Friday 26 June 2009

Marazion, Inspiration and Alkatraz

Himself took this photo on Monday when I was interviewing a limner (someone who paints miniatures) in Marazion. The weather was perfect, and on the way down it was so still and clear that the two tankers out in Mounts Bay seemed to be suspended in the sky - a truly unforgettable sight (and one alas not recorded on camera).

Two dog walking friends of ours have recently lost their dogs which is always very sad. The first, Maggie, has at least got another, younger dog to keep her company which is some comfort. But Margaret, an indomitable Scot of hardy breeding and great cheer, greeted us the other day minus dog and explained that she'd had to have her Dougie put down as he had bone cancer. We expressed commiserations (in my case, tears already starting to dribble down my face like unwanted snails) and she continued brightly, “I wasn't going to get another dog but my family have said I should, and so have The Girls.” (The Girls are aged 69 and 82.)

“Good idea,” said Himself. “And there are lots of dogs in need of a good home.”

“Yes,” Margaret continued. “I thought I'd go to the Cinnamon Trust and perhaps the Rescue Centre at Hayle and see what they've got – I want an older dog, that doesnt need too much exercise.” She paused and looked at me with her head on one side, like a robin. “The thing is,” she said, “I'm 89. The dog could well outlive me!”

On that note we parted, still reeling from her announcement of her fine age. To meet her, you'd think she was in her late 70s. But 89?

She is a true inspiration.

And on another note – we had our first night camping in the van last Saturday. On Sunday morning, desperate to buy something for a picnic, we found ourselves in the hinterland of Newquay and were forced to go to a Costcutter supermarket in the middle of a holiday park.

Neither of us had ever been to one of these places before and lurched round it with an increasing sense of panic and despair, dodging the Bar and Tavern, the train rides, the Bingo hall and somewhat unhygienic looking pool.

Having shopped, I was (as ever) desperate to find the public toilets which involved further negotiation of the site, Himself getting increasingly ill tempered.

“My God,” he breathed. “It's like Alcatraz. Do you think we'll get out of here alive?”

Thankfully, as you will have realised, we did.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Carn Marth

Another Cornwall Today walk - taking in one of the highest hills in West Cornwall,
home to an open air theatre built in a quarry

On a grey Friday Rebecca, Mollie dog and I set off to Carn Marth, a childhood stamping ground of Rebecca's. Carn Marth lies a couple of miles southeast of Redruth and is 771 feet high; one of several ancient hills that runs down Cornwall's spine, providing perfect sites for beacons to warn of impending attack, mark victories and celebrations of all sorts. I was keen to explore this walk, having heard much of the open air theatre and of the view from the top of the hill: on a clear day it's one of the only places in Cornwall from where both coasts can be seen.

So we headed off on the A393 from Falmouth towards Redruth, going through Ponsanooth, then Lanner. Climbing the hill out of Lanner, we took a turning on the right called Pennance Road and continued along here until we came to a traffic calming section with a notice saying Priority Over Oncoming Traffic. Just past here is a layby on the left where we parked and took the footpath leading uphill.

I'd been told that there are cuckoos, warblers, swallows and occasionally peregrines to be seen, and as my knowledge of birds is limited, I took my Christmas present of an RSPB book (thanks, Mum). With my bird book in my pocket, we set off, the path curving round to the left, past Carn Marth House and Carn Marth Barn. A young springer spaniel appeared to say hello and saw us off along the lane with high hedges on each side, encrusted with emerald moss. Growing out of the hedges were gorse bushes and young saplings intertwined with ivy.

We climbed higher, where the path grew sandy, and looked down over sparse moorland to Lanner on our left. It reminded me of a scene from Wuthering Heights – remote granite farm houses loomed out of the mist. A dog barked, then a child screamed in the distance. I shivered and pulled my imagination away from moorland ghosts to my immediate surroundings: vast clumps of granite strewn by the side of the lane, like a giant's discarded toys. A row of fir trees sheltering a house; bright orange fungus growing from a dead gorse bush. Gnarled moorland hedges, windblown and sparse - and then, to our right, a huge white and grey cat, dozing high in the hedge, like the Cheshire Cat. It glared at Mollie who hiccuped with excitement but nothing fazed this magnificent creature who yawned and closed its eyes firmly.

Wondering if we'd strayed into the land of fiction, I looked ahead and there was a beautifully restored mine engine house. On closer inspection this turned out to be Baronet's Engine House, built in 1866, formerly known as Wheal Amelia and part of Pennance Consols Mixed Mine.

Past Rockfield Farm we turned sharp right uphill past another farm marked by a huge Camellia bush with blowsy pink flowers. The concrete path led to a sandy track and soon we came to red gates on our left marking Carn Marth theatre.

In 1986, when plans were proposed to reopen a granite quarry on Carn Marth and remove 1.5 million tons of granite, there was fierce opposition. The Carn Marth Protection Group was founded and with the help and support of thousands of people, near and far, the hill was saved and a portion of the top was bought by the Carn Marth Trust.

It was then decided to convert the lower quarry into an open air theatre, forming terraces for a seating area, and installing electricity. The first production of The Three Musketeers, by Cornwall Theatre Company, was a great success, and generated much needed funds. Enthusiastic audiences of over four hundred brought cushions, blankets and food and drink.

Since those early days the Theatre Quarry has seen productions and performances every year by groups including Shiva, Kneehigh, Miracle, Hammered Steel, Carharrack & St Day Silver Band and Doreen Fiol’s influential Children’s Theatre. It has also been used for wedding and birthday celebrations.

The auditorium is an impressive sight, hewn out of vast walls of granite that tower over the grassy stage. In the drizzle it had an other worldly feeling, compounded by a few jackdaws that cried and circled above. Walking along the grassy tiered seats, I felt as if we were waiting for ghostly spectres to jump on stage and recite Shakespeare. As we looked around, a sudden burst of sunshine broke forth, lighting the auditorium. If I listened hard enough I felt sure I could hear the applause, see the actors bowing and smiling. Then the sun disappeared behind a cloud, and Mollie rushed onto the stage, did a lap of honour and disappeared stage right. We found her, nose down and paddling in a nearby pond full of what looked like loofah sponges. It turned out to be frogspawn, so when she moved on, her legs were covered in mud containing hundreds of potential baby frogs.

Reluctantly we left the theatre and walked out to our left, passing another flooded quarry, and climbed higher and higher, until the land levelled out and we reached a small obelisk. From here we had the most incredible view – looking east past St Agnes Beacon to Bodmin Moor, we could just see Rough Tor and Brown Willy (the highest hill in Cornwall at 1375ft). To the north was the Bristol Channel and to the south the English Channel. Rebecca (who has much better eyesight than me) – pointed out St Anthony’s Light at the entrance to Carrick Roads with Pendennis Castle and Falmouth opposite. Well, that's what she said they were – to me they were blurs, despite my glasses. Turning further west was the reservoir at Stithians, then Carnmenellis and Carn Brea, with views across the Great Flat Lode and its engine houses.

We drank in the view while Mollie played chase in a field containing a donkey, three ponies and the woolliest sheep I've ever seen. Slowly we walked back the way we'd come, and at the next junction marked by blue waymarks, we headed down the hill, while a lone kestrel hovered above (I checked the book and it definitely wasn't a peregrine). As I looked up, it swooped down into the field and emerged, clutching something small and struggling in its beak. I closed my eyes, glad I wasn't a mouse, and shut the bird book firmly.

At the next waymarked junction, by a derelict house, we turned right along a grassy track that led into a rocky path leading downhill. At the next junction, marked by oak apple trees on the right, we turned sharp left which led us back to the path that we came in on.

I can see why the Carn is so popular. Even on a misty day it is full of atmosphere and there is plenty to do: walking, fishing in the flooded quarries, enjoying the wildlife, flying kites, drawing, painting, photography, or an evening at the open air theatre.

Apparently this is a place to recharge your batteries. Having had weeks of flu-like symptoms, I read this with some scepticism. But you know what? We got back to the van and I realised, with amazement, that my ongoing exhaustion had eased. So next time you need a pick me up, go to Carn Marth.

OS Explorer 104, Redruth & St Agnes
Length: 2 miles – approximately 1 hour
Grade: Steep in parts, rocky paths.
More information on the Carn Marth Trust and open air theatre:
Refreshments: The Fox and Hounds, Comford.
Lanner Garden Centre
Pennance Consols Mixed Mine – you can walk around the restored Baronet's Engine House which is on the southern slope of Carn Marth

Thursday 11 June 2009

Hot sweats

My sister in law sent me this piece, written by Lonnie Schlein in The New York Times.

Having a husband on hormone treatment for prostate cancer, and going through the menopause myself, this rang more than a few bells....

As my wife and I sat on the couch one night this past winter, reading and half-watching the inevitable HGTV, I started sweating hard and my face got so fevered and flushed that I felt as if I were peering into an oven.
I turned to Deb and said, “Man, I’m having a wicked hot flash.” And she said, “Me, too.” Then we laughed. You laugh a lot — unless your hormones are making you cry — when you’re having menopause with your wife.

"I was in the middle of treatment for an aggressive case of prostate cancer last winter, and it included a six-month course of hormone therapy. My Lupron shots suppressed testosterone, which is the fuel for prostate cancer.

When your testosterone is being throttled, there are bound to be side effects. So, with the help of Lupron, I spent a few months aboard the Good Ship Menopause with all the physical baggage that entails. It’s a trip that most men don’t expect to take.

The side effect that surprised me most were the hot flashes — not that I got them, I was expecting that, but by how intense they were. They often woke me in the middle of the night and made me sweat so much that I drenched the sheets. In midwinter I’d walk our miniature poodle, Bijou, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I sometimes felt as if Deb could fry eggs on my chest. (It’s also a bit disconcerting when your hot flashes are fiercer than your wife’s.)

When it comes to hot flashes, ladies, I salute you. After my brief dalliance with that hormonal phenomenon, it seems to me it’s an under-reported condition. And it’s certainly under-represented in the arts. Where are the great hot flash novels or movies? How come there’s not a Web site or magazine called “Hot Flash Monthly”?
Hand in hand with the hot flashes came the food cravings. I lusted after Cheetos and Peanut Butter M&M’s, maple-walnut milkshakes, and spaghetti and meatballs buried in a blizzard of Parmesan. Isn’t it funny how cravings very rarely involve tofu, bean curd or omega-3 oils?

Then there was the weight issue. During the six months I was on Lupron I gained about 25 pounds. That was partly a byproduct of the cravings, but it also stemmed from the hormonal changes triggered in my body.

And I hated it, hated it, hated it. I had never had to worry about my weight, and I began to understand why media aimed at women and girls obsess over weight so much. It was strange and unsettling not to be able to tell my body, “No,” when it wanted to wolf down a fistful of Doritos slathered with scallion cream cheese.

When I wasn’t devouring a king-size Italian sub or smoldering from a hot flash, it seemed that I was crying. The tears would usually pour down when I got ambushed by some old tune: “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” by Carly Simon and, yes, “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore. Not only was I temporarily menopausal, but it appeared that I was also turning into a teenage girl from the early 1970s.

There were other side effects, too, like headaches and fatigue. But when I started drinking Diet Coke for the first time in my life, my son Owen couldn’t take it anymore. He said, “Dad, are you turning into a chick?”

So, what else did I learn during my six months of hormone therapy?

Even though I only got to spend a brief time on the outer precincts of menopause, it did confirm my lifelong sense that the world of women is hormonal and mysterious, and that we men don’t have the semblance of a clue.

And, guys, when your significant female other bursts into tears at the drop of a dinner plate or turns on you like a rabid pit bull — whether she’s pregnant, having her period or in the throes of menopause — believe her when she blames it on the hormones.

One more thing. I don’t really know whether menopause likes company — you’d have to ask my wife that — but I do know that it really, really likes HGTV and Peanut Butter M&M’s."


Thursday 4 June 2009

The Optimist

Following an email received recently from a well meaning friend, Himself has taken this scare over bottled water very seriously.

Most of you have probably received something similar which claims that keeping bottled water in plastic bottles in the car can, when exposed to sunlight, cause cancer.

As a result I am now banned from keeping water in plastic bottles (shame as I do tend to get very thirsty in the car) so the question was, what to use instead?

As Himself has now thrown out every plastic bottle we have, I scoured the flat to see what I could find.

“Here!” cried Himself, brandishing something clear and made of glass.

I took the bottle, protesting. It was an empty half bottle of gin. (His gin drinking days were over a year ago which doesn't say much for the frequency of our spring cleaning.)

“Don't be silly,” he said. “That'll do fine.” And proceeded to wash it out.

Against my better judgement, I succumbed, and was last week found in Asda car park, slurping water out of this gin bottle. I got some very strange looks, particularly as I was driving.

I explained the problem to Himself (who, of course, didn't see it as a problem) but finally agreed that perhaps it was better if I wasn't pulled over for drinking and driving. Even if I wasn't.

“I've got just the thing!” he said (why do those words always worry me?)

And he produced – a hip flask....