This weekend has gone by in a bit of a blur.
Apart from a retinal scan on Saturday, which meant that the afternoon was quite literally blurry due to the eye drops, I had found out the day before that I had been awarded no less than six different placings in the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) competition for 2018. Ecstatic, shell-shocked, excited, numb – all of these applied and still do to some extent.
I have been celebrating over the weekend, both in the real world and on social media, what is an actual undeniable achievement in the world of garden photography. But it still hasn’t quite sunk in. This is a really big deal for me. I need to keep telling myself it’s real, that there hasn’t been some huge mistake – such is the gap between my self-confidence and reality. But here I am, with the little bits of paper, and a weighty, glossy book, to prove it.
With that evidence and with the passage of time over the last couple of days, I have realised the real truth of ‘all things must pass’. The good and the bad, the suffering and the euphoria, we endure and we enjoy, and then life moves on. So perhaps I can move through this moment, appreciating it but without attaching too much importance to it. Enjoying it without too much expectation, or pressure on myself to perform in a certain way in the future. Living now and looking forward to the future – whatever it may bring. ‘Life is short: smile while you still have teeth.’ (anon)
The IGPOTY exhibition is open to the public until 11th March, 2018.
We were in Nice for five nights and four days, travelling on BA from Gatwick.We stayed in the port area viaAirBnB – for more details, see Part 1. It’s completely impossible to park in the tourist area of Nice, so we didn’t even try to hire a car. Instead, we did a lot of walking, used public transport, which is plentiful and cheap if a bit bumpy, and had one memorable Uber ride. We also did a cycle tour which I cannot recommend enough if you want to escape the bustle for a while. What’s more, you’ll get a guided tour, and a workout thrown in for free.
1. The Old Town
Exploring the streets of the old town (La Vieille Ville) on the first day, buying fresh fish and vegetables from the market for our dinner, and sitting listening to a great clarinettist serenading on the street as we sipped our coffee crème.
2. The Hill
Climbing the hill between the port and the old town and finding a Jewish cemetery, castle ruins, a lookout point over the town, and a whole hidden park perched on the top of the hill.
3. The Garden
11 acres of garden at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, with its main parterre laid out like a ship: the gardeners were made to wear sailor’s uniforms and hats with red pom-poms to remind the owner, Beatrice, of her extensive travels. Allegedly.
Different themed gardens included Japanese, arid, water – complete with musical fountains – a rose garden, and my favourite, a Provencal hillside rich with scent: lavender, rosemary, helichrysum, eucalytpus, and pine, basking in the midday sun.
View through the French garden with its musical fountains in action, to the classical gazebo at the top of the hillside. The fountains are synchronised to change and move in time to various pieces incliding the Radetzsky March and ?
Gravel pathway lined with green lavender (Lavandula sp.), and Germander (Teucrium fruticans), with mature olive tree (Olea europea) in the sunlight. The Provençal Garden at the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
Part of this trip’s charm was an Uber ride to the garden: a Jaguar XE rolled up outside our modest apartment, complete with squishy leather seats and a driver wearing a dark suit and tie. A small taste of how-the-other-half-live, for sure.
4. The Hillside Village
A trip to the hillside village of , a bit of a tourist trap, but worth a look and a wander. I enjoyed the elevated walk around the outer wall, although Chris felt it a little vertiginous and stayed firmly on the ground.
We also visited the Fondation Maeght just up the road:set on a wooded hillside, the setting is really quiet and tranquil. The building is in-your-face 1960’s – modern, post-modern, I’m not sure of the correct term, and the art includes works by Miró, Chagall and Giacometti.
5. The Cycle Tour
Favourite of the holiday has to be the cycle tour we took with Nice Cycle Tours.We opted for the 4-hour Riviera tour, as we couldn’t get onto the city tour early enough in the holiday. I am not a keen cyclist and the idea of four straight hours on a bike did fill me with a certain anxious tension (terror). I need not have worried. The bikes were e-bikes, which ride like a bike, with gears, but also have a battery-powered electric motor which kicks in with an assist as you pedal. It makes so much difference. I managed the four hours without any trouble, and it was such a blast!
Jenny, our guide, was from Brighton which was great, as she gave us lots of interesting info in English along the way. We rode out of the port and up into the ridge of hills which separates Nice from neighbouring picture-postcard town of Villefranche. After negotiating traffic, bollards and men with large packing crates full of water bottles (I only nearly fell off once), we found ourselves away from noise and bustle, amid olive groves and low brush and gorse-type vegetation on a road that no-one uses. All was silent, the air still and warm.
Taking a break from the e-Riviera cycle tour for photos – above the hills of Mount Boron overlooking the Port and city of Nice.
A tame magpie inhabits the viewing point from Mount Boron across to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It’s on the lookout for food and shiny objects, and nearly got my phone.
Jenny, one of the guides and co-owners of TAG Tours, with one of the e-bikes used in the e-Riviera tour.
Stunning views, a free-wheel down into Villefranche for a picnic lunch, and then all too soon back to the city.
6. The Food!
I had forgotten how good French food really is. We didn’t have a bad meal once, and most were really, really good.
Check out L’Agrume, newly opened I think, from its lack of internet presence, on Place Garibaldi. The square is enormous, surrounded by buildings with trompe d’oeuil masonry detailing. We went here for lunch and as we were in Nice, I just had to try the Salad Niçoise. Made with fresh tuna, it was the best I’ve ever tasted – the orange, carrot and ginger smoothie was pretty amazing too.
We also tried:
Les Garçons on Rue Rosetti, in the heart of the old town, is literally run solely by garçons of varying ages. Many tables are crammed into a tiny space decorated in industrial chic, walls with painted crumbling brick and graffiti, and large dangly metal lamps. It was warm, noisy, full of people, and the food was tasty, burger juices running down my fingers. I liked it.
Le Cafe des Chineurs, Rue Cassini, on the edge of the gay district, another hipster hangout, with quirky artefacts strewn around the place: sewing machine tables, old ornate metal backed chairs, 20s and 30s paraphernalia, full of shabby chic.
Chez Papa on Rue Bonaparte, one of the busy restaurant streets behind the old town. We were squeezed in at the last moment on a Saturday night, which was much appreciated. Chris ordered beef, I ordered tuna, but when it arrived I understood that ‘mi cuit’ means raw in the middle, so we did a swap (he likes sushi) which confused the waiter. Raw tuna notwithstanding, the food was great.
7. The weather
Although not guaranteed at this time of year (late October), we were lucky. Unflagging sunshine, and warm enough to sit outside until it got dark.
Some fairly spectacular sunsets too.
Why I enjoyed Nice more than I thought I would – Part 3 The Internal Journey
To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. We were booked to go to southern Spain when the sudden demise of Monarch Airlines intervened. So Nice was a last minute scrabble around looking for a cheap flight to somewhere vaguely sunny and warm that wasn’t with RyanAir (who were also threatening more cancellations). We settled on Nice with BA via the flight search engine skyscanner, and it turned out to be a great choice (although when did BA start charging for food and drink??)
Nice itself is busy – lots of traffic, particularly right next to the famous Promenade des Anglais, but it makes up for this in a wide sweep of beach – more than 7km long – looking out onto a sparkling, seriously blue sea. It’s not called the Côte d’Azur for nothing. We stayed in the port area viaAirBnB and had found an apartment at the top of a 5-storey building. The port was as noisy as you would expect a working port in a busy city to be, but the apartment had great double glazing and the view in any case, made it all worthwhile.
A tiny balcony had room for a tripod or a breakfast table but not both at the same time. Once I had learnt to tune traffic and the occasional pile-driver out, some of my best moments were spent, cuppa in hand, sitting on the balcony as the morning sun flooded in over the opposite hills, watching boats chugging in and out of the harbour. Some were tiny, some not so much.
A thumbnail history: Nice sits on the French Riviera, at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, close to the Italian border, and it got its name (originally Nikaia) from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, after a particularly triumphant battle sometime around 350BC. It was an important trading port for centuries, and also a target for pirates and other warring factions, including various French and Italian clans. Its heavily fortified citadel was originally perched high on the hill, until it was besieged by the French in 1705 when this was demolished. Subsequently the old town (La Vielle Ville) came into being, nestling at the base of the hill and in 1860 became definitively French at the Treaty of Turin.
Its so-called ‘Belle Epoque’ began around the turn of the century when the great and the good came to take the waters and also, by the 1930s, to race cars (so it’s always been noisy.) Countless celebs have made their homes hereabouts: Renoir lived here, Queen Victoria spent her summers here, and other A-listers said to be currently in residence include Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) and Elton John (we rode past the end of his driveway – allegedly – on our bike tour of which more in part 2).
As we explored the city, and sat in comfy sofas in beach restaurants, both Chris and I felt echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the ‘smart set’ of the 1920s and 30s – he located ‘Tender is the Night’ partly on the French Riviera.
There is a sleekness to many of the passers-by missing in other destinations, and vestiges of that opulent, here-today-gone-tomorrow way of living, embodied not least by the string of casinos along the Promenade des Anglais.
What I really enjoyed, though, was the sense of enjoyment in life which seemed to emanate from many, although not all, people, tourists and residents alike. It was infectious.
I’m in Hong Kong at the moment and everything has stopped.
This morning we woke up at 6am to a note pushed under our hotel room door: Chris’ work today was cancelled, a typhoon warning, force 8 was in force. Cyclone Hato (it means pigeon in Chinese apparently), which had been making its way westwards from the seas off the east coast of China, was set to make land within 75km of the city.
A while later the rain started, whooshing horizontally past the window of our 9th floor window. While Chris took himself off to the gym, I made a cup of tea (I can’t go anywhere or do anything without a cup of tea to wake me up), and then sat by the window watching. Or various windows, actually, getting different viewpoints and different angles onto what was literally a force of nature.
Rain blowing horizontally, palm trees bending and streaming out in the wind, crates, rubbish bins, bits of tree and the occasional street sign blowing like tumbleweed along the street below. As the morning wore on, the storm increased in size and the Hong Kong government website broadcast updates half-hourly, moving the Tropical Cyclone Warning Signal from Storm Signal No. 8, up to Increasing Gale Signal No. 9 and then to Hurricane Signal No. 10.This is the highest warning signal in existence for Hong Kong. Winds were reported as consistently 175km per hour (108 mph) near the centre.
As I write this, everything is closed, apart from a few brave, or maybe foolhardy, taxis, and of course the hotels. Talking to our breakfast ambassador this morning (yes, that’s a thing) the staff were offered accommodation last night, but she preferred to go home, living within walking distance of the hotel. She walked in this morning in flip-flops and shorts, making some way underground and then dodging bits of rubbish and broken branch along the road to the hotel. Last time this happened, she said, something fell on her. Luckily she had her umbrella up and that saved her from injury or worse.
Having sat, and stood, around photographing raindrops and waving palm trees for more than an hour after breakfast, we decided to brave the walkway to the harbour front, which is only about 5 minutes and covered overhead.
Wow. Exhilarating and a little alarming. Rain came at us sideways along with gusts of wind which had me holding onto the railing, watching polystyrene boxes and tree branches barrelling along below. The water in the harbour was choppy although maybe not as rough as I had expected, but being out in the actual world, experiencing the warm gale and the driving rain was amazing. And we got to use our waterproofs for the first time since we arrived. My packing-for-all-eventualities obsession finally paid off!Drying off in our little air-conditioned hotel room, I am watching the drama continue out of the window. I was sceptical of visiting Hong Kong during the rainy season, but witnessing nature asserting herself has been memorable.
A few friends have posted things to do with anxiety recently, so I thought I would share what I personally find really useful, and many of my clients seem to do too.
1 Concentrating on this moment (and the next, and the next)
When I get anxious about something which may (or may not) happen in the future, (for example,going walking up a mountain in Wales when I don’t think I’m fit enough) I say to myself, ‘right now you are ok. everything is ok. Concentrate on this, right now it’s all ok’. And repeat.
2 Do something to get some distance
A long day dancing like a crazy person at a local music festival helped me to start to come to terms with the possibility that we may never manage to sell our house on the terms we would like…
3 Breathe and count
This is great in those moments when you feel the agitation or panic rising, sometimes without you consciously knowing why. The counting is important: it takes your mind away from doing the worry temporarily and allows your body to calm itself.
So, belly breathing, expanding your stomach like a balloon as you breathe in, and letting it collapse gently as you breathe out: in for 2, out for 3; then in for 3, out for 4; then in for 4, out for 5, and so on, to the point that feels comfortable for you. Don’t push it. This is not a test.
4 Tell someone
It doesn’t have to be a big deal, maybe as simple as ‘I am feeling a bit jittery right now’. Choose someone you trust to be supportive.
5 Learning to not mind
This one is longer term and needs work. In my case, a LOT of work. It is also potentially the most helpful. It’s about letting go of needing things to be a particular way. For example, ‘I must get a job’, ‘I should be better at keeping in touch with my family’, ‘I ought to do more about rejecting plastic in my local supermarket’, ‘I need us to be able to sell the house soon’ (you see a theme developing here?)
Trying to let go of the ‘should’, ‘must’, ought’, ‘want’, need’ words, trying to be ok with my flaws, and to accept what the world throws at me. Kind of close to ‘everything happens for a reason’ but not so glib perhaps; more, ‘let me be ok with what happens even if it’s not what I wanted to happen right now’.When you find out how to do this seamlessly and easily, please let me know.
The wildlife on Skomer island is amazing. I love the landscapes and the wildflowers, and (most of the time) the stripped-down lifestyle, but a large part of the magic for me is being able to walk out of the front door and see a small-eared owl hunting over the heathland, or hear a curlew calling from one of the ponds.
In fact, wherever I go, whether it be the coast of California or my own back garden I am drawn to the living world, from humpback whales to red admiral butterflies. So it makes sense that I should seriously consider concentrating on wildlife photography, right? As it turns out, wrong. Having bought a large lens (Canon 100-400mm II) plus a 1.4 extender, and a weatherproof storm cover I realised a basic design flaw. In me, not the lens I hasten to add.
This is hopefully the only thing I have in common with Donald Trump but I have very small hands. And my camera (a Canon 5D mk iii) plus lens plus converter, is heavy and cumbersome. After two days of using this combination more or less non-stop, my thumbs and wrists had the equivalent of shin splints. I am considering swapping to a super-telephoto compact but they all have very small sensors – apparently you can either have a full-frame sensor OR a big optical zoom but not both (unless you know differently in which case please let me know!)
In addition, I am a really impatient person. My undying admiration goes out to all those who perch motionless on a ledge for five hours, or even stay down crouching or on one knee for longer than a few minutes. Neither my body nor my mind can cope. Muscles start creaking and I get bored and wonder what I am missing out on elsewhere.
I also like context. I like including the landscape, the habitat, a sense of place in my wildlife images but it seems like that doesn’t work well for ‘proper’ wildlife photography which is all about the creature close-up, particularly for small repro in social media or even this blog.
Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, I like discovering new places and exploring different cultures. So the defining moment for me came when we boarded the boat back to the mainland. We met a guy disembarking, loaded down with heavily camouflaged gear. ‘That looks like serious intent,’ I said.
‘I’m looking for the Skomer vole,’ he said. The Skomer vole is notoriously difficult to find apparently, living in the heathland undergrowth which covers the island and only emerging for brief scurrying.
His wife chipped in resignedly: ‘I really, really hope he finds it this year. This is his seventeenth attempt. Then maybe we can go on holiday somewhere else.’
I hardly ever revisit places. I love discovering new landscapes, meeting new people, seeing everything with fresh eyes. So the fact that I decided to return to Skomer, a tiny island just of the south-west coast of Wales, must mean that I think it’s pretty special.
We first visited last autumn, on a two day guided trip to get up close and personal with the large Manx shearwater colony, and I was so blown away by the place that I vowed to go back in the late spring to photograph the island’s most famous inhabitants, puffins. What I didn’t realise was that the bleak windswept heathland would be awash with wildflowers, the sun would be shining (we were lucky), and the whole place would be an oasis of calm.
The island is a National Nature Reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. It is an important site for seabird breeding, home to colonies of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as the Manx shearwaters and puffins. As such it is protected from development and just a few hardy souls live here full-time: the warden and his partner and a couple of staff, supplemented by researchers at various times of year, and volunteers who clean the hostel and undertake monitoring tasks in exchange for the chance to be in this unique place.
Stepping onto the little jetty is like stepping out of the modern world in the best possible sense. No roads, no motor vehicles apart from one tractor to take luggage up to the Old Farm, no TV or internet –so no bad news -no distractions apart from the business of living in the moment, right here, right now.
At the end of May grassy pathways wind through carpets of wildflowers: red campion, bluebells,thrift, even the occasional foxglove. All inland paths lead to the Old Farm in the centre of the island and this is where you stay if you’re an overnight visitor. Most people stay for two nights but I wanted to have the best chance of at least one dry photographing day so we opted for three.
There are very basic facilities here. You need to bring all your food and drink with you, although there was a box of Tunnocks tea-cakes in the communal lounge for the severely sugar-deprived. Bedrooms are basic and can be damp and chilly. You are advised to bring a duvet cover for the supplied duvet or a sleeping bag; I brought both and layered the sleeping bag over the duvet. I am a cold soul. The whole island is off-grid and power is solar; water in the shared bathrooms gets hotter as the day goes on, more so if the sun is shining. Power sockets are few and far between, just three in the whole building, so if you feel bereft without your devices bring a backup battery. I hold my hands up to needing my phone at all times, if only to feel like I can talk to the rest of the family if I need to (which my daughters will confirm that I very often do.)
This ‘hardship’ – my daughter calls it first-world-problems – was easily outweighed by the sense of peace which descended on me as I walked up the path on the first morning. It was like the weight of my day-to-day problems – and those of our world – just rolled off my shoulders, leaving me free to breathe for the first time in months. Admittedly my shoulders were pretty sore again at the end of each day but that was due to carrying half a hundredweight of camera and lenses on my back.
The silence, filled only by the wind, waves, and sound of bird-calls is healing. The beauty of nature, whether it be mad puffins doing a courtship dance ten feet away, the sweeping view of hills across the bay from Trig Point, the highest point on the island, or a rich sunset off Skomer Head, all these make Skomer a really special place.
The stars of the show are, of course, the puffins. When we were there, they were just getting into the breeding season, taking possession of the burrows they use for nesting, and a few even had chicks, or pufflings as they are so cutely known. These were hidden away but evidenced by a few adults starting to carry back sand eels in their rainbow beaks. There are spots on the island where you can get really close and other parts where you can watch their antics from further away – they waddle like diminutive penguins on the ground but fly like little torpedoes, albeit with very flappy wings. They are fast!
But it’s not just puffins that are the wildlife draw – there are short-eared owls hunting, oystercatchers and curlews crying, and black-backed gulls marauding like pirates, on the lookout for hapless chicks or shearwaters. All this amongst rolling heathland, little sheltered valleys, and never-ending views out over the crashing Irish sea. I may just go back again.
Next up – Skomer’s birds and how I found out I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer