The gridlocked cars on the other side of the road stretched in a long, shimmering, heat-hazy line and I couldn’t help but smile a cheeky smile.
The road on our side was clear.
They were bound for the Weymouth beach, we were destined for a chapel in the woods.
I feel the draw and pull and spell of the sea in my blood pretty much every day and I know I am incredibly lucky to live so near the coast, but on a sun drenched UK Bank Holiday weekend you won’t find me anywhere near the sand. Last weekend, my heart wanted lush green leaves and light dappled bluebells and pretty bird song and burbling streams and old chapel ruins with ivy spilling down the walls and a wash, a wave, a shiver of peace through my veins.
After getting a bit lost due to me mixing up St Luke’s Chapel on Ashley Chase with Chapel Coppice in Abbotsbury (it was the nicest and prettiest lost I’ve ever been), Patrick and I eventually made it to the right woodlands (thank you to Bellenie’s Bakehouse for the directions and the yummy pasties).
The road to the walking track was twisty and bumpy, but stunning. We parked up when we got to the end of the public road and set off to the chapel on foot.
Shaggy grass, patchworked across the hills, rippled in the wind. Branches of gnarly trees, knotted from a lifetime of sea breezes, pointed us on our way. Constellations of salt-misted bluebells twinkled beside the path as we walked by. Canopies of leaves shimmied above our heads and showered our feet with dancing shadows.
It felt like heaven.
The chapel was bigger than I’d expected. It was beautiful and peaceful and eery; a muddle of brick, statues, and gravestones haunting earth, ivy, and trees.
And the quiet.
It was the sort of hush that sinks into your bones and untangles all the noise in your head and all the worry in your heart. We only saw one other pair of walkers the entire time we were there, and that was when were almost back at the car. For most of the journey, we had only the cows in the fields beside the path for company.
We were so close to crowds and crowds of people but so, so far.
And the traffic on our journey home? Well, the universe got me back for my cheeky smile as we’d zoomed passed the morning’s traffic jams…
It tells the story of Tiziano Terzani – an Italian journalist based in Asia for Der Spiegel throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s – and how he spent 1993 travelling Asia and Europe without stepping foot on a plane, having been warned against air travel in that year by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong sixteen years before.
‘It was an excellent decision, and 1993 turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.’
This is such a wonderful and surprising book. Terzani’s understanding of the political (and cultural) histories, systems, and workings of countries in the far east of Asia were unrivalled – and if stories of the political/cultural workings in 1990s Asia don’t sound particularly interesting (it’s what I would have thought, too), then think again. They’re fascinating. The information and technologies he describes might be outdated, but the stories behind them are compelling and important, and they still shape the geo-politics of today.
Terzani himself is a compelling character throughout the book. He had plenty of frank opinions which he wasn’t afraid to share, especially regarding the thoughtless consumption and reckless materialism he saw engulfing every corner of the world. At times, I rolled my eyes; at others, I found myself never wanting to step inside a shop again (which is slightly inconvenient, seeing as I work in one). And his ability to spot and tell a story were incredible – pretty enviable, too. The book comes to life in all the tiny details he could so easily have ignored but didn’t. One of my favourite stories is barely two lines long, from page twenty-seven: ‘…during the war every time the Pathet Lao crossed a river, the last man in the patrol had to turn back and call to a non-existent comrade. The Spirit of the River habitually carries off the last in the line, and in that way the guerillas hoped to deceive it.’ The whole book is teeming with anecdotes like these, and I loved them all. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and pencil scribbles in the margins.
‘Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.’
A Fortune-Teller Told Me is an extraordinary blend of the magical, the momentous, and the mundane. On every page, the world is changing. On every page, the world is weird and wide and wonderful. It might be from 1993, but this is a book that still has a lot in common with the world of today.
I was sat in Costa with a cup of tea clamped between my shaky hands, staring out at 6am darkness, and one word flooding my sleep deprived brain.
I had never done it before. Never travelled solo, never left the UK without family or friends. Without safety in numbers. Without backup. Without someone to talk to, to confide in, to hold my hand during turbulence, to take the piss out of my imminent-death-fearing tears. (Defying gravity is just asking for trouble, right?)
But there I was. All alone.
And I was about to learn some things.
My first lesson: I can fly without crying. There and back my stomach was filled with butterflies, but my eyes were empty of death-fearing tears. Which is a positive development. (Side note: I did almost have a panic attack in the toilets after arriving at Dublin Airport, but I managed to rein it in. Which I guess is positive?)
Second lesson: the Irish are super friendly. I was never far from a conversation, whether it was about rugby, the right way to make a cup of tea, books, Irish history, Dorset, doughnut unicorns, the new Mary Poppins film, Brexit *sobs*, or even just the weather. It was very rare that I actually felt alone alone.
Third lesson: if in doubt, go on a guided walking tour. There was a part of me that really didn’t want to look like a tourist – despite absolutely, definitely, completely-and-utterly being a tourist – but the walking tour was one of the best things I did. Not only did I learn a lot about Dublin, I also met another solo traveller and we spent the afternoon charity shopping, chatting, and photographing our way around the city. I went on this tour and can highly recommend it if you’re ever in Dublin.
Fourth lesson: I don’t like Guinness. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t, but I just wanted to make sure. (I did finish the whole pint though.)
Fifth lesson: things are expensive in Dublin. A teeny tiny hot chocolate will set you back over €3; a packet of Cadbury mini eggs is €1.99 *throws hands into the air in disgusted disbelief*; or you can buy two creme eggs for the bargain price of €1.70. (All the important things, obviously.) I suffered severe Dairy Milk withdrawal symptoms over the three days I was there.
Sixth lesson: the middle of a superking bed is the bestest, cosiest, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-ruggliest place ever to read a book. It’s just a shame I ended up hating the book I read (The Queen of Bloody Everything by Joanna Nadin. I was more than happy to leave it behind at the hotel).
Seventh lesson: keeping track of key cards/passports/tickets/money is stressful. I can’t even count the number of times I thought I’d lost my bus pass and all the mini heart attacks that followed that thought.
Eighth lesson: when you’re travelling alone, there’s no-one to judge your questionable dietary choices. My breakfast on Thursday was a hazelnut praline doughnut and my breakfast on Friday was a massive chocolate muffin, just because I could. You can judge me all you want, but I’ve eaten them now. So there. *sticks out tongue*
Ninth lesson: (seeing as we’re on the subject of unhealthy food) ice cream in February is totally a good idea. A friend recommended a visit to Murphys Ice Cream, so I stopped off there on Friday afternoon, even though my core body temperature was roughly -40°C. The ice cream was amazing and all the staff were so lovely (see lesson number two).
Tenth and most important lesson: 99.99% of people are inherently kind and awesome. My flight home got cancelled because of Storm Erik. After having a little cry at the Flybe desk and trying to figure out where the hell Southend was in relation to Dorset (I used to think I was good at geography, but I officially take that thought back), I joined a painfully long and completely stationary queue to rearrange my flight and ended up chatting to a few of my fellow flight cancellees. It turned out that one of them – an amazing lady/guardian angel called Sue – lived near my home town, and after figuring out we could catch a flight to Exeter, she offered me a lift home with her. I know the general consensus is that you should never get in a car with strangers, but not only was I 100% sure Sue wouldn’t kidnap me, I’d reached a point of tiredness where I was 100% willing to be kidnapped so long as I was vaguely near my house. Sue didn’t kidnap me, and I will always be grateful to her for keeping me calm and looking after me (and the non-kidnapping). Thank you, Sue!
I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the city, and more of Ireland too.
Just maybe when there’s less stormy flying weather.
The morning is darkness and mist and my bleary-eyed reflection in the kitchen window. It’s desperate sips of tea and wet hair against my neck. It’s toast and make-up, butterflies and tickets, more butterflies and a backpack filled with things I may or may not need. It’s Bournemouth station in a navy dawn and goosebumps, breaths that steam and smiles all round as the coach doors open. It’s a sunrise over the New Forest and fog puddles between orangey trees. It’s reading a book and trying to sleep, nibbling chocolate and pins and needles.
Oxford is bright and bustling and grand under a big blue sky. It’s Dr Martens and markets and bicycles that ring-a-ling. It’s pigeons that fly right at me, pigeons that stare at me, pigeons that hobble and hop and look unwell and that break my messy heart. Note to self: they don’t let unwell, or even completely well, pigeons on coaches. Note to self, note to self, note to self. No pigeons.
The Ashmolean is stone running up, up, up into the sky and banners that sway in an autumn breeze. It is Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. It’s glass and steps and museum maps, echoing voices, crumpled tickets and a big big door that leads into a magical dark.
Behind the big big door, I fumble for my notebook and struggle for my pen. I read and scribble, shuffle from cabinet to cabinet, ooh and aah inside my head. Backpacks bump, coats rustle, boots tap tap tap.
Witch in a bottle. Zodiac man. Nativity horoscope. Moon blood. Devil through the ears. Demon Astaroth. Love locks. Certificate of innocence. Lent doll. Poppet curse. Skeleton carriage.
A thousand lightbulbs flicker and pop in my head.
I exit through the gift shop.
The afternoon is wandering and wondering, lost. It’s dreaming spires and falling leaves, crowds and cameras. It’s the Oxford Botanic Gardens and a strange peace burning in my chest. It’s warm conservatories and brick walls with pretty gates, dying petals and glittering trees, skittering squirrels and a man falling from a punt. It’s splashes, laughs, and smiles. It’s a pot of tea and a slice of cake and buying stationery I don’t need. More Dr Martens, more pigeons.
The evening is Google Maps and eyes glued to my phone. It’s relief as things look familiar and tired legs grateful for a seat. It’s fortune telling fish that predict I will fall in love and it’s confusion because that doesn’t sound like me. It’s my head pressed against a window and a bright three-quarters moon, eyes closed and music. It’s messages, ping ping ping, and deciding to go out and get drunk with friends even though it’s late. It’s realising I’m not a proper grown-up.
The castle looms like it always does, a tangling mess of steely grey rock studded into tufted grass.
I try to ignore my hands as they turn redder and redder, try not to worry about the purple blotches growing in amongst the red.
I collect a ticket and hand it back in a minute later, after the bridge, after the wobbly entrance arch, after getting attached to it and feeling like I don’t want to hand it in (the hoarder in me wants to keep it, as if not keeping it will mean I have never been).
Beyond the entrance, there are stocks to the left. A memory of sticking my head and hands in it years ago flurries round my head. My lungs remember how much my sister and I laughed that day.
Up, up, up goes the path, and I follow.
More paths, more steps.
The views are beautiful. Fields and trees and hills and tantalizing sunbeams falling far away.
Heart slowing, lungs calming, I stop with one hand pressed against a towering chunk of wall that’s angled very unhow a wall should be angled. The picture of it crumbling, the feel of it giving way, floods my head. Maybe it’s best to move on.
Walk, slip, trip.
Broken hallways hiss with icy gusts of wind. Walls are painted green with veils of moss and drip with sticky rain. Elsewhere, they are blotchy with lichen, a mix of grubby white and sickly yellow that blurs into the grey.
The sound of children playing on their lunchbreak twinkles all around the air, filling it with echoes of playful happiness. The sound of traffic buzzes like it buzzes almost everywhere. I wish I could eavesdrop on the sounds of five hundred years ago and five hundred years from now, wish I could know who’s stood here before and who’ll stand here one day.
I take a turn. It leads to a dead end. I head back, try to refind the main path. I attempt to take a shortcut and slide inelegantly between a rock and a hard place. I pray there are no cameras to record my momentary wedgedness between aforementioned rock and hard place. I wonder if walking/shuffling through (getting slightly stuck in) a wall makes me some sort of ghost. I worry I might’ve just frightened someone in the fifteenth century.
Soggy steps lead downwards.
I look up as the sun bubbles through a patch of clouds. It’s framed by one of the many derelict windows and I try to take a nice photo, but, no matter how many I take, none of them look better, none of them shine brighter, than the real-time thing. Away goes the phone.
I head back down the hill, trying not to slide down the cobblestones, trying not to surf down the grass.
The castle looks smaller than it feels in my head when I look back up, and I’m not sure if I’ve imagined it big or my eyes have tricked it small.
I came here looking for something. I don’t know what exactly. I don’t even know if I found it. I hope so.