Saturday 22 October 2022

An Enigmatic Lady Observed at Kusadasi



Entrance to Kusadasi Harbour - Adrienne Higham

On board the MS Monet at Kusadasi, Turkey September 2022

 On the opposite side of the quay from our modestly sized ship was a giant cruise liner. While we were waiting to depart for a trip to Ephesus the never-ending line of tourists leaving the cruise ship gave me an opportunity for people watching. 

Somewhat apart from the general run of people walking along the quay was an elderly lady. She was lavishly made-up and dressed in an immaculately pressed white shorts-suit. I imagined her to be the widow of a successful American automobile dealer, at whose demise, her hair had turned quite gold with grief. (Thanks for the line, Mr Wilde). She toddled along the jetty, her back bent, towing a wheelie suitcase. I was intrigued but thought no more of her until much later in the day when she and we returned to our ships at the same time.  There she was, transformed. She had a new hair band that matched a royal blue chiffon ballgown all in flounces and frills. It was now clear that her suitcase had contained this change of clothes.

This time, she was in a wheelchair pushed by a muscular young gentleman dressed in the livery of a porter of some grand hotel. She stood up and parted from her new friend with a fulsome and tearful embrace.  I feel sure she had spent her time ashore well but exactly how she did must remain a mystery.

I was travelling with the excellent Noble Caledonia

Thursday 20 October 2022

The Power of Myth


“His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;” Revelation 1:14

 In about 95 AD in a cave on the Greek island of Patmos, St. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, by then an old man saw a revelation sent to him through a three-legged crack in the rock ceiling of the cave that was his home. He dictated what he saw to his servant, who wrote down what is now the last book in the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation. In September 2022, I was standing in that very cave.

Everything in that paragraph is untrue.

It was in the 11th Century that the cave in which I was standing was discovered and identified as the cave in which the revelation of St John occurred.  The 11th Century was not a time noted for the forensic rigour of its archaeology. The Book of Revelation does of course exist.  It was the last chapter to be added to the canon of Christian literature and not until the 4th Century AD, reflecting some doubts about its authenticity held by the early church bishops.  The Book of Revelation does identify “John” as its author but no one knows which John.  There is nothing to suggest that the vision reached the Saint through a three-pronged crack in the ceiling. So, while I was standing in a cave, any cave would have done.

Nor can anyone demonstrate that the vision was sent to the old saint by God rather than being a chimera emanating from the mind of a senile old man.

Standing in the chapel that has been set up in the cave, I could see the famous fissure in the ceiling and see the rock, on which, it is claimed, John laid his head.

My left brain was hard at work; it’s all rubbish, I thought.

But then …

I had arrived early. Embarrassingly, I walked into the tiny chapel while a Greek Orthodox mass was coming to its end. The light of a few candles, reflected from the burnished gold of ancient icons, cast the cave into amber light and dark shadows.  I breathed in air infused with incense. The deep baritone voice of a priest, chanting in Greek, and echoing from every bend in the rock, filled the air with ethereal sound. The priest, himself, was dressed in long white robes and a wide gold belt, over which he wore a surplice of white cotton, soft as gauze and decorated with tiny, brightly coloured embroidered flowers.  When he turned, he revealed fiery eyes and a long beard, white like wool, as white as snow.

‘That’s what God must look like,” came the awed whisper from my wife. She really is the World’s least convincing atheist.

My right brain asserted itself.  I was in a place that had been the object of sincere faith and veneration for more than a thousand years. That can get to you and it did. I had not been convinced but I had been profoundly moved.

Note:  Picture credit  ARCHELAOS - Etsy UK

I was travelling with the excellent Noble Caledonia

Saturday 15 October 2022

A Lost Empire on the Island of Folegandros

September 2022


The tiny town square of Chora, capital of the Greek Island Folegandros is everything it should be.  White houses with blue, almost indigo, doors and windows surround the square. In the centre are the chairs and tables of a café under the shade of fig and hibiscus trees.  Cutlery clinks: people chatter.

It is the feast day of the Holy Cross and the church that takes up one side of the square is flying two flags, bright against an azure sky.  One, the Greek flag, reflects in its stripes, the blue and white of the houses.  The other flag has an intricate design in maroon and yellow.  It is the flag of the Byzantine Empire.  What a model for taking a long and optimistic view of history.  The Byzantine Empire fell over half a millennium ago. Sultan Mehmed II, leading the forces of the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople after a 53-day siege on 29th May 1453.

Still, hope springs eternal…, I guess.

Photo by Adrienne Higham

I was travelling with the excellent Noble Caledonia

Monday 8 August 2022



Way back in 2012, I visited Murmansk in the far North of Russia.  The Russian submarine Kursk, you may remember, suffered a catastrophic explosion in August 2000 and sank with all hands.  I went to the Museum of the Russian Northern Fleet to pay my respects to our old adversary.  There was an outdoor memorial to the men who lost their lives constructed from the recovered bridge fin of the submarine.

There were other exhibits inside.  Not all of the crew died immediately.  A small group survived for a time in the after compartment of the boat.  I spent quite some time gazing at the very note on which they had written their names in the darkness.

The note stayed with me and I have written a very short (101 words) story about it.  The story has been published online and here is the link. Kursk

Saturday 16 July 2022

The Enkhuizer Almanak


Photo Kevin Hoggett

A fat, dense, little book sits in my hand.  It has a scarlet bookmark ribbon.  The cover shows a simple woodblock picture in red on a pale background.  The picture is of old man in traditional Dutch fisherman’s clothes, smoking a pipe. There is a Dutch barge and a windmill in the background.  The fisherman is, himself, holding a copy of the little book and so the picture is an infinite regression. Later, I learn that this is called the Droste effect after a 1904 advertisement for a brand of Dutch cocoa. There is something very pleasing about the look and heft of this book.

I am in the railway station at Hoorn in the Netherlands.  I shall shortly depart by steam train to Medemblik, from where I shall travel by the vintage motor ship Friesland to the small town of Enkhuizen.

In the station souvenir shop, the book is on sale for just one Euro.  I can see why; the book’s title is Enkhuizer Almanak 2019 and it is three years out of date but it has something to do with Enkhuizen. I happily part with a Euro.  On the train, I settle down to explore my new purchase.  It has 288 pages all in Dutch so it is going to take some enjoyable effort to work it all out.

I quickly recognise tide tables for Harlingen, Den Helder, Tershchelling, Rotterdam and Hook of Holland; names that take my mind to shipping forecasts, ferry timetables and small craft warfare in World War 2. 

There is a heavy-handed joke about Facebook on page 200 which is not improved by Google translate and on page 150, a sketch of rather a cheeky mermaid.

There is something else on the cover: “424ste Jaargang” which must mean 424th annual edition; this book has history.  It may have first been published in 1595 when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne of England and Sir Francis Drake set off on his final voyage. In Holland, the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies set off.  I later learn that the oldest surviving copy of the Enkhuizer Almanak was printed in the town in 1680.  What a splendid and remarkable achievement it is to keep this small book in publication for so long. I continue to explore and find the dates for the sheep market in Oldebrook and the Pentecost market in Brummen Easte, events I didn’t know I had missed.  One of many household hints tells me that candles last longer if they have been put in the freezer before use.  I can even check on the regulations for the flying of flags. What a store of esoteric knowledge.

I have arrived in Enkhuizen, a charming small port with canals.  My wife Adrienne is lost in a haze of fantasy house buying.  She tells me she wants to retire to Enkhuizen.  I fear that I am not included and that she plans to retire from being my wife. 

Photo by Adrienne Higham

The Almanak has its own museum.  It is the old cold store for the fish market.  It is small like the Almanak and closed on the day of my visit but I discover that there is a website, which I shall explore later.  In the meantime, we enjoy dinner in Schipperscafe ‘t Ankertje (Skippers’ Pub at the Little Anchor).

When I get home, I open up the website.  The Almanak has its own weather forecasting system, supported by its own corps of weather observers.  It works on the principal of reversal days that divide weather into decades of 10 days about which weather changes.  I would tell you more but the full explanation is in Dutch.

I still keep the Enkhuizer Almanak on my desk more as a paperweight than a reference resource.  I just like it.


  1. Hoorn Medemblik Stoomtram
  2. The Enkhuizer Almnak and its Museum
  3. Schipperscafe t'ankertje
  4. I travelled with the excellent PTG Tours

Monday 13 June 2022

The Best Little Hat Shop in Utrecht


  Unusually, I had not planned our visit to Utrecht so I did not know what I might find.  I certainly did not expect to find a very fine hatter or, in Dutch, Hoedenzaak.  It was the establishment of Mr Jos van Dijck and Mr van Dijck knows the business of hatting.  Above his shop, at number 12 Bakkerstraat, was an elegant, metal, cutout sign showing the name of his business and three classic hats. His brightly lit window displayed a cascade of fine hats for both men and women.

Of course I did not need to buy a hat so we went in just for a look. Mr van Dijck was busy with a customer, a young man of fastidious fashion sense who was taking a long time to decide between two Panama hats.  One was a classic Panama and the other had a chequered pattern.  The latter was the sort of hat at which, had Bertie Wooster tried it on, Jeeves would have raised an eyebrow.  I thought better of stepping in to give advice even though I feel I know a bit about Panama hats. See my article: The Panama Hat Story

Still determined not to buy, I now had time to look around.  There were a lot of hats.  There was not much in the way of millinery.  The women's’ hats were classic and unfussy.  The Queen could find a hat here.  It was, thanks be, no place to buy a fascinator,  For both men and women there were Panamas, trilbies, fedoras, boaters and bowlers, caps and cloches, in all fabrics and colours.  However you walked into that shop, you could walk out in style. 

My eye fell upon a natty paperboy cap in woven sea grass. Its open weave would be cool in summer.  I tried it on — too small.  Noticing my interest, Mr van Dijck left the young man still with a hat in each hand to attend to me.  He agreed it was too small.

‘Too much hair,’ I said.

‘Too much brain,’ he said, recycling a joke as old and threadbare as a well-loved flat cap.

He was not sure if he had it in a bigger size.  He went downstairs to look but came back shaking his head.  He checked that the young man had not yet made a decision and sat down at his computer and tapped at the keys for about a minute, his face glum.

‘Sorry, I don’t have a bigger one in stock.  It seems I do not even have that one.’


I was travelling with the excellent PTG Tours


Sunday 5 June 2022

Riding a Renegade Tram in Rotterdam

Judy Garland’s Trolley Song has been an earworm since my tram ride round Rotterdam. 

Rotterdam’s Tram Museum is just by the Kootskade tram stop on the No. 4 or 8 lines. As I walked into this old tram shed, I smelled the warm aroma of lubricating oil.  It was good and I inhaled.  Enthusiastic volunteers run the Museum and care for its many trams.  There are plenty of trams of all ages to climb in and out of.  Two volunteers looked after our small group.  They disappeared for a few minutes and returned splendidly dressed in proper tram driver and conductor uniforms. 

We boarded a 90-year-old tramcar.  'Ding, ding, ding,' went the bell.  The tram clanged and, with a screech of steel wheel on steel rail, we sped out of the shed onto a side street.  In a hundred yards we stopped, with a bump of the brakes, at a junction with Rotterdam’s main tram system.  Having checked, the way was clear we accelerated onto the main track and headed towards the centre of Rotterdam.

Our driver had told us that he had had a year of training to qualify.  He and we now had the run of the city’s tramlines; he took us wherever he wanted.  All he had to do was to avoid disturbing the routine trams.  We stopped for a photo shoot but, suddenly, he hurried us back aboard, “There’s a No. 24 coming up behind us!”

Indeed there was. We sped away. 

On some of the outer reaches of the system, we did U-turns on loops at the end of lines, where our conductor had to get out and change points.

For about 90 minutes, we enjoyed a swaying, squealing, clanging tour of the fine city of Rotterdam. 'Zing,' went my heartstrings.




 The Trolley Museum has limited opening hours.  Vintage tram rides are by charter or a hop-on-off from May to October Thursday to Sunday only.

Rotterdam Tram Museum

Tram Line 10

I travelled with the excellent PTG Tours

Photo credits: Kevin Hogget

Trolley Song written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane

Friday 27 May 2022

The Stone Axe-Head — a Long Journey in Time



In the British Museum’s stunning exhibition Stonehenge[1], is a beautiful and remarkable object. It is a stone axe-head and it has a story, a long story.

In 1942 BCE (that is 4,000 years ago) in what is now Germany, a family buried their father, a man whose name we do not know.  With him, they buried the stone axe-head that I gazed at and revisited at the British Museum.

The axe-head is about the length and girth of a boy’s forearm from elbow to wrist.  It is symmetrical in two planes and pierced at its heavier end by a precisely circular hole for the haft.  The colour of the stone is elusive. At first glance, it is dark grey, just short of black. As you look at it, the darkness varies; there is a hint of green.  Someone has polished the surface to a deep shine.  There are flecks and hints of red, blue and green appear.  One end comes to a rounded chisel tip.  The other, the haft end, is thicker and blunt like a hammer All its edges are pleasingly rounded.  If I could have picked it up, it would have had heft.

The axe-head is ornamental far beyond utility.  A rougher piece of rock would do just as well at cracking a skull.

This object is a masterpiece of Stone Age art and artisanship.  Someone working with stones, sand and animal hide spent weeks making it.

The man it was buried with lived at a time when, in Europe, the Stone Age was giving way, after 1.3 million years, to the Bronze Age.  The man’s sons may have wondered at their father’s attachment to old technology before laying it in his grave.  The British Museum describes the axe as a symbol of power.  It requires no greater speculation to think they placed it in the grave as a mark of respect.

The man lived long before Homer. He was a near contemporary of Abraham.

But it is the axe-head that has the story.  By the time it was buried with him, it was already 2,500 years old.  We can never know the name of the Stone Age Artisan who perfected this object 6,500 years ago, when the Sahara was green and work would not start on Stonehenge for another two millennia. What is truly extraordinary is people revered and cherished this work of art for 120 generations before they buried it with its last owner.

Sunday 15 May 2022

Phoney Portofino and Congenial Camogli



The ferry from Santa Margherita disgorged about 150 of us onto the quay.  Another ferry was close behind.  At the top end of the tiny town, buses were unloading 50 tourists at a time.  We were not alone in making a day trip to Portofino. Every holiday brochure for the Italian Riviera shows a picture of Portofino.

Portofino is said to have permanent population of just 450.  There was five times that number jamming its only street.  Portofino is a fake.  Its appearance is fake; its charm is fake.  It is a celebrity of a destination, famous for being famous because famous people have made it so. Its buildings are painted in trompe-l’oeil to make them appear stone built with elegant arches and folderol.  The variation in colours comes from a palette determined by the local commune drawing on some long-forgotten tradition.

Over a century ago, in the days when it was an unspoiled fishing village, rich and famous people built gorgeous villas above the town.

New generations of the rich and famous discovered this rich man’s hideaway. They bought up or rented the villas and moored their gigantic yachts in the little harbour.

And so, the day-trippers, me, included come to see this celebrity enclave.  The town has developed to welcome us.  Restaurants line the streets and their tables surge out onto the town square and the quay. In between there are smart shops; I spotted Dior and Balenciaga.  A few local clothes boutiques offer classy summer wear at a price. Then there are cheap pizza takeaways and tacky souvenir shops for the rest of us.  There is still money on show.  In the restaurants were high maintenance people who would not look out of place at Henley or in Sloane Square.  If you had that sort of money, why would you choose to eat your zuppa de pesce inches from the great international public shuffling past your table gawping at you?

In the harbour were three suspiciously picturesque fishing boats.  They would be entirely inadequate to supply the industrial quantities of seafood consumed in Portofino’s restaurants.  There are only about thirteen fish left in the grossly over-exploited Mediterranean Sea.  Italy imports 5.5 billion Euros worth of fish each year.  Portofino’s catch of the day arrives in a lorry.

Finally, no visitor to Portofino should miss the sad little sculpture park guarded by six nail-varnish pink meerkats.

One good reason for visiting Portofino is that there is a boat from there to the Abbey of San Fruttuoso and its submerged statue, Christ of the Abyss.  I am told that this is well worth a visit but on the day we were there, it was too rough for the boat to make the trip, which probably added to the congestion in Portofino.  You can also reach the Abbey by boat from the charming and unspoilt town of Camogli, a few kilometres north of Portofino and accessible by train.



Camogli is a small town with a small harbour. While not exactly off the tourist trail, it has a character of its own, feels properly Italian and we spent a very good day there.  There is a descent from the railway station to this small town.  If you take the steps, you will find yourself at Camogli’s intriguing Maritime Museum. It closes at midday on weekdays.  Please check the website for opening hours. Camogli Maritime Museum  The museum looks as it has had some money spent on it. It is fascinating for those of us with an interest in ships and the sea and there is a lot to interest the more casual visitor.  I particularly liked the portraits of ships.  Some of the sailing ship pictures had sails made in fabric that billowed in 3D. They have a digital archive and they showed me a 19th century Lloyds of London insurance contract written in Italian. I have seen plenty of ships in bottles but here they have an entire harbour with ships in a bottle.

It doesn’t take long to walk to the harbour and the main street of the town.  The street is lined with cafes and gelateria.  The harbour itself has the shape of a crab’s claw.  The outer curved wall makes for a nice walk and there are two whale tails made of blue metal netting that make for a dramatic view.

In the town, there is a church that is worth visiting.  It was closed the day we were there. 

I also noticed a bookbinding and bookshop.  It is closed on Thursday. That probably saved me money as, peering through the window, I could see beautifully bound notebooks and journals.

If I have given the impression of a rather closed sort of place, that is wrong.  The town is quiet and unassuming but it is charming in a non-touristy way.

By the inner wall of the harbour is the ticket office for boat trips to San Fruttuoso.  I did not have time to make the trip that day though with a bit of forward planning, I could have done.  Camogli is a better place to embark on your trip to the Abbey.

It was time for lunch. At the very end of the inner wall of the harbour, we found a small café called I tre merli, the three blackbirds.  We sat outside enjoying bruschetti and then it seemed necessary to have gelati and then coffee and limoncello.  An hour or so passed as we watched the comings and goings in the harbour.  A perfect interlude.  I tre merli looked and felt like a small family run place.  They also offered a locanda or rooms to let. But no ordinary rooms to let; the brochure shows that each room has a sensational view of the harbour and there is a spa, whose delights have been translated into English as “cuddle yourself in the SPA” and why not indeed?

There was a surprise on their business card that came with a very modest bill.  I tre merli establishments can also be found in Genova and there are four in New York. It has  quite a story that you can read n its website.  I Tre Merli

The gloss of Portofino or the charm of Camogli?  Camogli every time for me.

Friday 6 May 2022

Writing My Travel Journal Again

After a long spell of not travelling and not travel writing it has been good to get back to it by way of a train journey to Italy and back.  I still find it a marvel that one can get from London to Nice or Turin in twelve hours of sitting in a comfortable chair, reading, listening, writing or just enjoying the view, while someone else  does the driving.

Writing my journal in Turin's most fashionable café (very expensive but delicious chocolate cake) or,

At Baratti & Milano Torino

Writing my journal on a stone bench by the banks of the River Po, with graffiti for inspiration (very cheap).

Photo Credit: Adrienne Higham

While travelling, I very much enjoyed reading Italian Ways by Tim Parks.  Parks has lived and worked in Italy for more than 30 years.  He knows and loves the country.  Basing his book on the idiosyncrasies of Italian Railways, he shares many aspects of life in Italy with the reader.  Ideal reading for an Italian train.  I also took D H Lawrence's Twilight in Italy but found it very hard going and abandoned it. 

It's good to be back.  More writing to follow.

We travelled with the excellent Great Rail Journeys

Monday 2 May 2022

The Man in the Piazza at Santa Margherita Ligure

    Nearly everyone else in the Piazza Caprerer was milling about or gazing at the 18th century Basilica di Santa Margherita, whose walls glowed the palest lemon in the morning sun.  One man was not, he came from one corner of the piazza.  His stride was slow but steady and determined; nothing would come between him and the opposite corner of the square.

The peak of his blue gabardine cap seemed to lead the way. From the fact that it was ten thirty in the morning and from the look of him, he was retired. His coat was a slightly darker shade of blue than his cap.  Under his elbow was his folded copy of the Corriere della Sera, he would open it and read it from front page to back once he had reached his café.

The basilica bell sounded the half hour. The man nodded his head, a tiny movement.

The man’s face was that of a man who had worked outdoors and his eyes were fixed ahead, towards his destination.  From his lower lip, kept there by years of practice, hung his half-smoked morning cigar.  He was a man content with living his life in the unchanging Italian way.

I was travelling with the excellent  Great Rail

Friday 25 March 2022

A Coffee Pilgrimage to Room 43a of the British Museum


Love is like the coffee of the Bedouin, bitter yet beautiful. - Arab saying

 We think we like coffee, that we have a coffee culture — really?  A cappuccino in a plasticized paper cup or any later than breakfast time is an abomination.  Even worse is the “Latte”, a child’s drink of warm milk with a memory of coffee.  It is a sort of homeopathic version of coffee.  What we want is the strong, aromatic coffee of Islam.

Come with me on a pilgrimage to the Levant and Arabia, where Sufis, Bedouin and Ottomans have perfected and celebrated the art of coffee since the 1300s.  Travel is still a bit tricky but we can do all this in Room 43a of the British Museum where a free exhibition “Life in a Cup. Coffee Culture in the Islamic world” is on until 18 September 2022.  The exhibition is small but intense, rather as coffee should be.   British Museum

Sufis in the Yemen in the late 1300s discovered coffee’s properties. Coffee warded off sleep and enhanced their mystical experience. Coffee reached Istanbul by the early 1500s.  There, the preparation and consumption of coffee became an art form.  The exhibition introduces us to the Sultan’s coffee maker, not a Nespresso machine but an elegant person in a rose-pink silk robe and turban.  The Cavehdgi Bachi presents a tray of coffee covered with an embroidered coffee-cosy.  Levantine coffee drinkers dismiss a coffee with no foam as of poor quality and look down on the skills of the coffee maker.  I doubt if the Cavehdgi Bachi ever took the risk of presenting the Sultan with a poorly foamed coffee.

By the 1600s, people from Morocco to India were drinking coffee.  In the courts and mansions of Istanbul, drinking coffee was a refined activity as we can see from the lustre porcelain cups they used.  The exquisite patterns would have emerged to delight the eye as people sipped their coffee. Some of the porcelain was imported from Japan and China along the Silk Road trading routes.  In rural Yemen, they used more humble earthenware cups that have their own beauty.  We can tell they were cherished from the lovingly woven baskets they used to carry them.

Sir David Wilkie, who travelled in Istanbul, Izmir, Jerusalem and Alexandria in the 1840s, was a keen observer of the coffee culture.  He came to realise that what he thought was time wasting (he must have been amazed at how long the five or six sips in a Turkish coffee cup can be made to last) was time spent building social relationships.  

Postcards in the exhibition show that women enjoyed coffee too but I have the impression that men and women did not drink coffee together. Some years ago, I was travelling in the Sahara with my wife, Adrienne. We went into a small coffee shop in the oasis town of Siwa.  I sensed a tension as soon as I ordered. I had not noticed that only men were present.  The presence of a woman unsettled them though Arab hospitality prevailed. There were no such worries when we went to the Al Nofara coffee shop in the al-Hamidiyeh Souk in Damascus to listen to Abu Sadi tell his stories.  In modern Damascus, the sexes, the young and the old mixed happily. I have written about that experience in another post. The Story Teller of Damascus

Coffee is a sensory pleasure.  The Egyptians and Syrians say that tobacco without coffee is like a Sultan without his fur coat. All fur coat and no baccy?

Coffee reached London in 1652 with the celebrated Pasqua Rosée, who founded the Capital’s first coffee shop. Its successors would go on to be the seedbeds of the Enlightenment.  People like coffee shops and enjoy conversations.  Even as early as 16th Century the authorities in Mecca, followed by Cairo and Damascus, tried to ban coffee shops.  They failed of course; the people and commerce prevailed.  In Istanbul, by the late 1800s, coffee shops became places where families could enjoy shadow puppets performances and, as I had done in Damascus, story telling.

The European powers took hold of coffee, set up plantations in Brazil, Kenya and elsewhere.  Coffee became a global commodity.  Italy and, from there, America developed their own methods of brewing and consuming coffee.  The new coffee culture spread back to its heartland.  There are 47 Starbucks outlets in Istanbul.  They do serve Turkish coffee but you will do very much better in any street café, where you will enjoy not just the coffee but also the experience of an ancient tradition.

Within five minutes of leaving the British Museum, I found a Turkish café and enjoyed a proper coffee before setting off for the famous Algerian Coffee Stores in Old Compton Street.  Algerian Coffee Store

Enjoy this quiet exhibition at the British Museum.

Wednesday 16 March 2022

To Bath for my Handwriting

I like to write my travel journal by hand in a paper notebook with a fountain pen.  Quite simply it is a more sensory and thoughtful process.  A problem has been creeping up on me.  My handwriting has grown worse over time and now, even I cannot read what I have written.

And so it was that Adrienne and I set off for a few days in Bath so that I could learn to write. I spent two and a half hours on a Saturday morning learning calligraphy from a master of the art, Athena Cauley-Yu, in her blissful stationery shop and print works on Walcot Street — “Meticulous Ink”.  With just a few minutes explanation she got six of us writing our ABC.  We worked through the alphabet from A to Z.  This was learning by doing, the best sort of learning. It was hard at my age to learn new motor skills.  During Lockdown, I had tried Arab calligraphy by way of a British Library online workshop.  Now that is hard and I was really bad at it.

Under Athena’s expert instruction, I could see improvement.  I can just remember some impressions from first learning to write as a child and these came flooding back.

The process was slow, deliberate and meditative.  A well-formed letter was a reward and the iron gall black ink provided oxidised on the paper to a rich charcoal.

I found some letters particularly difficult.  If I am to write in Copperplate, I shall have to avoid words with the letters M and K, which still defeat me.  When we got to the letter O, I announced that my o’s looked more like a row of penguins.  The class agreed with me, which was less than kind.

Athena is a self-confessed stationery geek; so am I. Her shop is a temptation and I stocked up.

Meticulous Ink

Athena introduces her shop

Walcot Street and London Road are promoted as Bath’s Artisan and Artists quarter.  This is a bit of an over-statement.  For knitters there is “The Yarn Story” an excellent shop for knitters but I fear other artisan business may not have survived Covid and lockdown.  I did, however enjoy a very good espresso at Taylor’s Bagels and Coffee close to Meticulous Ink.

We were in Bath for a few days and we have visited before so I have nothing to say about the must-see attractions for the first time visitor.  I did revisit Bath Abbey to pay my respects to King Edgar whose coronation as the first King of England in 973 is commemorated in stained glass.  Parts of the rite were still in use in 1953 at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  The Abbey floor is made up of gravestones laid flat.  I learnt that they are called ledgerstones.  I do like learning a new word.

The Museum of East Asian Art was new to us and well worth going to see.  The exquisite collection, mostly of ceramics and porcelain, is based on the private collection of Brian McElney who combined a career as a lawyer in Hong Kong with scouring the markets and antique shops of Hong King to find treasure.  Oriental porcelain has been appreciated in Europe since the Middle Ages when the Silk Road trade brought it west.  Glass from Venice travelled east in exchange but did not catch on in the countries of the masters of ceramics.

Museum of East Asian Art

Bath has two rather wonderful bookshops, to which I made a pilgrimage.  Topping & Co has moved since I was last in Bath.  It is now splendidly housed in the former Friends Meeting House in York Street, close to the Abbey.  I went up the grand steps, through a vast portico into a space with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. And the ceilings were high.  Ladders on bookshelves are always a good sign. The staff were friendly and efficient in this temple to books.

Mr B’s Emporium in John Street is different.  It is rabbit warren of spaces for booklovers.  Its spaces have names.  The Imaginarium is for writers; the Bibliotherapy room is for travellers.  The space for children “The Wood between the Words” is enchanting. Do not miss Mr B’s.

Finally a handful of recommendations from our visit.  We stayed at the Apex City Centre Bath. It was fine but they required us to book a time for breakfast in advance, which I found irritating.  We breakfasted very well indeed at The Boston Tea Party on Kingsmead Square.  

We dined very well at Martini Restaurant in George Street.  It is a traditional Italian Restaurant run by Italians and it had a family-run feel to it.

On our second evening, we pushed the boat out and dined magnificently at Portofino Oyster Bar and Fish restaurant on the High Street.

It felt good to be travelling together again.