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Brisbane to Melbourne – the slow way is the only way

Back in Australia! My father’s land. He was born in Kalangadoo, South Australia. By sheer chance, Roly Parks, a famous author, also hails from Kalangadoo. We’re not going there. We start in Brisbane, Queensland to continue my sustainable travel! Onward!

Painted on the wall of YHA Byron Bay
On the wall of YHA Byron Bay – Coronavirus learning curve just starting

I disembarked from container ship MV Ontario II on the 22 February 2020 at The Port of Brisbane and caught a train to the centre of town. Brisbane, the third biggest city in Australia, has good bus/rail/ferry links for city travellers. The local Translink system – together with nifty app – works well. You get a GO card and set your course. Thank you, dear friends, who looked after me during my stay in Brissie! (We all kept our distance.)

Brisbane is subject to flooding
Brisbane straddles the River Maiwar (Brisbane River). Sign taken in Ashgrove, a hilly suburb!

During this trip I was not interested in tourist sights – you will have to seek other blogs for things to do in Brisbane – rather, I was a commuter, focussed primarily on my journey south to Melbourne.

Brisbane to Melbourne as the crow flies
Brisbane to Melbourne as the crow flies – I’m not a crow

As you may know, I recently travelled overland across Europe and a corner of Asia with only a hiccup between China and Taiwan, mostly on fast trains.

Australia has no fast train. Not one. Check out this hopeful article from 2016. C’mon, Aussie! And don’t bother wheeling out the old, ‘there’s not enough passengers to make it viable,’ nonsense.

In 2018, Melbourne to Sydney was the world’s second busiest flight route. That’s right. The entire world.

In February 2020 there was a deadly de-railment between Melbourne and Albury. As I write, it is still not possible to take a train from Sydney to Melbourne, much less Brisbane. How is it possible Australia cannot afford decent public transport in 2020?

Even medium speed rail could be a start.

Chinese Fast Train
Chinese Fast Train taken from another fast train

If there is one thing Australia could do to quickly cut emissions, it would be to get that fast train built. Australia has steel mills. The country has the ability to build rail lines and carriages. The economy will need stimulating. People will need jobs. Knowledge is available from all around the world. Airlines have the potential to invest in transporting people quickly in metal tubes. KLM is investing in European buses and trains. Virgin has been in rail for over twenty years. Why not Qantas? Why not the Government? Why is this so difficult to get done?

Well, then. If it was going to be a slow trip, then I would make the most of the experience and try to visit places I had not seen and catch up with friends, old and new, in their native habitats. First stop, a small town near Mullimbimby. Now, all I had to do was buy a ticket.

The central station in Brisbane is Roma Street Station. There is now (2020) no central transit centre because it’s been demolished.

Roma Street Station, Brisbane, is being revitalised!
Roma Street Station, Brisbane, is being revitalised!

As I strolled around the brutal public buildings by the river, GOMA, Gallery and Library, trying to negotiate pedestrian travel, seeking out hopelessly inadequate signage, getting tangled with motorways right beside parkland (who designed this city?) my dear friend Louiselle researched how best to buy my ticket. She went to a great deal of trouble, getting incorrect telephone numbers from Brisbane City Council and bum steers from Roma Street Station (under construction) itself.

Finally, we met at the Gallery and she delivered her report. ‘Buy it online.’

I must have seemed ungrateful for I shunned this technological answer, preferring to do it the old way, the international way, go to the central place and get experts to help you. I wanted to visit the place where there’s leaflets and information and they print out tickets, you check the times and dates and everyone is happy. This is what I did in all the countries I’ve been to (UK, Spain and France, Denmark, Germany and Russia, China, Taiwan and NZ). I could talk to a real person, get relevant up-to-date advice and organise my ongoing travel. Let’s go!

Much to Louiselle’s credit she pandered to my arrogant international-traveller-uppityness and helped me to seek a nonexistent central Tourist Information spot, question a helpless ticket officer in a local train station window, make enquiries with a couple of train officials at Queensland Rail (they only go North and West), approach three fed-up representatives from three different bus companies in three different temporary booths where they all expected to work separately for the next five to nine years who eventually directed us to two tired Information/Parking Officers in high viz jackets who gave us false information. So I found out later. They did admit to ignorance on a number of points which made me wonder why they had not been given some technology to enable them to look things up? I mean, technology worked for Louiselle! All these people were completely flummoxed to have to deal with questing public wanting travel advice.

Admittedly I’d been spoilt by the wonderful I-site system in NZ, where bookings can be made not only for transport but also tours and accomodation. Perhaps Brisbane City Council officials could organise an online Tiki Tour with I-site developers for a few tips and hints?

As an English-speaking Australian citizen, with a local beside me, I felt completely out of my depth. I could not begin to imagine the experience if you couldn’t understand the language or read the signs. Would not Brisbane and indeed, Queensland, why even Australia, wish to offer tourists a pleasant trip? Is not Tourism a valuable part of the Australian economy? Remember, I was able to negotiate my way, thanks to helpful people and obvious signage, across China and Taiwan without having a common alphabet much less language, and there, helplessly, I could only say ‘thank you’. Xie xie, Louiselle!

I bought the ticket online. And I rang to check the whereabouts of the bus stop. Which turned out to be a good thing for they would have dropped me at Uncle Tom’s roadhouse – in the middle of nowhere. Better for my friend to pick me up at Brunswick Heads. ‘Just tell the driver, love.’

Bus stop for Byron Easy Bus
Bus stop for Byron Easy Bus – just turn up and go indeed!
inside the Byron Easy Bus
inside the Byron Easy Bus.
The driver called me ‘Vic’ and already knew I was going to Brunswick Heads. Give them a call, Love.
Byron Easy Bus stopped at the Gold Coast Airport
Byron Easy Bus stopped at the Gold Coast Airport – 25/2/20 – first public nerves about virus contact – noticing people wearing masks and leaving space around them
Brunswick Heads has a lovely beach and an attractive township
Brunswick Heads, part of the Byron Bay Marine Park, has a lovely beach and an attractive township
View from friend's property near Mullimbimby
View from friend’s property near Mullimbimby – you’ll all want to go there now, won’t you. Very sensible.

Now in New South Wales, I found the Northern Rivers area peaceful, verdant, with changeable weather. But then, I suppose, so is everywhere these days.

Byron Bay
Warm evening in gorgeous Byron Bay
Bryon Bay Lighthouse
Bryon Bay Lighthouse

Remarkably, I’d never visited Byron Bay, not for yoga nor writers’ nor blues festival or sunny beaches but I concur, it is a wonderful environment. It’s easy to see why it got so popular.

Less gorgeous Byron Bay
Less gorgeous Byron Bay
Sign outside a pub in Bryon Bay
Sign outside a pub in Bryon Bay. Home depends on how you price things, doesn’t it.

Byron Bay is no longer connected to the rest of Australia by train. BUT, exciting news, Bryron Bay does have a solar train running 3km of restored track to the Northern Beaches. Please drop a comment if you’ve experienced a solar train!

Train link bus to Casino
Train link bus to Casino at 0553

Early in the morning and pretty empty, the Translink bus turned up at the Tourist Info Centre in Bryon Bay, ironically in the Old Stationmaster’s Cottage. This is a creditable institution which does have the power to sell and print tickets. The train at Casino would take me further south to Maitland to visit a cousin.

Byron Bay to Casino train ticket
Byron Bay to Maitland train ticket – it’s a folded piece of A4

The land around Lismore/Casino was beautiful. I could see tantalising glimpses of coast from the bus and relished a stop at Lennox Heads to get out and stretch my legs. Stunning beach, brilliant morning light, young woman standing still, silent, silhouetted, and I thought, how lovely, she’s been meditating or watching the sunrise but no, she was engrossed in her phone. A lone fisher, two people swimming but no surfers. It looked to me the waves were passable but I couldn’t tell – apart from the fact presumably there would have been surfers if it had been good enough to surf! Gorgeous pale mist spray hovering over the distant curves. It was all faintly pink and grey like the colours of a magic galah goddess in her filmy finery.

From there the bus went through Ballina and Lismore before reaching Casino with plenty of time before the 0820 train arrived.

There were a lot of staff crushed into the Buffet Car. I was glad to be their first customer and paid Aus $3.60 for a cardboard cup of hot water and a Robert Timms dipping bag. Better than nothing. (Ah, for the days of Kiwi Rail baristas!)

The train was divided into different classes and, on my perambulations, I found sleeper berths and showers in the first class section. It’s difficult to discover how to book this – it appears Brisbane to Casino is by coach so I don’t know how much sleeping you’d get done.

The XPT travelled through Grafton and then to Coff’s Harbour. As I wandered through the train I couldn’t find a charging point for my phone. When they announced our arrival at Warhope I pondered the name. Did they have many young men survive the Great Wars? Or lose too many? But I saw the sign said Wauchope which is different. I had hope in ‘watch-ing’?

The guy serving in the Buffet Car told me he’d watched The Game Changers and was trying to eat less meat. He really liked the fresh vegan pizza from Coles, plus, he told me encouragingly, their ‘chik’n Thai Green curry is worth a try. Plus, he got a couple more colleagues to watch the film and they’re also converted. Brilliant work, Cameron, Arnie and Jackie! Bonus, I got a vegan sandwich.

Maitland is another beautiful part of New South Wales and I enjoyed my trip around the township with my cousin. Back on the train again and thence to Sydney the next day. Sydney. I’m sorry, Hamburg. It really is the most beautiful harbour I’ve seen in the world.

Sydney Harbour from South Head
Sydney Harbour from South Head

Another city where I used to live. I have memories in many addresses, many suburbs, different times … But it’s no longer my home. I arrived in at Wynyard, a place where I used to work and didn’t recognise it at all. There were squillions of bus stops. I had to ask 3 high viz peeps before I found the right way to go.

Sydney Bus Information, dense as code
Sydney Bus Information, dense as code

There seems to have been an explosion in different types of transport you can catch around Sydney. At a minimum, you will need an Opal Card and a matching app. (As usual other city travel apps are available.) A local person to explain things would also be good.

Sydney city trains
Sydney city trains
Sydney Central Station under construction
Sydney Central Station

Sydney has trains, light rail and buses, ferries and taxis. Plus, and as well, there’s a new Sydney Metro under way, which is Australia’s biggest public transport project.

A fraction of the extensive building site for the Sydney Metro
A fraction of the extensive building site for the Sydney Metro – under wraps

You really are spoilt for choice.

Sydney trains
Sydney trains

I was sad to leave my friends in Sydney. I am so grateful for all their kindness, good humour and upholstery stories. I urge you all to examine a most interesting blog from my friend in Redfern, mainly because you will find my own humble contributions therein.

Other Sydney trains
Other Sydney trains

And so, further south. Another train to Bombaderry where my friend came to pick me up in a car! My friend recommended sitting on the left side of the train, upstairs, to see the lovely glimpses of coast and beach on the way. Although the nearby fire destruction was horrible and the tales of my friends experiences frightening, it was heartening to see the resilience of the bush, and the people. Click here to see a dramatic timeline of the fires from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Burnt bush near Nowra with hopeful regeneration
Burnt bush near Nowra with hopeful regeneration

Once again, I was lucky to share memories and friendship with locals from Bowral and Moss Vale before I went on my merry way by train and then bus to Melbourne.

View from the train from Moss Vale to Albury
View from the train from Moss Vale to Albury
Bus from Albury to Melbourne
Bus from Albury to Melbourne
Melbourne Coffee - is it the best oat latte anywhere?
Melbourne Coffee – is it the best oat latte anywhere?
Clear sky above Melbourne city
Clear sky above Melbourne city

I don’t know. Am I home? What is home? Can you get there without burning a lot of carbon? Join me in my next post, where I will explore my conclusions. Is sustainable travel possible?

Stairwell of YHA North Melbourne
Stairwell of YHA North Melbourne

Rivers

I’ve just been swimming in a chemically-treated, lightly-perfumed, over-lit indoor pool in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain. I loved it. On my way to the pool I pass this fountain.

Oviedo fountain fireworks – waterworks doesn’t quite describe the uplift and spray, does it?

It’s the centre piece of a roundabout which illustrates the cycle of water showering through it every minute. Round and round we go. Up and down, through the pipes, over and over again. Humans have used water, in more or less elaborate ways, to enhance our lives as long as we’ve been drinking liquid to survive. You do know you’re soaking in it? In my time in Spain I’ve seen fountains in plazas, roundabouts and parks. I’ve also seen viaducts.

Segovia viaduct built with no mortar

As I’ve said before, imagine having to work in a frock and sandals to make this big old drain run from mountain to castle for your Roman leaders.

There’s plenty of sculptures too, like this one in the city of Valencia, remembering the river that used to run through it.

Valencia remembers their river with a colossus striding over water

One of the most amazing things about Valencia is that for the last thousand years a group of Spanish farmers, or their representatives, meet, every week, on the steps of the Valencia Cathedral; the tribunal de las aguas. They’re there to debate water; who gets how much, when. You can see them on a Thursday. They don’t keep records and their decisions are final.

Tour guide in Valencia explains the democratic nature of water decisions on the steps of the Cathedral

Compare that to negotiations around the Murray Darling basin in Australia. Irrigation is the largest user of water from the Murray/Darling rivers. Admittedly white farmers haven’t been there for a thousand years yet but they are certainly having trouble working out equitable ways to share the water and keep a healthy river. Couple of Aussie blokes made a tv series about it, if you’re inclined to view a cruise down a river?

The farmers downstream in South Australia do not stand a chance against the farmers upstream in New South Wales and Victoria. There are regular scandals on the border of Queensland and NSW.

Cubbie Station, a Japanese and Chinese owned cotton empire, has a dam described as the same size as Sydney Harbour. Down the other end of the river in SA, Goolwa’s water sometimes slows to a trickle. There’s no regular meeting to solve this ongoing crisis. Just earnest attempts, bitter blaming and ecological desperation.

Back in Spain, Valencia went so far as to move their river away from the city.

Old Valencia river bed is now a running track

Now a lovely park featuring running tracks, modern architecture and playgrounds, the river bed flooded too often and the civic powers showed the flow who was boss and shoved it out the back somewhere.

Valencia tamed their river beds and turned their minds to the future

The same thing happened in Seville. The Gualdaquiver, once a bustling shipping artery, was split to control potential flooding.

Seville’s quiet backwaters

I suppose in Spain climate change may be working for humans because there’s been less rain than normal for many years.

El Torre de Oro – The Tower of Gold – built in the 13th Century – across the river Gualdaquiver

 

The public face of the river in Seville

On the other side of the Iberian Peninsula, I lived last year on the border of two provinces, Barcelona and Girona, in Catalunya. The border was a river, La Tordera.

Standing on the bridge looking out to the sea and the railway bridge on one side and up to the township of Tordera on the other

In the summer La Tordera dried up. You could walk across it. In the winter it was a full, flowing river. I used to take a photo every time I walked home. There’s no sound track on the following slide show. Do you want to listen to Al Green while you check out the pretty Spanish river?

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In the beginning of my little compilation, you can see the mouth of the river at Blanes beach. In the summer, the mouth is closed. As the waters build up through the cooler months, they breach the sand. Water will find a way.

With my back to Blanes beach, here’s the mouth of La Tordera in cooler days.

Also, the nearby city of Girona features a river bed dry and bare in the summer. The winter rains and their outpourings created marvellous reflections for tourist photos.

Girona quiet waters in autumn – not a marvellous tourist photo

This year I work in the Valle de Nalón in Asturias. When I arrived, El Rio Nalón was a mere trickle.

Tiny little Nalón in autumn

Nalón in the Winter

Now spring is here and the snows are melting in the nearby mountains.

Nalón in spring

Churning white waters fleck the brown flood that chunders down the river bed.

Rivers come and go as seen in two stories in the Guardian today. When Nature’s had enough https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/01/argentina-new-river-soya-beans and farmers have taken all the deep-rooted trees away from the water table, is it surprising that nature will take her own course?

But more achingly important is this story about giving nature a right to exist; https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/01/its-only-natural-the-push-to-give-rivers-mountains-and-forests-legal-rights

The idea of giving a river legal personhood is pleasantly close to finding Naiad or a River God swimming along the Yarra, or the Thames or the Seine. But remember, “No river, no people, no life.”

They know that in Cape Town, they know it in Los Angeles. Around the world it’s estimated 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water.

I don’t have to tell you, do I, that we’re all part of nature!

There’s a lot of charities about clean water; the tap project, charity; water, lifewater, water.com

The Source of the river Aube, one of the tributaries of the Seine, in the Haute-Marne region of France

When I stayed near Auberive, Champagne-Ardenne, France, I was fortunate to visit the Source of the river Aube, set in mysterious forest and retaining an atmosphere of magic. For about twenty metres around this area, the ground is wet and the steady seepage from below begins a flow that ends up joining the Seine. Here was a place it was easy to imagine a Naiad living.

Would we be more interested in protecting water if we returned to the days of worshipping? Would that be enough for us to form a human shield against the likes of Nestlé and Coca Cola? Remembering corporations already carry their own personhood, like Deities!

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, hydro-electricity is looking a lot greener these days. And rivers are so beautiful that Don McGlashan wrote a song about them. Made famous by singer Hollie Smith, here’s a version featuring the composer, a casual rehearsal to swim in.

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Thanks for getting into this river of thought. What, and where, are your favourite rivers? Have you been involved in any water charities? Let me know in the comments section below!

Searching for Mervyn Peake in Sark

Arrrr, those pesky pirates! You know the sort; nasty, violent, GREEDY? Take what they want, arrrr, and care not one whit for the contentment of the many, nor even of the few wealthy owners, nor even for that super royal family to whom tax is most certainly due.

Peake pirate from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/ce/f1/86/cef186f038796cc4d647be6035063f1f.jpg

Queen Elizabeth I (arrrr) knew all about pirates and she didn’t like them. She’d seen too many ships disappear, together with her income, and she wanted the pestilence fixed. Looking toward the Continent, she could tell Jersey and Guernsey were populated and policed enough, but Sark, a teeny island, a craggy outcrop of rock, drilled through by the sea until it resembled Swiss cheese, was trouble. Sark, even now holding the honour of the most caves of the Channel Islands, was riddled with pirates.

Peake’s first published work was Captain Slaughterboard, written and illustrated by Mervyn himself

Queen Liz wanted Sark cleaned up. She gave the entire island of 4.5 square miles (Sark 2017 Official Map) to a Lord, The Seigneur, and charged him with protecting her waters and getting rid of the blasted bandits.

The Seigneur, in his turn, allowed thirty-nine of his closest armed friends to rent a cheap piece of Sark so long as they kept guard. All they had to do was keep it free of pirates and enjoy the sort of dreamy rural existence made romantic by HE Bates. It can’t have been easy, I’m sure. The early settlers might even have had trouble finding topsoil on that windy place. But they soon found enough to grow sheep, vegetables and send their children off to fee-paying English schools and eat delicious French food. They invented lazy summer holidays and horse-drawn tourist peace and all was well.

After a few hundred years came World Wars and German invasion. This was difficult but eventually the locals overcame the barbed wire and life went on in the same idyllic manner. But, what if, after 450 years of dutiful protection, the locals became complacent? What if they forgot their obligations to the crown and their duty to protect Sark? What if modern pirates began circling the island in their helicopters with their fancy new technologies? What would happen if the Sarkese didn’t realise they were under attack until it was too late?

Peake apparently knew Treasure Island by heart http://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/ea29c77f532850e2945dc298b35da651.jpg

I was awarded the Titus Groan trilogy for debating at a small girls’ school in Dunedin, New Zealand. Even when staring at the pencil illustrations on the covers, I knew I’d been handed the key to another world.

http://mervynpeake.blogspot.com.es/2011/05/illustrated-gormenghast-anticipation.html

The Gormenghast books were satire, adventure and a description of enclosed society. Mervyn Peake, artist and writer (as much as those two roles can be separate in his life) conceived and wrote much of the trilogy when Peake and his family lived on Sark. Much has been written about his childhood in China and how that experience might have contributed to the strangeness of his creation, but having visited Sark, I think that’s where he found the core of Gormenghast.

The Peakes moved to Sark in 1946 and lived an arcadian lifestyle for three years as he planned the series. As a single man he had lived on Sark for four years before the war, in an artist’s colony. He was an eccentric fellow with a pet cormorant and a penchant for nudism. He became an art teacher and a war artist later. 

https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw07779/Mervyn-Laurence-Peake

Seventy years on, I went to Sark in search of Peake, hoping to find evidence of his inspiration. He was the first world builder I’d ever encountered, in words or pictures.

“My voice has all the lushness
of what I can’t abide

And yet it has a beauty
most proud and terrible
denied to those whose duty
is to be cerebral.”

To me, Peake was more than a friend. He was a soulmate.

Waiting to buy tickets for the ferry at Granville

To get to Sark, one must travel by sea. Port de Granville of France was not colourful. The buildings were grey, beige or cream or a clotted mix and the sea was slate grey. The sky was filled with ashen clouds. The boats were once white with an odd faded blue for contrast. As I waited for the ferry I watched the floating world go by. As the ferry prepared to leave, I watched two men and a clump of fishing rods bump out of the protection of stone walls in a surprising bright yellow inflatable.

This is not the ferry. A fellow traveller.

It’s difficult to imagine how those old sea walls could possibly have been built without the aid of cranes and heavy engineering equipment. I suppose each wall, built on the remains of the previous, becomes stronger over the ages, like nearby Mont Saint-Michel, a dramatic medieval castle-cathedral, which may also have influenced Peake.

Mont St Michel

Au revoir La France! A bientôt!

From Granville we sailed to Jersey. “In Transit” whilst at Jersey meant walking off the boat, waiting for customs to look at the passport, getting a new boarding pass, walking to the waiting room and, without sitting down, getting in the queue to return with treble the amount of people wanting to visit Sark. In less than an hour we were on our way again, past a proud fort crouched on the Jersey coast fringed with cranes poised this way and that. Jersey, as far as I could tell, was an island plagued with developers.

Jersey fort

On board the ferry, I stood on deck, leaning into a bend in the rail, loving the rise and fall, the spray from the ploughed waves stinging my face. The wind was icey but there was warm sun on my back and soon enough we neared Sark waters. Rocky waters. Great dark craggy outcrops jagged from the white water all around the cliffs. A black tidal mark or plimsoll line bruised the rocks just above the water where the waves have engraved a thinner waist for the island.

Black lichen high water mark around Sark

Extraordinary harbour walls featured steep steps up to a road, which wound through a tunnel in the cliff. I found it difficult to imagine the grasping hands and burning backs, tearing muscles and broken legs; the vision and the technology that had to be utilised to build these sea walls.

Maseline is the main harbour of Sark, where the ferry and the mail boat visit – and not every day. The weather conditions are extreme. The sailors must be very skilled indeed to negotiate their paying customers up and down the steep steps to the ferry.

I puzzled, how could those early tenants have tamed the fierce thundering waters long enough to build towering stone walls right into it?

Welcome to Sark

There, through that proscenium cliff archway, was a walk up the hill. You could catch a tractor ride if you preferred but I chose the lovely green twisty path, and on, straight up the dusty thin carless road to the Sark Visitor’s Centre.

Leading us up the Sark garden path

My first impression of Sark town centre was ‘English Country Garden’. It was all very picturesque and human scale, apart from the giant vibrant begonias in all the bridesmaid colours of the world. I had no idea they could grow that big!

Over-sized begonias in the Sark garden experience

Sark seemed almost too good to be true.

The information officer told me that not many people come to Sark to seek Peake. What? REALLY?! The only reason I came was Peake. What else could there possibly be?

On the way up the main road it was difficult to ignore the amount of shops for rent and closed businesses. One entire side of the street was empty. Shut. This was peak tourist season – the middle of summer – August. The information woman told me crossly it was because of the cost of electricity. Far too high. (And not one solar panel in sight.)

I trooped off to La Vallete Campsite (a couple of paddocks on the cliff edge of a farm) where I put up my borrowed tent. When I fronted at the campsite ‘office’, more a mud-room entry space really, Linda said she found all her emails blurred into one – which camper was I? What did I want? Exactly? Just a place to lay my weary head.

Incredibly grateful that Roseann, Olivier and Mike lent me their tent!

I was unused to camping, unprepared and unskilled. I chose a site close to the edge of the cliff, though fenced in on two sides with blackberries. It appeared someone had desecrated the corner with some toilet paper streamers. They had been rained on. I tucked them back into the blackberry bush with the tent-peg mallet, of which there were several on offer. I put the small end of the tent into the prevailing wind but who knew where the wind would blow next?

There were a few puffy clouds looking thoughtful and attractive about this intense blue sky while the sun beat down meaningfully. Several charming yachts were drifting below, parked in La Grève de la Ville like a school of tethered white and blue tuna.

What sort of pirates sail the high seas?

What to do next? Obviously I had to go to the Vicar’s Fête, one of the Sark calendar highlights. Apparently the Peake family had lived nearby in a housed called Le Chalet. While I struggled to decide what book to buy at the bookstall (couldn’t) the auction began. I assumed the auctioneer was none other than the vicar himself and he proceeded to give a progress report of the Fair. There was a loud cry of despair from two women next to me when they heard there were no cakes left. A chap muttered to the bookseller, ‘Well, I’m not surprised. There weren’t many to start with.’ Suddenly I looked left and right. Was I in an episode of Midsummer Murders? The all white and cashmere Vicarage workers were certainly over fifty years old (many harking back fondly to their seventieth birthday). A small gang of vaguely Gothic teens/early twenties lounged on the grass to prove the exception.

The Bank. Summer outfit.

As I left the Fête, I noted a few summer visitors – I suspect you wouldn’t get called tourists – harrying their children around on bicycles. Because there’s no cars and you can easily hear a tractor on the way, or one of the horse-drawn carts, children hoon about freely.

Up by the path to the lighthouse (now an Airbnb with no public access) I found a well-placed bench overlooking the yachts to my left and several rugged rock islets scattered over the waters to my right. The waves were rustling below, tickling the shore. I could hear seagulls crying out somewhere and behind me in the bush grasshoppers (or crickets) sang a high-pitch bed of noise.

With lighthouse to the right and La Grève de la Ville to the right, my dinner bench was a peaceful spot

As I ate my dinner I watched currents moving under the water. The current coming around to the right (towards Maseline Harbour) was smooth, in contrast to choppy scuff marks sweeping the current along. It was as though someone had come through with a big wooden spoon and made a curvy pattern across my sea view. A speedboat ripped across the water. Dark navy depths rejoined as the white zipline faded away. The water then had a nap, brushed wrong way in a pleasing curve around me and smoothed further out like a rainbow arc but all tones of navy stripes. Then came a flotilla of small jet boats – possibly fisher folk returning for their dinner? Possibly cocaine smugglers for cocktail hour?

Les Fontaines where there are definitely smugglers caves just out of frame

The next morning I skittered down steep stairs to La Fontaine Bay, a sheltered and rocky smuggler’s cove where the sun blasted down. A seagull in the distance tangled with a plane far too high, altogether there were far too many planes roaring overhead. There were two great caves on the opposite side of the bay. I thought the tide was out because the seaweed was still fresh wet on the rocks. I thought of Peake, and Titus, as he might have walked these rocks and pathways, and how the woman in the tourist information office said, ‘Well, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, is he.’

A local grandfather made the Epeguerie rock pool many years ago. It’s leaking now. And, look, there’s George’s boat taking a load of tourists around the island!

I spent a good part of the day in my togs staring in a rockpool instead. The rock pools were heaving with little fish. When I assumed the gazing position, rubbernecking into the shallow twinkles, two fish came to look at me as if they were watching telly. They watched me watching them. Another swam through. Quickly. Then another. One of the watchers changed position, coming a little closer. They all kept a steady eye on me.  A darker one took shelter on an outcrop, just under the surface. As a fragile cluster of guppy things swam by, the dark one up above slapped the water somehow, making a surprising snappy clapping. I took up various positions around this Grandpa-made pool, leaking slightly now, but still absorbing viewing.

I marched up to the nose of the island, Bec du Nez, where seagulls sit like complacent white crowns on royal lumps of rock, their soft feathers littering the sheep-gnawed grass around them. It’s called the common and the guide suggests counting butterflies. Too many flutter by and I take it the counting is a joke. Mostly quiet brown creatures, perhaps with a spot or a bit of pale and some colourful ones too with flashes of orange and yellow. I mainly walked around the Eperquerie area, eating far too many blackberries. I wanted to get to the historical society in time to enquire about the ruins up there and ask what that black stain is. I took a bit more of a stroll to examine the Buddist carving on a rock. Not sure why it’s there. And then a snooze in the sun.

Perhaps the Buddhist carving is simply for us to ponder while relaxing in the sun or, maybe, it is to protect the island from evil.

When I eventually regained enough strength to eat more blackberries I got back on track and hit town too late for the historic society. Turned off by the Sunflower Café but admired the Sunflower Project, a two acre field donated by the farmer to grow sunflowers and other plants for birds and insects. Very happy to see Shenanigans Café open where a friendly young lady from Cardiff lent me her charger, made me a coffee, and a cherry jam sandwich. They even employed a solar panel or two. All well with the world.

Although impressed by the ancient windmill, I was saddened the bakery was no longer used. In fact, there’s no bakery open at all on the island. Here’s an opportunity for someone to run the place the way it used to be. Or stick up a new windmill to get things cooking. (Could they afford the thousand-pound-a-week plus rent the owners are asking for the bakery on the main road?)

The windmill’s wings are clipped (off)

The next day I woke to the tent flapping briskly in the wind. I had a dream in which I was picked up (while still in the tent) and moved to a hall. In my dream hall, many people were sleeping next to each other. I woke up (in the dream) to find myself between two bickering young men. One stretched out, over me, to annoy the other and I slapped his arm lightly. He was upset but I didn’t care. A young doctor came to look at my prone self. She looked worried. They hadn’t been able to wake me previously. I reassured her that I was in fine fettle. I must have fallen into such a deep sleep because I’d been awake after I thought I’d lost my wallet.

This last bit was true. I wanted to see the famous Dark Sky so when I woke I jumped at the chance to wander over to the toilet block. But I didn’t need a torch. The sky was bright. There was a full glorious moon. As I watched she pulled an elegant cloud-veil across her face. I dreamily went to watch the lighthouse flashing around the bay. This was the sign-posted lighthouse, now closed to the public, certainly a working warning light so that was reassuring. No big boats about to crash into the cliff. When I arrived back to the tent I discovered my wallet missing. Panic. Flashed the torch everywhere it might have been. Raced back to the loo and the lighthouse viewpoint. Started planning survival strategies. Got back to tent, tried to avoid dew soaked tent flap, began sorting and found wallet straightaway. Thank goodness. Asleep immediately to dream the wind picked me up. But it didn’t.

It was all just the wind in the tent. 

La Coupée is a very thin and wind vulnerable connection between Sark and Little Sark. Note the droppings left by the most popular form of tourist transport.

The next day I walked over the steep, curving La Coupée, a road built and fenced by prisoners of war, to Little Sark. Believing strongly in discretion above valour, I decided not to climb down to the Venus Pool alone. Looked arduous and I still had time to return to the historical society. If no one hears you scream did you actually fall to your death off a rocky cliff?

At the peak, I lounged on a soft patch of vivid green with tiny stalks bearing little cups of crispy white petals. Sark. Blackberries, sweet as desire. Butterflies, light and mobile as an already forgotten thought.

Sun bore down in full force, sea birds wheeled around and overhead. Many spattered brown birds – herring gulls? No wonder Peake thought of angels when he came to write Mr Pye, his book actually set on Sark. The jagged landscape is covered in fluffy white feathers.

I was so KEEN. Arrived at the historical society office 12:25 with plenty of time before they shut. Popped in to the loo, no potable water there and came to stand in line at the Heritage Room. Or rather, I waited in the corridor. A man held forth to a small elderly lady. She did not see me but I sort of bowed to the gentleman to indicate that I intended to move into the room, was that allowed? He met my gracious greeting with a blank stare I took to be assent so I moved into the space. Glass cabinets and folders of information about Sark surrounded me. I looked up the meadow pippet in birds of Sark, as the meadow pippet is my favourite bird. I think I may have seen a rock pippet near the old mines. I could find, as I slowly perambulated around the room, precisely nothing about Mervyn Peake. Nothing about pirates or the dark plimsoll line.

Meanwhile, the man held forth about the crimes of the British education system. He used to be a headteacher. He despaired at the constant measuring to which children are subjected in the current British system. As does his wife, a sixty percenter, but working full-time. As it turned out, you wouldn’t believe it, he, Richard, came from Wollstonecraft (or somewhere), which is EXACTLY where the thin, elderly lady’s brother and sister-in-law reside. Extraordinary coincidence. After that they spoke about the exhibits in front of them, neolithic axe heads and other items of geological interest. I believe he may now be a geologist of some sort. They were getting on splendidly and I’d perused the flowers of Sark and the rocks of Sark and the moths of Sark and the interesting beads, possibly made from Baltic amber found around Sark, when I realised these two had just begun to warm up. I took my departure (unnoticed) and headed to the Post Office where I intended to buy and post postcards.  And there, at last, in The Gallery Stores and Post Office, I found Mervyn Peake and his creations.

All the Peake Offerings in the Sark Post Office and Gallery

After dealing with postcards I went back to request the nearest potable water tap at tourist information. While I waited I looked through a beautiful coffee table book, ‘Art for the Love of Sark’. This is the record of an inspirational visit to Sark by twenty artists from Artists For Nature (http://www.artistsfornature.com/projects/sark/) It is a remarkable venture and I urge you to peruse the website and buy the book, if you can. One of the artist members, Rosie Guille, runs a delightful little gallery on the main street of Sark where you can pick up the book, perhaps one of her own evocative paintings or practice the art yourself. Here is her online gallery: https://rosanneguilleart.com/

http://www.sark.co.uk/958-958/

Back in the Sark Visitor Centre, the kind officer offered me the still warm water from her kettle. She preferred to boil the bore water. They have a good water table. Don’t need to go down too far. I remarked upon the lack of visible water tanks and that bore water is, of course, finite. She felt not. A good water table is a water table for good. I continued in my strident, visitor knows best sort of way, surely that’s the problem in California? She said, ‘Sark gets more rain than California.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that a good reason for water tanks?’

Didn’t seem like a smooth conversation did it, so I bought up Mervyn again. I wouldn’t let him go, I just couldn’t, and I said what a shame it was there was no shrine to this great writer. She said, ‘There’s a lot of artists that came from Sark. They couldn’t possibly commemorate them all.’

I said, ‘Like who?’ She said, ‘Cheeseplate and Topless’, people I hadn’t heard of so I added, ‘Oh yeah,’ I muttered dismissively, ‘And let’s not forget Victor Hugo!’ 

One of the closed hotels features a bar honouring Victor Hugo

Wasn’t it amazing that Victor Hugo had only been on the island for two weeks and he had a cave and a bar named after him while Peake had lived here for seven years? ‘Oh, she said, ‘Hugo was here longer than that.’ I said, ‘Not according to the pamphlet over there … ‘ And she looked askance at me.

Well, they hedge their bets, don’t they …

In order to lighten the atmosphere I added that I had started to see Gormenghast as a satire about Sark itself, what with all that inherited fifedom, and the enclosed nature of the island. She hadn’t read it but agreed that although many people had wanted democracy in 2008, many had wanted the island to stay the way it was. Is that so? To swing it all back to Mr Peake and his glory, I said it was a shame there was nothing available in the tourist information shop about him and she said, ‘Perhaps there’s nothing of his available to sell?’ And I said, ‘Well, there is in the Post Office!’

After a desperate pause in which we both wanted to be polite, she said, ‘Did you know he used to live there?’ And I said, ‘No, really?’ (Which was a lie because I did know by then) and she said, ‘Before it was the Post Office, of course. They had some pictures up once, showing him painting there.’ After making all the correct admiring sounds I said, ‘I had heard when he first lived here, when he was freezing in a barn, he worked in the fields to get money and had a pet cormorant.’ She looked askance again, ‘Well, you know better than I do, for sure.’

So I said that she was lucky to have the books to look forward to, that they were wonderful and thanks for the water. I could have reminded her that the books were all available in the PO but you know, I’m proud of myself. I knew when to stop.

There was the dead bakery on the main road. CLOSED. Another shop on the main street, CLOSED. Then, on the way to Dixcart Bay, a great swimming bay, I passed a large fancy hotel. CLOSED. What was going on? Time for some research.

Sark, straight ahead?

The price of electricity has little to do with the price of politics in Sark. Turns out Sark does have a darker side. Sark really is too good to be true.

Under all those pots of petunias, pretty tree-lined laneways and those quaint seventeenth century stone buildings lies a squawling ten-year-old democracy, fighting a 450 year-old-fifedom. Or is it?

Shady laneway in Sark – around the bend?

The democracy was apparently born of twin media barons, David and Frederick Barclay, trying to buy their way into tax-free law-making power. Come on. Did Mervyn Peake write that stuff? (NB: There were twins in the drama of Gormenghast but they were victims. Cora and Clarice were killed by Steerpike, a young man thirsting for power.)

Peake certainly loved pirates as described by Rob Maslen in a fine blog post but I don’t think Mervyn would much care for these boys. The Barclay Brothers have caused a sort of disease, a kind of cancer, in the form of untended grapevines, empty hotels and falling down buildings holding up the land.

Vines in apparent summer disrepair

I really felt at home in Sark but what a beastly thing this duo of billionaires have done. They’ve bought a good percentage of the ancient tenements but have not yet managed to sway the democratic elections enough to get their chosen people in power to make the legal changes they require. They want to make their bit of the island a separate tax haven. They normally live in Monaco but they’ve built a showy castle on a their private mini-island called Brecqhou.

They’ve installed a helipad and roads and landed cars – against the rules, nay ethos, of Sark. They own all the empty shops and most of the main island’s hotels; those now standing empty. So there’s no work in those CLOSED hotels and no paying visitors. Which means the population of the island was half its normal summer number last year.

You can watch a Panorama episode available on You Tube that explains how these two media moguls have been trying to play monopoly and throw the board over when things aren’t going the way they like. (I’ve seen my sister do it. Definitely a thing.) 

The next morning was cloudy. I eyed the tumbling impending rain clouds suspiciously as I rushed to finish my breakfast before it came down again. I managed to bring everything over to the shed where there was a sort of veranda. I stretched the tent out over the ground and sipped my coffee while weak shards of sun stroked the damp nylon into submission.

Once I figured everything would not rot away if rolled up, I packed and left the stuff ready for the appointed pick up. I managed to walk the delightful garden dell path to the harbour five times that day. Once, when the friendly bank ladies thought George wouldn’t go out in this weather and I imagined I’d better take a look at this enclosed bay, Creux Harbour, to see how small and cute it really was, and how the water smashed up through the stairway.

While waiting for the Non Pareil to arrive I strolled around the picturesque Creux Harbour

I strode back up to find a phone which just ate my money and refused to connect with anyone. Luckily I ran into Rosie rather than have to face the Information Officers again. She put in a call to George for me and we were in business. Back down the windy path I went. On the way past, I couldn’t help myself, I popped into the smart corporate looking real estate company office. The smartly-attired business woman at the desk agreed there were a lot of closed shops on the main road and, yes, it was a shame.

I mentioned I came from Australia and there was an interesting phenomenon, started in Newcastle a few years back, called ‘Renew‘. The idea was that local officials would make empty, run-down shops or premises available to artists and small desktop computer type start-up businesses for peppercorn rents in order to bring life back into blighted areas. There was quite a lot available on the internet about it, I pressed on, Renew had been a great success. She agreed wholeheartedly, making no move to search her computer. She pretended to take a note in her diary and promised faithfully the Chamber of Commerce would be discussing it at the very next meeting.

I marched back down again and found the eighty-year old George and his son, Morgan, waiting in a jolly little boat, the Non Pareil. They took us from hightide Creux harbour, round the island with the most caves in the channel (Sark, remember?) and back to a low tide harbour. Here could be a clue for a renewable energy source – tidal power must surely be an option on Sark. Watch Morgan move the Non Pareil quick smart out of there!

George had met Mervyn Peake. He reported he was a very nice man. And George’d been in the tv series, Mr Pye, too. In fact nearly everyone on Sark had been involved!

Low tide at Creux Harbour reveals how those harbour walls might have been built!

When we went past the castle, George spoke unenthusiastically about the lack of community spirit of the Barclay boys.

George and his son Morgan take the tourists around Sark in all the weathers

These modern pirates, the Baron Boys – Barclaydum and Barclaydee – came in helicopters, spread fake news that makes German propaganda look like nursery rhymes and when they didn’t like the way their game of Monopoly was heading, they threw the board over so no one could finish the game. They made several families, true descendants of that first Seigneur, the friend of Elizabeth I, walk the financial plank. They bought up houses, hotels and disgraced the local Doctor Kindness himself.

The sad thing is that this isn’t a draft of the fourth (or fifth) Gormenghast book. This is life on Sark today. Unless the Royals, who happen against all reason, to be good buddies with the Barclay Media Barons – those very same Media Barons relishing once-private information about royals, celebrities and other saucy scandals – unless Prince Charles – whose architect pal built the pseudo castle on BB island with, I kid you not, real canons balanced on ramparts artlessly covered in Spanish stone, unless the Crown can come to Sark’s rescue somehow, it’s difficult to see how this stalemate will end. The Pirate Twins themselves are now old men kept alive by the wonders of modern medicine. What of their heirs? What will become of Sark in the long run?

If the parliament or the Lord (Seigneur) could somehow regain control of the tenements belonging to the main island, I wondered if it might be possible to let the Barclay Barons have Brecqhou Island on a long-term lease? Surely they did not sell the land freehold? If the community could retrieve the hotels and shops on the mainland, they could get their own economy functioning once more.

Sark’s situation put me in mind of another David and Goliath story, that of Cuba. There was a thrown monopoly board if ever there was one. In my humble opinion Sark urgently needs to bring in permaculture experts, as they did there (Power of Community: How Cuba survived peak oil) particularly those knowledgeable about burning rubbish and making renewable energy. The stench of foul smoke overhanging the harbour is awful. Sark clearly has wind potential, and the tidal variation is powerful. Sark could surely become self-sufficient in energy one day.

Is it possible the Barclay Twins, their heirs and the Royals could join the community to build such a forward-looking and clean energy exemplar for the British protected Channel Islands?

My dream? Where I was picked up by the wind? Have I been asleep all this time?