Friday, 25 March 2011

Dullas - Episode 2

The long awaited second episode of Dullas - and sadly it lives up to its name... Apart from the bit at the end

Friday, 18 March 2011

What did you do there? I got high

Over the Bridge of Sighs
To rest my eyes in shades of green
Under Dreaming Spires
To Itchycoo Park, that's where I've been

Not Itchycoo Park, Singleton Park in Swansea.  There is always much discussion given over to 'favourite gardens' - less so to parks.  Swansea is blessed not just with the stunning Gower coast on its doorstep but also some splendid parks.  The enchanting Clyne Castle gardens - a child's dream with its streams, pools, rhododendron woods secreting a tiny tower with spiral staircase, and incredible views across Swansea bay, and then the graciousness of Singleton's rolling parkland, green open spaces and diverse areas of interest.  It is to the latter I am headed now in the company of Old Ma Sock who I am visiting on a mercy mission which may turn into a mercy killing if the park doesn't 'rest my eyes in shades of green' and restore my calm and serenity.

Old Ma Sock is now more than a tad demented and a recent fall has fractured not just her arm but her routine. Although she is otherwise healthy and very active any change in her routine makes higher demands on her short term memory which is already shot to pieces.  I am taking her to the doctors later on for a check on her arm and as we walk to the park she has already asked me a thousand times "Am I going for a blood test?".  After the first few dozen times of patiently explaining I have resorted to more and more creative answers - none of which she remembers.  Finally when she repeats "What is it we're going for Arabella, a blood test?" I reply "No. We're going to have your brain taken out so its a good job you've bought a hat as they will have to take the top of your head off!"  Luckily Old Ma Sock finds this an amusing concept and it diverts her for some time from the original repetitive train of thought.  At least she hasn't mentioned how unruly my hair is which I find truly and deeply annoying. For years "Ooh - your hair's a mess - does it need a comb?" has invariably been her first reaction when she sees me.

We wander down to my favourite part of Singleton Park, the Botanical Gardens previously called the Educational Gardens - I can tell you I got some education there over the years!  As we pass the various donated benches Old Ma Sock says "Perhaps you should dedicate a bench here for me?"  "What should we engrave on the commemorative plaque" I ask "how about, Old Ma Sock and Granny GrimbleSock stole cuttings from here between 1960 and 1975".  "We did not!" she protests but at least one of us is suffering from false memory syndrome.  In my childhood the most exciting part of the Educational Gardens was the hot-houses where my friend Paul and I would shelter from the rain on our frequent visits to the park.  These were the days when small kids enjoyed the freedom to wander for miles to these places unaccompanied by interfering adults. I remember how we enjoyed the moist, mysterious, warmth like a tropical rainforest, the atmospheric dripping of water onto exotic jungle leaves, the pools half-hidden by lush foliage, the large goldfish lurking in the secret depths of a dark pool.  Decades later the hot-houses still enchant me.

Not so the formal flowers beds outside recently planted up with what will be a garish display of spring bedding. I find it hideous but no doubt it will impress the elderly, attracted like magpies to the bright cheerful colours.   Old Ma Sock has always been a keen plantswoman, growing fruit and vegetables as well as designing a tasteful flower garden.  Now, even in her garden, the attraction of annual bedding plants has won out and I wonder if this desire for bright and clashing primary coloured plants will come to us all eventually.

I have always loved rock gardens and must have been early influenced by the one here. Now it seems on a smaller scale than my memories of meandering around the narrow pathways between towering mounds of mossy rock, admiring the alpines tucked into cracks and crevices.

As we leave for another part of the park a duck waddles over the ornamental bridge triggering a stranger memory.

What did you do there? - I got high
What did you feel there? Well I cried
But why the tears there? - I'll tell you why-yyyy
It's all too beautiful, Its all too beautiful

I was fifteen, a rather young, naive, fifteen - not like girls now or even some of the girls then.  I was on the cusp of growing out of the youth club crowd where I had hovered on the peripheries never really being a central member. Now I was branching out to find an identity of my own.  My brother and his friends, a few years older, offered something different, excitement, stimulation ...drugs.  I'd hung around with them a bit and occasionally smoked a shared joint which had had no apparent effect on me.  In fact the nicotine buzz off a Players No.6 cigarette was more likely to 'space me out'. This day I tagged along with the group who were going to the park to 'drop acid' - LSD being the popular drug of those times.  Hallucinogens were probably not the best drug of choice for a highly imaginative, sensitive, unprepared fifteen year old.

I can remember the trees having faces, the branches becoming arms like the Ents in Lord of the Rings.  I can remember laughing uncontrollably at the ducks then screaming and crying until my brother gave me another tablet to calm me down. 'One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small'.  I can remember time passing but not passing, distance neither being here nor there.  I can remember one girl (who was already rather strange) hugging and singing to a tree.

I can remember being told that some years later she had jumped to her death off a multi-storey car-park... 

I feel inclined to blow my mind
Get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun
They all come out to groove about
Be nice and have fun in the sun

I didn't enjoy the drugs experience and stuck to destroying my brain with cider after that.  The rest of the drug-taking group grew up to be, if not pillars of society, then social-workers, lecturers, doctors, psychologists.

I'll tell you what I'll do - What will you do?
I'd like to go there now with you
You can miss out school - Won't that be cool
Why go to learn the words of fools

My mood has become suffused with melancholy not helped by contemplation of my own madness and mortality.  Old Ma Sock is asking why we are going to the doctors again.  She is diverted as we walk past the Swiss Cottage built by architect Peter Frederick Robinson in 1826 who also designed the Egyptian Hall in London.

"You loved staying overnight there when you were little" she says "we used to play cards with the Park superintendent and his wife who lived in the cottage."  My mind stirs and as I unlock the memory a fleeting moment of the excitement I felt staying in this fairytale place passes through me.  No longer fairytale it was badly burnt at the end of last year. When I was studying A level Art (a subject looked down upon at my rigid all-girls grammar school) a friend and I skipped lessons and spent the day lounging around sunbathing in Singleton on the pretext of sketching.  On return to school the art mistress ripped up the pen and ink drawing of Swiss Cottage I had produced.  I could never draw from life and with hindsight I can understand why it was so bad but at the time I was given no explanation adding to my conviction that school was a waste and the teachers fools.

Apropos of nothing Old Ma Sock suddenly announces "Of course, Dad and I used to go for drinks with Dylan Thomas at the University."  I am a bit stunned by this interesting snippet and it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Unfortunately no further information is forthcoming.

We walk back up to the top of the park passing the druid stone circle.  I have just looked this up and disappointingly it was built in 1925 for the National Eisteddfod ceremony.  Not quite as ancient as I had imagined all these years but still a wonderful evocative place for children to play and clamber over the stones.

Our park visit over I take Old Ma Sock to the doctors.  As we sit in the crowded waiting room she looks and me then says loudly "Do you want to use my comb? Your hair's a bit of a mess."

Monday, 7 March 2011

The Hazards of Huskies


 And so we come to the last in the Sock's 'Northern Lights' trilogy. Having survived a night in the Ice Hotel we are up and out early having wolfed down a huge breakfast and several cups of coffee at the really rather good breakfast buffet.

It is another lovely crisp sunny morning but temperatures have dropped even further and there is a slight wind making it feel colder. The Socks are pleased that they have inserted little packets of handwarmers into their gloves that heat up throughout the day like miniature hot water bottles. The days activity is a 'Moose safari by Snowmobile'! A small group of us are taken on a 60km trek out into the snowy wilderness.

Somewhere under that snowsuit is a cashmere Sock!

The Sock is sharing a snowmobile with the Bedsock as driving her own for three hours would be too physically tiring.  As it happens clinging on to the back of a snowmobile driven by a Bedsock who has gone "a bit Top Gear" is pretty tiring too! The minute we emerge from the winding, undulating, tracks of the snowy forests onto the flat frozen expanse of river he is fully revved up and gone - zoom-zooming over the ice with the Sock's tentative suggestions that we might go a little bit slower unheard and unheeded.

Later we do finally slow down enough to see some moose grazing in the forest but as nobody has paid attention to the guide's instructions to keep quiet, the loud exchanges of "Why have we stopped?", "There's a couple of moose over there", "Where?", "They WERE over there!" frighten the creatures and the Socks only get to see one large moose's backside before they clear off.  Not to worry though, the main purpose of the day has been the snowmobiling and a chance to get well into the wilderness.  It has been great fun finished off with a late lunch of stewed reindeer and mashed potato with lingonberry sauce at the guide's lodge.

After a great night's sleep in a warm and comfortable bed the Sock's are off on another adventure having kept the best 'til last.  Husky sledging!

Again we are going with a guide but we are lucky that on this tour there are just the two of us with the sledge to ourselves. The trip information has given us a warning that the huskies tend to 'go to the toilet' on the run and that for this reason it is inadvisable to wear white trousers.  The advice is well informed because the minute we get going so does Husky no. 2. who unfortunately appears not only to have eaten a large breakfast but also one that disagrees with him as for the first ten minutes he has permanent squits!   The Socks give thanks that we are seated right at the back of the fur covered sledge as anyone sitting at the front (and the sledges can take up to six people sitting astride) would be likely to get caught in the blow-back.   Everytime the husky releases another salvo he turns his head around and grins widely at the Socks, clearly well pleased with himself!

 Just when the Socks thought the dog had at last emptied himself the guide stopped and decided to swap Husky no. 2 with Husky no. 5 right on time for the latter to decide it was his turn to go!  Husky sledging is a beautiful, exhilarating experience in this fabulous, strange, snow-clad landscape but my memories of it will always be laughing so much at the dog's doings.

Our 40km round trip takes in a lunch stop which the guide cooks up for us at a wilderness chalet - this is again the ubiquitous stewed reindeer with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce.

On our last morning at the Ice Hotel we take a wander around inspecting the creations of people who have opted for the two hour Ice Sculpting activity.  Guess which one the Sock made?

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Romancing on Ice


We arrive at the Ice Hotel a beautiful bright day, delphinium blue skies above crisp, gleaming, white snow - even the air around us literally sparkles.  Sadly my ME has prevented us ever going skiing so the Socks have never experienced these levels of snow and cold but we have learnt not to dwell on what we can't do and concentrate on what we can do and over the next three days this will include a night on ice, snowmobiling and husky sledging! After all how fatiguing can these things be? Pretty bloody exhausting as it happens! The Sock had underestimated the sheer effort of continually moving from 'cold' to 'warm places' and the work involved in dressing in and stripping off the heavy snow suits and boots provided and our multiple layers of clothing under that!

We have chosen to spend our first night in the Ice Hotel itself and after that move into one of the warm lodges on the site.The Ice Hotel is open each day until 6.00pm so that visitors can view all the rooms after which those brave enough to sleep over in the -5C interior temperature have the Ice Hotel to themselves. (Click on any of the pictures to enlarge.)

Main Hall
The entire Ice Hotel is constructed each winter from blocks of pure ice cut from the frozen waters of the adjacent River Torne melting back into it late the following Spring.  There are three types of rooms Snow Rooms which are very basic, Ice Rooms and then the more glamorous and expensive Art Suites. We have opted for an Ice Room which are quite beautiful but all the same design and this turns out to be a good decision. Each of the Art Suites have been individually carved and created by different artists, some are exquisite and fantastical but others feel a little claustrophobic. We spend a happy hour or so marvelling at them but had we been staying in one, the Sock would have spent the whole day angsting over whether we had been allocated one we really liked!

The Bedsock was particularly taken with the Ice Car Room (yes that is the Bedsock and not some marauding Cossack!) he is sitting on the reindeer skins that form the bed in the car!

This room could be retitled 'OldiSocks and the Two Bears'

the amount of details put into many of the rooms was fantastic as was the way the lighting picked up different colours in the ice.

This room design was based on the contents of a fridge!

After being given an explanatory talk on 'How to survive in an Ice Room' the Socks cleared off to the Absolut Ice Bar to fortify themselves with a couple of cocktails

which came in glasses made of ice

Peeling off the top three of their many layers of clothing the Socks enjoyed a lovely six course meal in the warm restaurant.  The only course not served on a plate of ice was the very tasty ptarmigan and reindeer tongue!

Warm, full, slightly inebriated and happy the Socks made themselves ready for the ordeal exciting experience ahead.  We had decided that sharing a double sleeping bag would be romantic and collected it from the warm Dressing Room just outside the Ice Hotel itself. Guests were advised to strip down to their silk thermals to sleep in, then don a jumper and boots for the quick dash through -30c exterior temperature to their overnight accommodation of a 'warmer' -5c. Our room is pictured below from our daytime visit - you don't get to see the unedifying sight of the Socks running to it through the snow corridors clad only in their undies, boots and hats!

Nor do you see the ensuing tussling panic as the Socks threw the enormous sleeping bag onto the Ice bed fighting to get into it as quickly as possible.  It was every Sock for themselves - as demonstrated by the Bedsock who, struggling to get the bag over his head, somehow wapped the Sock hard in the jaw nearly dislocating it!  There followed much howling which eventually dissolved into a more than frosty silence - the romance of a double sleeping bag being much wasted!

Although it might be possible to get a good and comfortable night's sleep on an ice bed this did not happen for the Socks.  The combined heat generated from the thermal clad Socks alternately left them soaked in a hot sweat which then turned to ice each time they shifted position and the -5c air seeped into through the top of the bag!  The Bedsock lay in a sleepless stupor for some hours wishing that we had done as some other sensible guests and also booked a warm room to escape to.  The Sock spent some hours wishing she hadn't drunk so much with dinner as a visit to the toilet would involve a run back and forth through the freezing ice corridors to the Dressing Rooms clad only in her undies and boots.  Guests are given a severe warning before using the rooms that they MUST NOT PISS IN THE SNOW and that telltale yellow signs will be noted!

Eventually the Socks drift into a semi-stupor to be woken the next morning by 'room service' with a glass of hot lingonberry juice and the relief of knowing that the rest of their nights will be spent in a lovely, warm, comfortable conventional bed!