave for A Year in Villafranca de los Barros Part II, namely tying up a few loose ends at home, finishing as many of the books I bought this year as I can, arranging something resembling accommodation for the coming year and notifying Student Finance of my plans to leave the country for the next few years (an administrative hoop I hadn’t counted on, but one that I have most gratefully been made aware of).

The shooting star that was my last flight with the Northern Lights at the Edinburgh Fringe was still burning as it passed over Newcastle, a short stop on the way home. It was more than I could ask for, to see the north of England in all its beauty. When I think of you, England, this will be my lasting memory: not the twenty-odd years I’ve spent in Kent and Sussex, but the gorgeous sunsets and seascapes of the north. Northumberland, why do you have to be so beautiful?

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Even now, as I sit in my Sussex room listening to Janet Jackson’s Let’s Wait Awhile, I can still hear the chattering of the terns and feel the wind on my skin. Under the setting sun the evening sky was scarred all kinds of pink and blue, until the clouds were the closest to a natural purple I’ve ever seen. Apparently, some years you can see the Northern Lights from Northumberland. I hear you can see them in Durham, too, but if a cappella’s not your scene, the Northumbrian skies are just as much a feast for the heart.

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I’m currently halfway through Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. Not my usual taste in literature (I’m a sucker for plot-based historical fiction, preferably with larger-than-life characters and far-flung destinations), but it’s got me hooked. It’s so very enchanting to read a book that deals with fulmars and alcopops in the same breath without a touch of sarcasm, and the struggles between country and city living is something I can really connect with, insofar as a self-aware privileged middle-class male can. One day, I’d love to visit Orkney and the Northern Isles. It sounds truly bleak. And that’s reason enough to test it. For now, Northumberland keeps on giving.

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I’m off to Spain in a couple of days for a fortnight’s long-delayed camping and outdoor adventures. This time next week I’ll be somewhere in the mountains near Madrid. That’s quite an exciting thought. If I weren’t booked for a wedding, I’d be walking to Villafranca. As it is, this is just a holiday – my last one before work begins anew in October. The novel awaits, and the last piece of the puzzle lies in the Gredos. It’s time I got a move on. BB x

Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x