Some cartoons of 2020

In a year where I did very little of interest, I did draw quite a lot of cartoons in 2020.

I suppose I find it quite soothing. Apart from the relaxing nature of focusing on something frivolous, cartooning can sometimes be a way to trivialise things that annoy you and redirect your irritation into humour.

Much of what I drew ended up on social media, but I realised I hadn’t posted any of it on my blog, so I thought it might be fun to put up a selection for any sensible souls who keep well out of the chimp enclosure.

Looking back through the year’s scribbles, the pandemic itself obviously loomed large, along with the practicalities of lockdown and the orgy of wilful ignorance that has accompanied it all.

Mostly though I just scribbled straight-up gag cartoons. The sort of hit-or-miss jokes you used to find filling odd spaces in newspapers.

Apart from the old-school gag cartoons (sorry if any of them made you groan), I also found myself sketching up the odd caricature when I thought a politician particularly deserved it. Priti Patel’s ‘sorry-not-sorry’ non-apology for bullying her staff, Gav Williamson’s reign of chaos as education secretary, and of course Dom Cummings’s lockdown jaunt to County Durham to test his eyesight. Trump’s Twitter ban was a 2021 affair but I’ve included it because drawing him was such a joy.

In a year of ever-changing public health advice, U-turns, meaningless slogans and half-baked rules, we were never short of people telling us what to do – usually in as opaque and contradictory a way as possible. I occasionally felt the need to offer helpful advice of my own.

Anyway, here’s to plenty more Indian ink scrawled across the pages of 2021.

Posted in Drawings | 2 Comments

A compendium of campfire cookstrips

Some years ago I used to draw campfire cookstrips for Scouting magazine. Presented in the style of Len Deighton’s famous 1960s illustrations from the Observer and the Action Cookbook, my own cookstrips featured campfire recipes submitted by endlessly inventive scout leaders.

Most of them went up on this blog when they were first published and are still buried down there in the archives, but I’ve been asked a couple of times if I could put them all in one place, as both images and PDF downloads. So here are all the ones I could find – scroll to the bottom for the PDFs if you need them.

Some don’t actually require a campfire (one of the most popular was ‘armpit fudge’) and there’s even one rather messy contribution from Baden-Powell himself.

mexican bean

 

 

turkey dinnertofuTrail barmoroccanpittapizzaDanish damperscookstrip 001cookstrip_sweetpotato_shaded_2bum-sandwichbakedapplesarmpit fudgecreamy chicken stewBP-bread

 

PDF downloads:

Mexican bean soup (PDF)

Turkey dinner in a ‘tater (PDF)

Tofu skewers (PDF)

Energy kick trail bars (PDF)

Moroccan veggie stew in one pot (PDF)

Pitta pocket pizzas (PDF)

Danish dampers (PDF)

Biscuit and apricot cream (PDF)

Baked sweet potatoes (PDF)

Bum sandwich (PDF)

Fire-baked apples (PDF)

Armpit fudge (PDF)

Creamy chicken stew (PDF)

Robert Baden-Powell’s bread recipe (PDF)

Posted in Food and booze | 3 Comments

Hidden wartime remains and the language of wild beauty

The latest issue of Ernest Journal hit doormats last week, including quite a few bits and bobs by me.

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Along with quite a few smaller items, I’ve got a couple of longer articles in there. The first is on the hidden wartime remains that litter this island fortress of ours, from nuclear bunkers and tunnel complexes to pillboxes and Starfish sites – complete with wonderful illustrations from Harry Sussams.

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This issue was created in partnership with Another Place Hotel on the shores of Ullswater, so there’s a whole section focusing on the North Lakes. Lucky fellows that we are, Charlie Dog and I managed to get a trip over there, and spent a day out and about with Lake District heritage guide Alex McCoskrie and local photographer Ryan Lomas. The result was an article about the Picturesque movement of the 1700s, and how the Lake District’s early tourists had to use the language of painting to describe the rugged beauty of the fells.

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Of course there’s a lot more to Ernie than just the bits I wrote. The main destination feature this time is on the Faroe Islands, and there are loads of other articles including features on sea ice, living art, hitchhiking, going in search of wilderness on Dartmoor, and post office cats. Plus a wonderful piece on 1950s Himalayan adventurer Jennifer Bourdillon, written by my erstwhile walking buddy Matt Jones.

Also, Charlie Dog did a bit of modelling for the Another Place section. Look at him, doing his very best blue steel for photographer and all-round good chap Colin Nicholls.

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Please do consider supporting this beautifully produced indie journal by ordering a copy from Ernestjournal.co.uk

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A spot of time travel

It’s a few years now since I first accidentally stumbled upon the North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s Wartime Weekend. Since then it’s become rather a fixture in the calendar. Thomas and Yumina have come up for the last three years, and this time Richard and Claire and my Whitby mate Simon joined us too.

Handily, my wardrobe of old and unfashionable clothing is so deep that I can quite easily clothe several men for a 1940s festival, though I did think Thomas was a particularly good sport letting me style him as a French Resistance operative this year.

Should anyone else fancy getting involved, the next one is 9-11 October 2020.

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The Cambrian Way

‘If you make it to Conwy,’ promised a kindly publican with a tattoo of an Uzi submachine gun on her upper arm, ‘come back here and there’ll be a pint for you on the bar.’

The Cambrian Way is known as ‘the mountain connoisseur’s walk’. It’s around 300 miles long and takes about three weeks, stretching the length of Wales from Cardiff to Conwy. Generally it claws its way along the high ground, with some pleasingly gratuitous dog-legs to snag extra peaks. It takes in the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons and the Cambrian Mountains, working up to a suitably epic Snowdonian finale. If you hit all the invisible checkpoints along the Cambrian Way then by the end of it you will have climbed 46 mountains, so as upland walks go, it’s a very big bite.

3 people relaxing after a long climb

On Rhinog Fawr at sunset

The Cambrian Way has a complicated and contentious history that I won’t go into here, but it’s essentially the brainchild of a dedicated hardcore of Ramblers members – notably the late Tony Drake, who wrote the original guide to the route. Despite decades of concerted effort by enthusiasts (including a good deal of volunteer waymarking), it’s not an official national trail, and I suspect it might remain that way for a variety of reasons.

I walked it with Matt and Ellie of theoutdoorsdream.com, plus my brother, P, and my toy poodle, Charlie. So when anyone asks if the Cambrian Way is difficult, I can flap my hand dismissively and say ‘a lapdog can do it’, without necessarily revealing that the lapdog in question is a seasoned long-distance walker who has covered more than 800 miles of trails over the past three summers.

Small poodle looking heroic

Actually the Cambrian Way is a tough old walk. The days are long, there’s a huge amount of ascent, and the terrain is often hard going – with frequent stretches of pathless scrub. But we knew what we were getting into. Last summer the same little gang of us walked the West Highland Way, which for all its fine landscapes felt a bit easy, like a hundred-mile-long pub crawl. This year it was time to redress the balance.

3 people pointing out features from the top of Garn Gron in the Cambrian mountains

Rough with the smooth

A long route like this was never going to pass without incident, and there were a few occasions where I thought the game might be up. The scariest moment was in the Brecon Beacons, when a proper skycracker of a lightning storm exploded over our tents sometime round midnight. I’ve had thunder and lightning in the mountains before, but never celestial artillery like this, and it was genuinely quite frightening. Even that atheist brother of mine admitted offering up a quick prayer in the heat of the moment.

We weathered the UK’s hottest July day on record and racked up some long schleps over big hills, but it wasn’t until quite a way further north that trouble found us again. Coming over Pumlumon, my intrepid little dog, Charlie, developed a limp, and we found a barbed grass seed stuck painfully between his toes. We got it out and I carried him curled around my shoulders for the rest of the day, his scratty little head bobbing around owlishly in the corner of my eye.

Charlie with a limp

The paw wasn’t infected and the next morning he seemed fine, but he was hobbling again by mid-afternoon, and I decided he was never going to heal up without complete rest. So with a heavy heart I left the others to carry on, descending to a pub in the valley where I took a room and Charlie spent the day snoozing on the rug and grifting snacks off the bar staff. I thought we were probably homeward-bound, but to my delight, he was skipping around just fine the next day, and by cutting cross-country we managed to catch up with the rest of the gang in Barmouth.

[Barmouth, by the way, is a brilliantly anachronistic episode on the route. One minute you’re in the majestic Welsh mountains, then suddenly you’ve fallen through a wormhole into a kiss-me-quick seaside resort where everyone is from Birmingham.]

Relaxing, drinking beer and doing laundry in Barmouth

Our last stroke of ill fortune came as we set out to tackle the last two days of the way. We’d treated ourselves to a night in the legendary Pen y Gwryd mountaineering hotel at the foot of Snowdon, but during our three-course evening meal, P had slunk off with a feeling of nausea which he thought was just tiredness and cold. In fact it was the beginning of a rotten stomach bug that forced us to take a day off. Worse luck, it turned out Matt was struggling stoically through a dose of the same thing. (‘Very cagey about his back end,’ remarked my brother disapprovingly from his sick bed, he himself being a man who likes to keep all around him regularly appraised of his internal functions.) Remarkably, though, the two of them managed to get back out into the mountains the following morning. P wasn’t quite well enough to tackle the loop over the Glyders, but he still battled through the final couple of days to get to Conwy and journey’s end.

Drinking pints in a pub in Conwy at the end of the walk

Some highlights

If all this sounds like a bit of a roller-coaster, it was, but that’s because it’s much easier to catalogue trials and triumphs than it is to evoke the simple, profound pleasure of progressing day after day through monumentally grand mountain landscapes. An endless slideshow of sublime views and small but special experiences. Floating weightless in a crisp mountain lake on a scorching day, camping on a soft bed of heather or sprawling exhausted in a pub beer garden while the bar staff called a mate at the chippy to bring us a good feed.

3 people bathing their feet in a stream

And there are some proper flagship stretches in there. If I was pushed to pick one stand-out leg, it would have to be the magnificent day coming over Cnicht, the handsome Welsh Matterhorn. I’m told the mountain’s name comes from the word ‘knight’ (though it always makes me think of the Vermicious Knids from Roald Dahl), and it’s a smashing high-level stage, packed with interest and excitement. The terrain was challenging enough to be fun without spanking us half to death, and Ellie piloted us through thick mist and strong winds on the tops, only for it all to clear as we reached the peak of Cnicht. Snowdonia lay stretched out beneath us with the pin-sharp fakery of those relief maps you see in visitor centres. Apart from the summits themselves, the route also took in the spectacular, sprawling remains of the Rhosydd slate quarry. Great spoil heaps and tramways, crumbling arches and rows of ruined cottages, like an abandoned dwarven stronghold straight out of Middle Earth.

Standing in a ruined slate quarry

Such days will always be big-hitters. Equally, though, among the great joys of long walks are the in-between places. Most walkers will have been drawn to Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons at some point, but not necessarily to the lush, lazy Rhandirmwyn valley, the rugged humps of Pumlumon or the eerie, half-buried ruins of a forgotten upland community on the slopes of Garn Gron. There’s also a lot to be said for being a walker in a place where visitors are scarcer. In a popular area of Snowdonia one demented farmer set his dogs on us, but further south in a quieter valley another old boy had hopped off his tractor and ambled down the field for a chat over the fence, leaning his paunch carelessly against the barbed wire and occasionally breaking off the conversation to mutter to his collie in Welsh.

Lush Rhandirmwyn valley view

No route is perfect

As with any long-distance trail, I’d be a bit circumspect about following the route too slavishly. I love the idiosyncratic, whimsical nature of the Cambrian Way, but there are some stretches that feel wilfully difficult. On one occasion we spent 15 minutes zig-zagging through steep fields and nettle-choked woodland corridors when a 5-minute stroll down a quiet country lane would have got us to the same place. Another comedy moment saw the route directing us into an impenetrable wall of bramble in order to cut out a short loop of amenable forest track. There’s no real harm in all this, but sometimes towards the end of a long day you just want to get where you’re going.

People walking uphill onto the Rhingoau

One of the most contentious stretches is through the Rhinogs, north of Barmouth. There’s something wonderfully reptilian about these hulking, treacherous mountains, like the backs of half-buried dragons. Even the texture is sort of scaly, with great scallops of exposed rock that feel like the rough skin of a sleeping titan. It’s a tough, scrambly walk where you work hard to cover minimal distance, and when we used to go on scout camps near Dolgellau it was one of my favourite days of the programme.

The naysayers – including at one stage the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) – have argued that this stretch isn’t suitable for less experienced walkers or those with big rucksacks, and I’m inclined to agree with them. I know this makes me sound like a killjoy, but in fact the reverse is true. There is nothing particularly joyful about clambering over greasy rock with an expedition pack on your back, and the steep, slippery descent off Rhinog Fach was miserable – one of my personal low points of the trip. That’s just my opinion. Matt found it all most exhilarating, but he is a Kentish hooligan and is not to be trusted.

Crossing the Rhinogau is a fantastic mountain day out, but I think it’s best enjoyed light and nimble. There’s a good alternative route suggested in George Tod’s recent Cicerone guidebook, though if I did the Cambrian Way again I’d probably just cut round Rhinog Fach. Rhinog Fawr is less treacherous and there’s an absolute bombshell of a view from the summit. When we arrived there on a clear evening, we could see Bardsey Island more than 30 miles off, and I’d have been loath to miss such a sight.

Sunset view from Rhinog Fawr

The Rhinogs debate hints at one of the essential flaws in the Cambrian Way, in that it doesn’t quite know who it’s for. To walk the route without camping gear means taking some lengthy diversions or flogging yourself through some brutally long days, but on the other hand some portions of the route are tricky or treacherous if you’ve got a big bag.

Setting out with big bags in the rain

Some final thoughts

I mentioned back somewhere near the beginning of this rambling blog that I reckon the Cambrian Way might not end up becoming a fully-fledged national trail in the vein of the Pennine Way, Offa’s Dyke or the South West Coast Path.

Many of its problems could eventually be overcome. For example, there are some access challenges along the route (walkers feel particularly unwelcome in Powys Council’s hostile fiefdom, where locked gates and barbed wire block rights of way, and helpful Ramblers volunteers are banned from marking up the trail), but those can probably be overcome in time. Also there’s a distinct lack of infrastructure in places, but I suspect that would evolve to meet demand if the Cambrian Way became more popular.

My brother looking out from a cairn

More fundamentally, though, the route is just too difficult for many walkers. The rewards along the Cambrian Way are huge, but they’re much harder-won than those of, say, the Pennine Way. Comparing the two routes is unfair but inevitable, and I can’t help thinking that the Cambrian Way doesn’t have the broad appeal of its northern English cousin.

But is that ultimately such a bad thing? And does a route need to be ‘official’ to be worthwhile? There are lots of stand-out stages to the trail, but walking the entirety of the Cambrian Way is a very niche form of type 2 fun that will only ever appeal to a small number of crackpot flagellants. All the same, such people are out there. Or should I say, we are out there.

In a world where ‘adventure’ travel is increasingly about experiences that are safe, reliable and easily replicated, the Cambrian Way is not that. It’s a big reach, a risk, one of those undertakings where you can pretty much guarantee things won’t go to plan. I’d argue that’s what real adventure is.

3 people walking uphill3 people leant up against a carin in the mist

Posted in Travel tales, Walking | 2 Comments

Snowshoeing in Tromsø

The last time I went winter walking in the mountains above Tromsø, I lost both my map and myself in the snow.

It was 2009, and I’d left my editorial job in London and swanned off to the Norwegian Arctic in search of adventures, green as green can be. A few days doing a mountain circuit out of Tromsø was my first proper attempt at using snowshoes, but I made a lengthy catalogue of errors, culminating in a truly unhappy moment watching my copy of the Nordeca 10152 sheet flapping away into oblivion off the side of a mountain.

It was the sort of trip that would have given the keyboard warriors a field day, but it is a boring man indeed who never overreaches himself. I found my way to the nearest hut through vague memories of the map and a rough compass bearing, and all was eventually well. However, my multi-day jaunt was reduced to a couple of nights hunkered down in a hut, and it’s always been one of life’s open loops.

This year, I finally got round to finishing what I started. I’ve made a decade’s worth of further cock-ups since last time, and am rather a different man to the one who set out back then. Among my various reasons for wanting to go back, I quite fancied trying to walk a few miles with my 25-year-old self, swap some notes on how some of his ambitions turned out, maybe come up with a few new ones for the fellow we might meet there in ten years’ time.

A simple plan

A five-day jaunt snowshoeing between mountain cabins above Tromsø is a good deal more convenient and less intrepid than it sounds.

Tromsø is one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s a proper gateway to adventure, and some of my very best trips have started or ended with a connecting flight to its tiny airport or an overpriced beer somewhere in its handsome streets. My Grandpa used to stay in the Saga Hotel on his motoring holidays back in the mid-20th century, but fortunately my tastes are not quite so extravagant, and I bet the Saga didn’t do free waffles at 6pm each night like the Enter Viking Hotel does.

Anyway, the people in Tromsø are as outdoorsy as you’d expect, and there’s a handy series of four huts strung through the mountains just nearby to facilitate their weekend escapes. Each hut is within a day’s walk of a bus stop, and each bus stop is within an hour’s ride of the city centre. Link the huts together and you have five easy days that finish up on the outskirts of town.

View of Tromso from the bridge

Practicalities

The huts are all owned by Troms Turlag, the local trekking association. If you haven’t been to Norwegian huts before, they’re mostly very well-maintained, with plenty of bedding, kitchenware and firewood. They’re usually kept locked, and there’s a universal key which is available from DNT (sort of like Norwegian YHA) for a deposit. Etiquette dictates that the first thing you do when you arrive is to enter your name in the visitors’ book, pay your fee (either by sticking an envelope of cash or a filled-out bank authorisation form in a lockbox) then make yourself at home.

When you leave, the general rule is to try and leave the place just a smidge nicer than you found it – all clean and tidy, with a full basket of firewood and some kindling chipped. And the system seems to work most of the time. It’s all honesty-based but I’ve never come across anyone who hasn’t played the game. For a DNT member it’s about £15 per night, which is pretty cheap for a country where a pint of lager is £8.

Skarvassbu cabin in the snow

As for route-finding, the trails linking the huts together are occasionally signed, but are more often marked by spindly poles sticking out of the snow. These are sometimes broken, buried or obscured by weather conditions, so you can’t rely on them, but they’re very useful all the same. The main challenge comes when the visibility drops (see below).

I brought an ice axe and crampons along in the hopes of scooting up to some summits, but the avalanche forecast was too high for me to feel comfortable tackling the steeper slopes, so I mostly just stuck to the trails. And to be honest, that was plenty – I walked satisfying, low-mileage days, blessed sometimes by a sparkle of sunshine or some of those mightily muscular, ice-planet views that winter mountains are all about. There’s a good deal of happiness to be found in such an undertaking.

Tromso plateau

When the whiteness descends

As cold-season walking trips north of the Arctic Circle go, this was a fairly gentle one, but I was glad of good winter kit and a few more practical skills in my pocket since last time. The ability to light a fire quickly and reliably, for example, or to dig myself down out of the wind a bit during more exposed lunch stops. That far north the cold can sneak up on you quite quickly if you’re not careful.

The tricksiest thing was navigation. Much of the time it was fine, but snow can change the shape of things quite significantly, particularly in passes and valleys. Contours get disguised by drifts, rivers and streams are obscured, and whole lakes disappear. More significantly, white-outs can render the visibility so atrociously poor that you genuinely can’t tell the slope of the ground in front of you, or whether you’re about to stroll off a cliff.

I spent some nerve-wracking spells flying blind off a compass bearing, but then that is the magic thing about a compass. If you use it with a bit of care and trust it over your own sense of direction, chances are when the snow clears you’ll be somewhere near where you wanted to be. Lest I sound too smug, I will admit that the first time I came out of a brief white-out I couldn’t work out how I’d gone so far off course, until I remembered magnetic variation. I rarely bother about it back home because the difference is so tiny. Not the case further north, where it is nearly 10 degrees off.

Tromso compass

The companionship of cabins

If you’re looking for absolute soul-searching solitude, this is not the place to find it. I walked alone each day, but there was only one night that I had a whole hut to myself. The rest of the evenings were spent sitting around by candlelight with total strangers, swapping stories in our underwear.

Most people just visit the Tromsø area cabins on overnight trips – getting the bus out of town on a morning then skiing up to a hut. I, on the other hand, was out for five days, so since I was walking straight out of the door and onto the trail each morning, I was usually the first to arrive at the next cabin in the afternoon. I would fill out my paperwork, get the wood stove going, put on a dixie of snow to melt, then sit back with Last of the Mohicans and see who turned up.

One night there was a schoolteacher with two teenage pupils who’d had enough of sleeping in a snow cave just nearby; another night it was four Danish girls from the university, bearing a flask of Baileys and enough food for twelve people. I played cards and drank cheap vodka with a pair of German mountain guides, and another evening I sipped a tot of single malt with three Dutch brothers. There was a footsore group of five international students from Oslo, and a quietly spoken young Norwegian couple who strolled in out of the cold at 9.30pm one night.

Only the last evening was I completely alone. After a tranquil start among half-buried trees on the valley floor, I’d spent most of the day ascending through steadily worsening weather. By the time I reached the twin huts at Skarvassbu high in a mountain pass, I’d been walking blind for much longer than I cared to, stumbling up and down invisible drifts, compass in hand. It tests your nerve a bit when you’re so completely disorientated, and I was just wondering whether I ought to stop and dig out my GPS for a fix when the wind cut a slight fade into the cloud ahead, and to my delight I saw three black patches in the white.

The timbered buildings of Skarvassbu were part-buried, and the log store in particular took a bit of getting into. I picked the smaller and older of the two cabins, and once I got the old Jotul stove going I soon had it deliciously warm, stretched out on the bench in my underwear with a cup of hot coffee, my damp gear hanging from hooks on the beams.

Inside of Skarvassbu cabin with a stove and a table with a knife and snow goggles

Skarvassbu is the least accessible of the huts near Tromsø, and on such a raw night I wasn’t surprised when no-one else turned up. I cooked dinner as darkness fell, then lit my last tealight, poured out an inch of bourbon from my flask, and read and daydreamed as the flurries of snow rushed against the windowpanes.

Back in 2009, I think it was reading too much Jack London that prompted me to pack in my job and buy a one-way boat ticket to the far north in search of adventure. Such impulsive bridge-burnings have always appealed to me, but perhaps if I did ever bump into myself of ten years ago, I might gently suggest to him that you don’t always have to go all-in. You can feel decidedly like a Jack London character with a week’s holiday, a pair of snowshoes and a cheap flight to Tromsø.

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The inaugural Oak Royd Beer Festival

One of life’s great pleasures is actually doing a thing that you’ve been talking about for years. In the case of last weekend, it was holding a charity beer festival at my brother’s rambling old end-of-terrace in Hebden Bridge. What was unusual about this particular beer festival was that I made all the beer myself in the back yard at Sunnyside Cottage.

Friends or occasional readers of this blog will know I’ve always dabbled in home manufacture of alcohol, ever since I discovered – aged 18 – that you could make 40 pints of beer from a £7 brew kit. Since then I have made countless batches of assorted rotgut, from beer and cider to mead and country wines. I’ve made or infused drinks out of elderberries, sloes, gorse flowers, rosehips and petals, blackberries, raspberries, beech leaves, crab apples, herbs and camomile. Even parsnips once. Over the years I have moved from brew kits to malt extract and dried hops, and then onto full-grain brewing with big bags of malt and fresh hops from the garden. I have, on occasion, written about recreating forgotten beers or dredging up recipes from the 17th century.

What I have never done, however, is to make 150 pints at once. For three days in early April, boilers seethed in my back yard and the smell of malt suffused the house. Big fermenters gradually filled with dark liquid and airlocks began bubbling noisily. It was a fair bit of work, and I seemed to be washing up constantly.

I made four brews. A best bitter called Capering Old Pagger that I first cooked up for Christian’s 30th; a dark ale called Gwubba’s Foot; a trusty pale which had never previously had a name but was christened Bastard Biscuits in honour of Gef the incredible talking mongoose, and an amber ale that we named Queen Raffertiti after Christian’s odd cat. I made a six-hour round trip to install them in the cellar on the Monday, and we created a sort of shabby Swedish tiki dungeon with fairy lights and bits of old Saabs that were lying around.

beer fest

Then on Bank Holiday Saturday we drank the whole lot. Loads of splendid people came, and there was a barbecue and music, and I wore at least three different hats during the course of the afternoon – which tells you everything you need to know about my mood. Obviously we couldn’t sell the beer, but people kept their own tallies on a lump of wood with a Sharpie, then gave us donations to our two chosen charities (Pyramid of Arts and Sarcoma UK) afterwards. It was grand, and all the grander for having been so long in the planning.

Christian has pointedly called the Facebook album ‘the first Oak Royd charity beer fest’, implying that we might do another one if the stars align. I hope so. In the meantime, here are the beer labels that we drew for the casks.

popy-beer-label Queen Raffertiti Gwubba's foot Bastard biscuits

 

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Adventures in hatting

How quickly hobbies get out of hand. I wrote in a previous blog about how a habit of cleaning and maintaining my rather extensive hat collection had led to an experiment in restoring a battered old 1950s trilby. But things have gone a bit further since then.

Light grey trilby with bound brim and black ribbon

Having renovated an old hat, I thought it would be fun to learn how to make one too. I did quite a bit of reading around, watched endless (mostly unhelpful) videos on YouTube and skimmed a lot of (mostly very helpful) forum threads on the Fedora Lounge. One of the most useful sources – for me, at least – was an old US hatters’ manual called Scientific Hat Finishing and Renovation (Henry L Ermatinger, 1919). Apart from providing 160-odd pages of practical instruction, Ermatinger is also a consummate all-American entrepreneur, full of canny ways to make a quick buck and cautionary tales about mixing hatting and booze. ‘Your lady customers particularly’, he observes, ‘will be inclined to discontinue their patronage should you attempt to wait on them while under the influence of liquor.’

Suitably semi-informed, I ordered some tools from the very friendly Catherine and Owen at Guy Morse Brown. Hat blocks are expensive pieces of handmade kit, so I went for an open crown block, which is the most flexible sort. While some blocks are sculpted to give you a particular kind of crown shape, an open crown gives you a sort of bowler hat-shaped dome, which you can then mould into a centre dent, teardrop, diamond or whatever using fingers and steam. I also ordered a brim flange and some other odds and ends like blocking string, a runner-down, hatbands, a few felt hat bodies and some ribbon.

If you’re interested, this is how a felt hat starts out.

Brown rough felt hat body

Since then, I have been experimenting and practising. There has been some very ropey workmanship, some steam burns and plenty of mishaps with needles. I still don’t really have all the right equipment – and I imagine the great London hatters do not trim their brims by gaffer-taping scalpels to household objects – but we all have to start somewhere, and my efforts are getting gradually better.

Below is a hat I made recently for Christian. He wanted a sort of 60s-style trilby with a narrow brim and ribbon, and since his head is fortunately a similar size to mine, I could rustle him one up. As a fellow who spends most of his time battering away at a keyboard, it’s nice to make something with your hands sometimes.

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The intricacies of bee etiquette

Fine news. Another edition of Ernest Journal is out. Featuring lots of grand stuff including pieces on Romanian bison, cocktail bitters, American shanty boats, death trees and paranoid French castaways.

Also, there’s a bit from me about bees. It struck me a while back that not only does the humble honey bee seem to have more superstitions surrounding her than just about any other creature, but that lots of these customs are also oddly consistent across different countries and cultures. Look deeper into it and you find some fun ones, which is what I did.

You can get a copy of Ernie 8 here, and it’d be great if you’d consider doing so. They’re a grand lot, and beautifully designed indie publishing like this needs all the support it can get.

ernie8

 

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A trip to Japan

Last Friday, as most of the world was going about its more important business, I was sat in a restaurant on the outskirts of Kyoto eating candied crickets, bee larvae and bear meat stew.

I’ve just got back from a couple of weeks visiting my old mate C, who moved to Japan in 2011. I’ve had an open invitation ever since he got there, so of course I waited seven years until he had a wife and a one-year-old daughter. The odd thing is that Japan’s the sort of place I might never have got round to visiting without a friend to tempt me over, which is absurd because it is an absolute delight.

As with my trip to Moscow back in May, I properly cashed in on having tame locals to show me around. Even better, C’s wife and in-laws went all-out to show me a grand time, and within hours of stumbling off the plane they had me hopping between poky little izakayas in the slender, neon-lit back-alleys of Osaka. I was offered four different places to stay, was fed extensively, and my sake cup didn’t run dry for a fortnight.

In general, friendliness and helpfulness were recurring features of my trip. The country has this reputation for being very formal – and I’m sure for Japanese people it often is – but as a big ginger gaijin I found folk were generally quite forgiving of my ignorance and keen to help me out.

Anyway, so as not to ramble too much, here are a few of my favourite things about Japan. I’m not going to mention the food, because that one is taken as read. (It really is very good.)

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The glorious contradictions

Imagine a place where having a tiny tattoo of a bird on your chest is the height of obscenity, but reading smutty comics in plain sight on public transport is perfectly fine. A place where conventions of etiquette and politeness abound, yet blue-suited salarymen slumber peacefully in the gutter after a banging night out on the old nihonshu, and the commuter trains have women-only carriages to keep Mr Tickle hands at bay.

Come nightfall, sleek, twinkling skyscrapers tower over warrens of little alleyways full of miniscule bars and eateries that smell of grease and gas burners. Sometimes the bars and restaurants are hidden within the skyscrapers themselves. People use fingerprint access to get into their flats, but then they carry big wads of cash because nowhere takes cards.

To an outsider, everything in Japan appears like this – an unlikely anachronism of seemingly contradictory things existing in perfect balance. I wonder, does British life seem this way to Japanese people?

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The mountains

Every friend I spoke to had a totally different notion of what you mustn’t miss when you go to Japan. For some it was outré Tokyo districts like Harajuku and Akihabara (where I passed a girl dressed in a Pikachu outfit with a live owl on her shoulder, and to my great regret neglected to find out what she was selling); for one mate, it was his favourite meiji shrine, while another sent me to a place called ‘Piss Alley’, lined with lanterns and smoky yakitori stalls grilling skewered chicken guts.

However, one old university friend who’s spent a good deal of time in Japan called me up before I went and spent the better part of an hour telling me all her favourite things. She reckoned I ought to find my way into the mountains for a bit, so I did, and she was right. On her advice, I snooped round the shrines above Nagano (more of that below) and spent a couple of days in the laid-back hill city of Takayama, where the timbered old town is full of sake breweries and the river by the morning market ripples orange with shoals of goldfish.

One morning, I took a bus two hours into the Japanese Alps, where I switched my fedora for a flat cap, turned my collar up, and took the Shinhotaka ropeway up above the snow line. I watched one of my fellow passengers tramp off along the trail with his expedition pack and ice axe, and I pined for my proper winter gear. That night I stayed in a remote hot spring inn, where I navigated a 7-course traditional ‘kaiseki’ meal of mostly unidentifiable things, then snuck out in the dead of night for a solitary soak in the geothermal pools.

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Obscure goals

On any good trip, you have to try and visit somewhere that’s not particularly easy to get to. When I went to Australia some years ago it was a mining town called Broken Hill – a pin-prick in a sea of flat, red desert. Doesn’t really matter what you find there, since it’s the getting to the place that’s the fun bit.

In Japan, it was the Togakushi Ninja Museum – another recommendation from my well-travelled university friend. There was a large shed full of farming tools; a hall with wicked-looking weapons and black-and-white pictures of masked men in pyjamas climbing things; an icy fairground stall where you could throw four blunt throwing stars at a target in an attempt to win a fan, and the crowning glory – a trick house with hidden doors, secret passages and diagonal rooms. I got stuck halfway round for ages until in my despondency I sat down on the floor next to a Buddha and accidentally opened up a hole in the wall.

While the museum was entertaining enough, getting there required staying in a nice retro hotel in the understated mountain city of Nagano – famously home to the 1998 Winter Olympics. To get up to Togakushi, you had to take a bus up into the mountains through tough little farming communities and (frequently dilapidated) Olympic-era resorts, past empty shooting ranges and ski lifts. Togakushi is most famous for its series of shrines, and after I’d concluded my business at the ninja museum I walked 20 minutes up into the woods along a majestic cedar-lined trail to the beautiful, mossy shrine of Togakushi-Okusha. It was a bit magical, and it all goes to show that you never know what you’ll come across when you set out on a silly mission.

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Hilltop temple complexes

You can traipse round temples ad infinitum, but some of them can be oppressively crowded, and my very favourites were the more remote ones high on the hilltops that took a bit of getting to. One morning, after an evening celebrating C’s birthday with Kobe beef and sake tasting at his in-laws’ house, we bundled in the car and set out for the temple complex of Mt Shosha – best known as one of the filming locations for Tom Cruise’s historical epic, The Last Samurai. If you haven’t seen it, it’s sort of like Dances with Wolves, but in Japan. An American emerges as the saviour of old-world Japanese culture, which is perhaps not exactly how it went down in real life.

Mt Shosha is a forested hill just outside the city of Himeji, with a ropeway reaching up the side. Once you’re up there, quiet woodland paths connect up a network of ancient temples and shrines. It was ‘koyo’ season – where Japan’s groves of maple trees turn brilliant red – and we trod the old wooden temple walkways in our socks and picnicked off cold pizza and bottles of green tea among the leaves.

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Later that week, we set off early one day to walk up to the famous complex on Mt Koya, one of Japan’s holiest sites. We got off a rickety old boneshaker of a train in the middle of nowhere, and spent the day climbing through persimmon groves and old-growth forests, following weathered stone pilgrim pillars until we emerged at the hulking Daimon Gate. Behind it lies what is essentially a small town, full of monasteries, academic institutions, temples, and Japan’s equivalent of Paris’s Pére Lachaise – the Okunoin Cemetery.

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C had booked us in to stay in a monastery (notorious, in fact, for a shirty priest who likes to abuse whingeing tourists on review sites). We roamed the village in the pouring rain, ate grilled meats and rice bowls in a poky little izakaya full of monks drinking highballs, and got up at 7am to go to the morning prayers. Sprinkled some incense on a burner, made a wish, the usual. I seemed to make quite a lot of wishes while I was in Japan, so we’ll have to see if any of them come good.

I suppose really, though, what more is there to wish for than quality time with an old mate and his family, and a raft of quickfire adventures in a totally unfamiliar country? I travelled fast and packed a lot in, but I still feel like I only really got a tiny taste of Japan. I’d love another bite sometime.

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