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  • Down by the river I

    PICT0542.jpgI've been swimming again at tumbling bay. Not some exotic Carribbean destination, or even a disused swimming place in Oxford, but the weir pool near here. My nieces had some canoeing practice and I swam down to where the local swimming club used to have its hut. When I was a child I used to wonder what the mysterious abandoned building was, lost in trees close to the river. Then I was given an account of an annual swimming race which used to be held from here to the next village, about 3 miles downstream.

    Before foreign holidays, the river was the place for energetic recreation. In Edwardian times the village had its own annual rowing regatta, and for many years boats were for hire at Mr Light's refreshment stall.

    Rivers gave life, providing water for drinking by both humans and livestock, and they also carried away the dead. A local mill-owner is still remembered for having punted his wife's body the same 3 miles from the house where she died to her burial place in the family plot in a churchyard close to the river.

    The Thames was for work as well as play. Besides the corn ground at the watermill, which was listed in the Domesday book, the damp water meadows round here were perfect for growing willow osiers for the basket-making industry, which had their bark removed (stripping the willow) after soaking in the ponds which several houses still have in their gardens. More than one 18th century local listed his occupation as fisherman - presumably trapping eels in basketwork traps made from osiers taken from the same local withy beds.

    As I swam in the fast-moving water I remembered a solitary swim I took years ago when a pair of kingfishers swooped low over the water down at tumbling bay - held in tight formation by the same short stick they both gripped tightly as they flew. So landscape joins our lives with the lives of others, like ours, but lived no more.

  • Iced over

    DSC01071.jpgA favourite spot for outdoor swimming looked less than inviting today. Freezing temperatures didn't stop thousands of hardier souls taking to the water on Boxing Day, nor will it deter participants at the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships, at the unheated Tooting Bec Lido on 24 January.

    IMG_0242.jpgCounter-culture doesn't just mean hippies or punks. A growing community of mildly rebellious people with a healthy disrespect for 'elfensafety' swim in lakes, rivers, tidal pools and 'water-holes'. A raft of sites and forums promote wild swimming, inspired by Roger Deakin's Waterlog, which is a magnificent celebration of bathing all year round in Welsh mountain pools, Cornish holy wells, trout streams and lidos. Deakin died in 2006. There are photographs of his idiosyncratic living arrangements at the house he built at Walnut Tree Farm (including the moat that inspired him to write).

    Deakin had a natural gift for the most economical prose. His description of a kingfisher '"streaking by in an afterburn of blue" took me back to a swim below the weir here. As I bobbed in the water midstream, a pair of kingfishers flashed before me, tugging at either end of a twig.

    'Sweet water' perfectly describes the sensation of immersion in inland waters. Even outdoor chlorinated pools will give you asthma, salt stings, but fresh water has an earthy softness like nothing else.

  • A Ravello cosmology

    d90bdef7d7adb48f05426defcccb2f3b.jpgViolet Trefusis urged: 'be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but live the gamut of human experiences: build, destroy, build up again! Let's live as none ever lived before, let's tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back'

    Some of her wickedest and most intrepid moments may have been at the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Italian Amalfi coast, where I took a recent holiday.

    Trefusis (1894-1972) partied there with her lover Vita Sackville-West. Other guests in this medieval fantasy villa were Forster, Strachey, Keynes, Woolf, Lawrence, Henry Moore and TS Elliot - and even Garbo conducted an affair here. The marvellous garden is thought to be partly Sackville-West's work. Villa Cimbrone was built in 1905 by Ernest Beckett, 2nd Lord Grimthorpe, with the help of his tailor and valet, Nicola Mansi, who went on to become the village's mayor.

    d1de9a92f007692ce367b899482206e4.jpg Gide said Ravello was 'closer to the sky than the sea'. The centre of the village is perched on a ridge of volcanic tufa which rises 335m above the sea. Inside the duomo we saw a phial of St Pantaleone's blood. In a letter Cadinal Newman wrote in amazement that "the blood of St. Pantaloon... is not touched—but on his feast in June it liquefies. And more, there is an excommunication against those who bring portions of the True Cross into the Church. Why? Because the blood liquefies, whenever it is brought". In the garden at the Villa Cimbrone we took a long walk through tall umbrella pines - the 'Alleé of Immensity' - to the 'Belvedere of Infinity': a stone parapet with white statues and a dazzling view of the entire bay of Salerno. In 1917 Grimthorpe was buried close by, beneath the temple of Bacchus he created.

    Celebrity connections with Ravello don't stop at the Villa Cimbrone. On an inaccessible ridge directly below it is La Rondinaia, built in 1930 by Mansi for Grimthorpe's second daughter. Until infirmity forced him to move back to the US, it was Gore Vidal's home. A local told us how he used to sit in his wheelchair in Ravello's main square, entertaining visitors with his wisecracks and belying his local reputation for cantankerousness.

    5b4a0aa366df70d6ef113767404b5fa1.jpgWe ate lunch in the garden of the Villa Maria, one of three hotels owned by Vicenzo Palumbo. The patron himself was in orange trousers, idly tending flowers while his staff ran the place for him. With two others he has bought La Rondinaia, reputedly for more than £10m, and plans to turn it into a Vidal museum and luxury hotel.

    Set below La Rondinaia is a church dedicated to the twin saints Cosmas & Damian. We visited on a long walk from Amalfi. I took no photos inside, since this was so evidently a living church: we passed two frail women walking with difficulty up the steps to the church for the evening service.

    Cosmas & Damian practised as doctors in Asia Minor in the third century, and taking no money for their cures, drew many to the faith. During Diocletian's persecutions they were tortured to death. Their relics became popular with pilgrims and in Ravello many have left ex-voto offerings in gratitude for medical cures attributed to the patron saints of medicine.

    e9f3ebaeac0ac4df25b61c2a63ccffe5.jpgHundreds of silver plaques represent every part of the body thought to have been healed by the saints: legs, and arms, teeth, and breasts, hearts and brains all cut out in silver and hanging on red silk in glass cases.

    Besides the Villa Cimbrone, Ravello's other jewel is the Villa Rufolo, also with gardens designed by a Briton. Rufolo is a half-ruined 13th-century palazzo, the venue for highly successful arts festivals. The garden inspired Wagner's dream of a magical garden in Parsifal.

    On our last night on the Amalfi coast we heard a clarinet and piano recital at the Villa before walking down the hillside to our accommodation in Minori, right by the sea. The twisting path took us down steps through lemon and olive groves, across the echoing porchways of several ancient churches and finally past Minori's necropolis, glimpsed through high gates, each decorated with skull and cross-bones.

    563082b9cbdfb6a7ea4df493b4ba66ff.jpgThe walled cemetery was bathed in blue light. Three terraces, one stone slab set into the wall for each family, lines of slabs stacked so high that a ladder is needed to look after the photos and flowers and the little electric light that burns night and day on each. With the scent of ripe figs and the tufa grey soil in the air we descended happily to the moonlit sea.

    One evening just before dusk I walked down to the beach at Minori. The passegiata would soon be in full swing: that special time in the evening when ordinary Italians dress up and go out for a stroll and to chat. On the beach a few kids kicked a football about, but I was the only swimmer. The sea was warm, the surface calm. I swam out 100 metres or more from the shore. Just above the town a blue neon cross marked the cemetery and beyond I saw the line of white lights - like a string of twinkling pearls - marking the path all the way up to Ravello. Higher up there were lights at SS Cosmas & Damiano, too - an orange glow that floodlit the cliff above. Higher still I could even see La Rondinaia - floodlit with a steady bright white light - and thought I caught a glimpse of the fabulous belvedere at the Villa Cimbrone.

    82cab754f31585c33b9a9565686f42c9.jpg On the beach, feeling a cool breeze, I showered and changed. Someone asked me if the water was cold. 'Not at all - it's warm!'. Feeling content, I suddenly remembered Homer's magical line about the 'wine-dark sea' and watched an almost full moon shimmering silver on its surface.

  • Royal bankers, the Brambles & a Bluebird

    Where else but at Calshot Bay, a little known stretch of coast close by Fawley power station in Hampshire, where the great liners still slip out of Southampton Water, dwarfing beach huts to the size of matchboxes, and an annual cricket match takes place on a sandbank two miles out to sea?

    William and I motored down last weekend and spent a pleasant few hours re-acquainting ourselves with the pleasures of this gloriously eccentric place. I was promised a fishing trip by an amiable ruddy-faced 'sea dog' from Farnborough and we swam with a man whose boyfriend of ten years was wanted by the Police in Reading and 'of NFA - no fixed abode'. The fisherman had bought his beach hut from the wife of the film director Ken Russell, whose family own a line of the grander huts at the west end of the beach.

    medium_2310.jpgCalshot Spit was home to Lawrence of Arabia, when he was stationed at the RAF base there. Here is a castle built in 1540 to defend Southampton Harbour, which was even then one of the largest ports in the land. The last ever Schneider Cup flying boat races were held here and a giant Grade II* listed hangar from 1917 is named after the Sopwith Camel, said to be one of the finest fighter planes of the First World War. Cyclists now race where the aircraft stood as the hangars house an echoing velodrome that is part of the Calshot Activities Centre.

    We chatted in the Bluebird - Calshot's tiny beach café, named after a Schneider craft - watching the confusion of boats moored around a cricket match being played on the Brambles sand bar two miles out in the Solent. This truly bizarre institution takes place for only about an hour on just one day a year. There is (barely) enough dry land for players from two sailing clubs on the Isle of Wight and at Southampton to take their runs against a backdrop of supertankers.

    Earlier we had been politely asked to leave a stretch of protected beach by two well-spoken fellows in cream chinos and blue Oxford shirts - summer uniform of the young upper class male - one of whom (I think) turned out to be a scion of the Drummond family, who made their money as royal bankers. The family own the Cadland Estate. Just before I had chatted to an estate worker with a pleasant Hampshire burr who said he was down on the beach to check out the fishing.

    medium_luttrell.jpgThe water was pleasantly warm and shallow as William and I swam together from the far end of the beach to the steps of Luttrell's Tower, a splendid 18th century folly now owned by the Landmark Trust. On the drive home the sun set spectacularly behind power pylons, but all my thoughts were of the glories of the English seaside.

  • Budapest

    [archive post] Got back from Budapest, would you believe, on Sunday night. Five of us had an altogether enjoyable time. The itinerary included candlelit meals in a lakeside restaurant, Wagner opera for L1.50, and two hours in an astonishing 400 year old Turkish bath - wearing nothing but a pseudo masonic apron which partly covered the privates but left the hindquarters quite exposed.

    It's nowhere near as picturesque as Prague, but somehow more real. The people friendlier. The National Gallery is on Heroes' Square where we saw some fine Spanish paintings. Decorated Art Nouveau buildings characterise the city in a style they are pleased to call "Eclectic" which seems to mean pretty well anything the architect took a fancy to could be incorporated into the building.

    The Rudas baths is at the foot of Gellert hill, close by the statue of 'the popular queen' Queen Mary. Time Out said it was the loveliest, the most ancient, and had the cleanest water. It's quite gloomy inside: tiny star shaped windows in the domed roof send light streaming down on to the pool of hot spa water below. Five smaller pools cluster round the central one, containing water of varying temperatures. Water pours everywhere: from carved spouts into the pool and from great rusted taps. The room is filled with a great hub-ubb of conversation. Young bodies and old bodies cluster round the edge of the pools, disappearing from time to time into the steam room or the saunas which vary in temperature from hot to oven roasting. I chatted to a fellow who turned out to be assistant to the cultural attaché at a certain French speaking embassy. It was a curious feeling: we spoke in French about music. Suddenly (as his foot stroked mine) he asked me back to his house. Perhaps it would have been a kind of adventure. But I said no. In a side room off the main spa pool aimable masseurs pummel their victims off-handedly. I lay on a foam mat on a sloping aluminium table (much like the ones you see in dissecting rooms) and relaxed utterly.

    With minutes to spare we dashed over Elizabeth bridge into the town for the Valkyrie. The opera house is gliterry and magnificent - we were high up 'in the gods' on the third balcony. My first experience of Wagner, the company was under-rehearsed there were some stunning moments. Wherever we went not having much German - which is the main language apart from Magyar - was a bit of problem. From the sublime to the ridiculous - we were so starved after the opera we went into Macdonalds on Moscow Square (even M&S and Tescos are there now). I meant to order 2 No. 5s but somehow ended up with a tray of 5 No. 2s (if you see what I mean)... Also went to an enjoyable Mozart concert at the elaborate green and silver-gold art nouveau music academy. More French chat as a lady befriended me and pointed out her dashing son and his girlfriend.

    More than once we and ate far more scrumptiously gooey cream cakes than was good for us. We trekked out to a one-time monastery where they had an astonishing collection of 19th century printing equipment which I attempted to demonstrate, much to the consternation of the guard. The museum also houses a bizarre collection of womens underwear through the 20th century which would have had the building's former inhabitants in quite a tizz. And there are baboushkas still in Hungary - mostly in the museums, homely bodies in woollen stockings waiting to pounce if you so much as breathe over their precious glass cases.

    On the last day I left the others to a cable car ride in the Buda Hills to bathe at the Gellert Hotel In its heyday this magnificent place was popular with European high society. My valuables were locked in a safe deposit box and an elaborate ritual with keys locked up my clothes but my (hired) swimming costume was stolen when I spent some time in the spa. An ancient gentleman made a pass at me in the steam room, waving at me in the strange two-handed Hungarian way...

    We wandered round the Lechner's museum of applied art - a dazzling white moorish temple to Hungarian 19th century taste. At a quarter to five we realised we were due back at the hotel for the 7.30 flight home. William and Peter were fuming more or less aimably in the minibus outside. By 10.30 we were home, me clutching cherry brandy chocolates and Hungarian merlot, with a stash of memories of a busy but hugely enjoyable few days.