Eleven years. Still remembered. Seems like yesterday

Apologies for the poor quality of the photo. Horizontal heavy rain driving into the camera lens

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Greece, Symi: there ……. and back!’

Despite a few nervous twitches as the UK government had Greece on the ‘watch list’ for potentially banning all except ‘essential travel’ I made it safely back to Symi, via Athens and Rhodes.

Great to be there again.  Some things different, some the same.  Strange not to have handshakes and hugs from friends.  Strange to put a facemask on going into shops.  But going into the mountains the same as ever with no need to bother about social distancing as there was no-one else around.

Temperatures high for the end of August /early September. Not having acclimatised to the heat gradually from early Spring as I usually do, the pace was a bit slower but walking under cloudless sky again was a pleasure.

One day I trekked over to the beach at Toli, going off-piste to revisit a fortress and check out an opening I had seen in a small hillock close to the sea.  Turned out to be nothing ancient or very exciting, a WW2 machine-gun emplacement giving coverage of the bay.  Found another one hidden in a steep gulley on the climb back up to the track.  Had lunch with friends at Toli and then walked back.

See https://www.relive.cc/view/vAOZxwMgNyq

More walks when friends came from the UK.  To the ridge-top then down to Nimborio via the gorge, gouged out and scoured by The Flood a couple of years ago. To the deserted village of Gria via the monastery of Zoodohou Vrisi with warning of contamination of the water supply by rats.  Agios Vasilios and Lapathos Beach with the last drop down the cliff with less scree than usual.  Agia Marina and back via Pedi and the valley path to Horio.

Then things took an unexpected and unwelcome turn.  I suddenly stopped firing on all cylinders again.  Sorted out twice previously in the hospital on Rhodes I decided it was not morally defensible to impose on the Greek Health service yet again so returned to the UK.  No reflection whatever on the quality of health care in Greece for which I have the highest regard, just that with all the pressures imposed by Covid it was not the right thing to do.

So a planned six week stay curtailed to two.  I managed none of the exploration I had intended but it was great to be back in the mountains in sunshine again and to meet up with friends.

Guess that’s it for this year.  Potential trip to Canada knocked on the head by the border being closed.  Have to see how Covid pans out over the winter and into next year.  Spanish flu lasted three years from January 1918 to December 1920 with three spikes in infection  – not that I remember it I hasten to add.

Hopefully pull together satellite images and photos of some of the hidden places on Symi over the next few months.

In the meantime, a few images of Rhodes and Symi:  

Rhodes

Symi views

Small things

The sun goes down

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Greece, Symi: here’s hoping

I usually come back from Greece to the UK for August, partly because of the heat but mostly in order to sort out my garden, harvest fruit and veg and store it away for the winter months.   In the throes of doing that now.

Then I usually fly back to Greece at the end of the month, taking advantage of cheap fares as airlines fly empty planes to pick up summer-visitors returning for the new school term.  I’m hoping to do that again this year.

To say that I’m looking forward to it is an understatement.  But there is a sense of preparing to step into the unknown, mask-wearing off the edge of the known world.  However, in the last 24 hours a potential dark cloud has appeared on the horizon for when I return.  Having been accused (rightly, in my opinion) of being too soft on international movement Boris is now over-reacting and the possibility has been mooted of requiring quarantine on return from Greece as well as France, Belgium, Spain etc  Given that both the infection and the death rate in Greece are an order of magnitude lower than in the UK it’s difficult to see the logic.  Given the lack of competence and integrity of this Government nothing is a surprise.

But let’s not be negative.  All being well I’ll be flying as planned and September/October is perhaps the best time of year to be over there.  The sea is warm after heating up under months of sunshine and colour is starting to emerge with ‘autumn’ flowering plants.  There is the prospect of the occasional black clouds of thunderstorms but that only serves to freshen everything up, accelerate the emergence of Autumn crocus and the exquisite, very shy Biarum marmarisense, following the vast sea of Squill.  Wildlife also starts to emerge, free of the burden of hammering summer heat.

So, a few photos of what to look forward to.

Flora and Fauna

Colour

 

And you might want to take a  look at my book about independent travelling in Greece:

 

 

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Virtual Symi: Summer solstice and Covid optimism

Summer solstice, 21 June, and for the last 10 years I have been in Greece to celebrate it.  With the sun at its highest, at the zenith (13.00 with adjustment for summer time) I’ve made a point of taking a photo of my shadow, the shortest me.

This year like everyone else, except senior Government advisers, I’m stuck at home.  But I go up the mountain behind the house every day for my daily dose of exercise in an attempt to keep myself relatively fit and sane while staying out of the way of the virus should it be lurking around.  No need to go out for a drive to test my eyes.

On my solstice jaunt this year the sun came out from behind shower clouds briefly and gave the opportunity to take a photo of the shortest me in the UK.  Not unexpectedly, at 15 degrees further north and the sun correspondingly lower in the sky, it shows that I’m significantly taller here than in the Greek islands.

Rumbles and rumours about international flights and the re-opening of borders means that I harbour a hope of getting back to Greece September/October.  The talk is of ‘air-bridges’ with countries which have a low infection rate for the virus.  Greece certainly fits into that category with a total of 190 deaths, a rate of 18 per million population.  But why would any country want to establish an air-bridge with the UK with a death rate from the virus of 628 per million, the highest in the world (as at 22 June  see )?  Still, I’m mildly optimistic.

In the meantime, I periodically look back at the islands at this time of year where there is still some colour left before everything crisps up, swallows and  swallow-tails are swooping around and tortoises have not yet hidden from the heat.

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Spring in the Brecon Beacons: The long and the short view of The Covid Lockdown

September 1961.  I started in the Sixth Form and my GCE ‘A’ level course.  Perhaps more importantly, I now had access to the Sixth Form Library which hitherto I didn’t even know existed.  It was like Aladdin’s Cave.  The only books we had at home was a small collection of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanac which were the bane of my life.  My uncle was dragooned into helping me with my maths and got me working out batting averages.  Wisden’s were good at propping up your bed but not stimulating your imagination. Now, in the library, there were hundreds if not thousands of books by authors I had barely heard of.  And I read.  And read.  Voraciously.

I read Huxley, Orwell, Steinbeck among many others.  One book I struggled through was The Magic Mountain by the German writer Thomas Mann (I read it in English translation, not the original German).  I guess much of it went over my head but one thing stuck, the discourse on the philosophy of time.  The protagonist, visiting a friend and then himself resident in a TB sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, experiences the boredom and sameness of every day for weeks on end.

The nub of his hypothesis is simple.  Time which as you go through it weighs heavy and drags because nothing happens, seems to have passed very quickly when you look back on it because it’s devoid of markers.  Time which is so full of activity and events that it flies past as you pass through it, seems with hindsight to stretch out.  Mann began writing the book in 1912, published it in 1924.

A century after he began the book, Claudia Hammond, writer, psychology lecturer, broadcaster, published ‘Time Warped: mysteries of time perception’.  The nub of the book is the same, what she dubs ‘The Holiday Paradox’.

Though not a Swiss sanatorium, the 10 weeks since 23 March have seen most of us in isolation, especially if like me you live on your own.  Days merge into each other.  Same pattern day after boring day: get up, breakfast, work in the garden, afternoon coffee on the balcony, evening meal, TV, read, bed.  “What day is it?  If this is Thursday, it must be   ….. Friday tomorrow.  And it will be the same as today.”  The blessing on the hazy horizon is that when we look back on the Covid Lockdown the time will seem very short, it will have flown by, become a distant unpleasant memory.  Most exciting thing, having The Clap on Thursdays.

The fact that it has been the sunniest Spring and May the sunniest month on record in the UK has helped enormously, not only boosting dopamine levels but encouraging outdoor exercise which does the same thing.  I live 100 metres from the edge of the Brecon Beacons national Park and so I resolved at the outset that my permitted dose of daily exercise would be to walk up to the Folly Tower on the ridge-top or continue to the top of the mountain half an hour further on.  I have now done that every day for 10 weeks, including on the very occasional days it rained.

With my smart phone I recorded the route and took the occasional photo.  It was only a few days ago when I looked back at some of the photos that I realised here was a pictorial glimpse of the truth of Thomas Mann’s time philosophy.  Walking the route every day there is very little change.  But looking back over the whole period the change has been massive, from the beginning of Spring into the beginning of Summer, from bare trees to full-leaf, pregnant ewes to lambs heading towards the dinner plate, a changing palette of spring flowers.

The week or so when the mountain bluebells were in flower was especially marvellous.  Shame they haven’t invented ‘Smell-o-Vision’ yet.  It reminded me every day of the time I was flying my paraglider over The Blorenge, a few miles north of the bit of the mountain I was now on, and ‘cored’, the thermal by staying within the smell of the trillions of bluebells on the slope below.   A particular pleasure this time was coming across a tiny clump of rare white bluebells, the native kind not the imported Spanish variety which come in pink and white as well as blue.  Albino British Bluebells are estimated to occur only 1 for every 10,000 of the conventional colour.

Take a look at the walk in the early days.

https://www.relive.cc/view/vQvxVdR1W96

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Under the Covid Cosh: musings

Five weeks in, under the cosh since 23 March, and the major change is in the weather.

For all that time it has been warm and sunny, the sunniest April on record in the UK.  A single overnight shower two weeks ago softened the soil, compacted by an unusually wet February then baked hard by the sun, enough to be able to complete the digging and plant and sow vegetables in the garden. Visits to the supermarket reduced to once a week because of the queuing, I have climbed the ridge behind the house every day, always in shorts and sandals.

Yesterday, Tuesday 28 April, it turned cold and wet.  The high pressure has moved away and we are back to prevailing westerlies, changeable cyclonic weather blown in from the Atlantic.  So daily exercise now in boots and wet gear.  You could watch the weeds grow in the garden if you wanted to sit out in the rain.

I must admit to getting hacked off with the wildly varying and divergent news and views coming from scientist and politicians.  Wear face-masks/don’t wear face masks.  End of lockdown will begin in the middle of May/Lockdown will have to continue for months.  A vaccine will be available next year/an effective vaccine is unlikely to be developed. At least we aren’t presented with the American System – panic buying of firearms and injecting bleach.

One view, expressed by senior politicians, which does little to cheer me up is that restrictions will continue to apply to the over-70s for much longer because we are more ‘vulnerable’.  That’s both discriminatory and a generalisation.  There is evidence that the virus disproportionately affects ethnic minorities.  Would anyone dare suggest that restrictions should be applied longer to ethnic groups?  There is also evidence that males are disproportionately affected both in terms of numbers and severity of cases. Will all males likewise be targeted?

Like many others of my age I’m pretty fit and have a healthy diet.  I’m not averse to taking my chances. I am social-distancing/self-isolating not because of concerns that I might contract the disease but because if we all keep ourselves out of harm’s way it places less of a burden on the health service during the peak infection rate.

And what about the doom and gloom talk of ‘the new normal’ after the pandemic, where we all keep a 2-metre radius around us and wear face-masks?

I found History a boring subject in school and university but since then I have come to realise that it was an invaluable part of education.  There is a series on BBC Radio called ‘The Long View’ which looks at contemporary issues in terms of similar events in the past.  Very instructive.

I don’t pretend to the expert opinion brought to bear on various issues in that series but I can’t help but look back at so-called Spanish Flu.  Dubbed ‘Spanish’ because it began during the First World War and censorship meant it was only reported in neutral-Spain.  With an estimated 500 million infected worldwide, it killed at least 17 million people but estimates put the true death toll at closer to 100 million, far more than the total of military and civilian casualties in the Great War. It began in January 1918 and continued in waves until December 1920.  In the UK it killed 228,000, dwarfing the forecast total expected from Covid-19.

This brief synopsis isn’t to make the point that the Covid-19 pandemic looks to be having a lesser effect than Spanish Flu, acknowledged as the worst pandemic in history.  Rather it makes me wonder about how it changed the way society lived.  What was the ‘new normal’ it brought about.  While doubtless it was catastrophic for those directly affected, life, society soon reverted to what it had been.  There may have been subtle changes but no keeping a minimum distance apart.  No wearing of protective gear.  People shook hands as a matter of courtesy, gave each other a hug as a sign of friendship and affection.  Life carried on much as before.  Within a relatively few years the new normal was much like the old normal even after such a catastrophic death toll.

My point is that the ‘new normal’ After Covid is also likely to revert to the ‘old normal’ BC in many ways within a relatively short time.  We can’t live in vestigial lockdown for ever.  The major effects are likely to be from the economic rather than the health or societal impacts of the virus and those are also likely to recover over time.

I’m a bit Darwinian about this.  The 1918 H1N1 virus affected a lot of people, proving fatal for anything up to 20%.  It is reasonable to assume that those who survived had some level of immunity either from natural antibodies or vaccination.  Mutations of the flu have been a problem since but not on the same scale.  It is also reasonable to suppose that those who survived the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century which devastated Europe, were those who had a level of natural immunity.   Certainly, they didn’t have vaccines and medical care.

It will become clear that when we emerge from the pandemic, those who lived through it will have a degree of immunity to Covid-19 and other forms of the virus into which it will continue to mutate.  There is likely to be a second wave of infection as those who have been self-isolating/social distancing, like me will be exposed to infection. It’s what scientists and insensitive politicians refer to as ‘herd-immunity’, which is when so many people in a community become immune to an infectious disease that it stops the disease from spreading.

I repeat that I’m staying out of harm’s way not to protect myself but to protect the health service.  I don’t want to live the rest of my life on my own, not seeing family and friends, keeping 2 metres away from everyone else. I’m keeping fit by climbing the same mountain every day so I will be ready for a return to the Greek Islands, focusing on the future.  I’m sure I’m not alone in those sentiments.

We are not likely to be out from under the Covid cosh for a while yet.  But people are already showing the inbuilt urge to return to what was normal BC.  That is clear from the ‘Covidiots’ who are ignoring the lockdown rules.  In years ahead, when the pandemic is receding in the memory, we will all gradually regain confidence.  Eventually even the rabbits will come out of their burrows.

I refuse to focus simply on ‘not dying’.  I want to get back to enjoying living.

I quote the final paragraph of last chapter of my latest book ‘A small life in twenty memories’, written well before all this talk of the ‘new normal’:

“I know that at some point like everyone else I’m going to pop my clogs, shuffle off this mortal coil, whatever cliché you want to use.  The only thing which causes me any concern is that I don’t want it to be as a result of making a stupid mistake.  It would be good if it were to happen doing something heroic, though that is very unlikely.  The probability is that, like most people, it will be unremarkable, inconsequential.  A small end to a small life.  But what a lot of memories in the meantime.”

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Symi: virtually

Symi in April is very different from the island which most people see in the heat of Summer.  Sadly, thanks to Covid-19 there is no possibility of going there this month, or next, or for the foreseeable.

Not only are charter flights cancelled, the Foreign Office advises against all but essential international travel. In Greece all hotels are closed, visits to the islands limited to permanent residents, and all returnees have to go into two weeks strict quarantine checked randomly by police. Apparently leaving the house for shopping or exercise must be notified to the police in advance.  The measures in Greece were taken early in the crisis, far-reaching, and probably the most successful in Europe with the result that the death toll is significantly less than elsewhere.

So, I’m taking a nostalgic ‘virtual’ trip to Symi, looking at photos from previous years while I’m cut off from social contact at home.  It can’t substitute for trekking into the mountains or sitting outside Lefteris’s Kafenion with a cold beer chatting with friends but it’s good to remember what the island is like in early April.  All the photos below are before the 15th of the month in previous years.

Three things are different on Symi, and other islands, in early Spring.  The weather is changeable. Sometimes the sky is clear, sunny, warm and calm.  Other times dark clouds, heavy rain and stormy winds. After winter rains the ponds, such as that at are Gria, are full.  Many if not most businesses including shops, restaurants and tavernas are making ready but not yet open.  Sunbeds are stacked up and tied down at Agios Nikolaos and other beaches.  And there is the vibrant colour of wild flowers everywhere, ranging from swathes of tiny, shy shade-loving cyclamen to 2-foot spathes of sun-loving Dragon Arum.

So, this is a pictorial essay.  Next year maybe more people will be inspired to visit early and enjoy it.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, why not take a look at, ‘Greece Unpackaged: travels in a foreign language’ available from Amazon on Kindle.  Dream about next year.

Small life front cover

Or check out my new book: ‘A small life in twenty memories’

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Life under the Covid cosh.  And a new book

I’m trying not to be bored.

New words and phrases have entered the language, old words and phrases have taken on new meaning, usually imprecise meanings that convey different things to everyone.  We are all now living in ways we would not choose.

‘Locked-down’, ‘self-isolation’ ‘social-distancing’.  We are having to get used to completely changed patterns of behaviour and activity.  I’m trying to live in line with scientific and medical advice, confusing as the Government’s interpretation of it may be.  I consider my changed and very constrained lifestyle to be rational and responsible, though I don’t know what to call it.

Some years ago, when I was responsible for development planning, I began by identifying objectives.  Strategies were developed to meet the objectives. In this case the primary objective is not to catch Covid-19. One reason is that I don’t want the inconvenience of being ill but the main reason is to not become a burden on the health service.  Behind that is the objective that if I have a symptomless version of the virus, I don’t want to pass it on to others.

To meet this objective my strategy is clear.  Minimise contact with other people.  I live on my own and have not had proximate contact socially since 16 March. The guy I shared a pint with then now has the virus.

I had a stock of vegetables and fruit from the garden in the freezer and before the requirement to make only trips beyond home for essentials, I stocked up with protein (meat, eggs, cheese, nuts) and luxuries like chocolate.  Now I only need to go to the shop for bread.

I didn’t indulge in panic-buying, partly because of the stock in the freezer.  I certainly failed to understand the obsession in the UK with panic-buying loo rolls, though that has to be better than the panic-buying of firearms in the US.  Perhaps they intend to shoot their neighbours.

I stopped using public transport at the beginning of March, a dramatic change from BC (Before Covid).  I parked the car in the garage and haven’t been out in it for weeks. To get bread I walk the 25 minutes each way to the supermarket early morning Mondays and Fridays which doubles as my allowance of daily exercise.  Other days I walk to the top of the ridge behind the house, about 1000 feet of ascent, except Sundays when I go to the top of the mountain half an hour further and eat a banana by the trig point.  I may see a couple of fell-runners or mountain-bikers, otherwise it’s about as self-isolating as you can get.

But most of the time I get to grips with preparing, planting and sowing the vegetable garden.  This Spring it’s much harder physical work than normal.  I ‘rough dig’ the soil in Autumn so the winter frosts will break it down and make it easy to turn into a tilth in Spring.  Lack of frost plus very heavy and frequent rainfall this winter has left me with soil so compacted it’s nearly as hard the stone slabs in the patio.  Forty years of manuring and adding leaf-mold and compost to the very heavy clay soil has improved it but it’s still not very gardener-friendly, though provides an excellent work-out.

In March I’m usually writing in the blog about preparations and anticipations of a summer in Greek sunshine with a long stay on Symi and visits to Nisyros, Kalymnos and the like.  Not this year.  Not only has the flight I booked in February  for the end of April been cancelled but quarantine requirements in place in Greece make it unlikely that I’ll get there this year.

Confinement has meant I have been able to concentrate on finishing and publishing my next book.  A small life in twenty memories.  It’s a collection of memories from a childhood trauma in the corner shop, via paragliding, kayaking, climbing and caving to fleeing a hotel in Canada in the middle of the night into minus 25 degrees.  And setting fire to my underpants.

Small life front coverI hurried to send the files to the printers before the lock-down began.  And succeeded.  Just.  The printers received it an hour before they closed the print-shop for the duration. So that will have to wait.  But it’s available as a Kindle edition.

Let me know what you think

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Greece, Nisyros: Heritage Island


When I was young, summer holidays were a week at my grandparents’ in a small mining village in rural Carmarthenshire.   I took every opportunity to escape the boredom of sitting around the house and walk the mile or so up to my uncle’s farm.  The farmhouse had no electricity, no gas, water was from a spring in the yard outside and the loo was a wooden plank in a sentry-box sized hut perched over a ditch at the end of the orchard.  Torn up newspaper on a string hanging on a nail did service.  No door.  If shy, you whistled.

There was no road access to the farm buildings, the milk churns were taken by horse and cart along a deep-rutted track to the wooden platform at the roadside to be picked up by lorry each day.  Bread was freshly baked when needed, sliced ever thinner as it became ‘firmer’ with passing days. Deliciously salty butter, churned on the stone worktop in the larder, was spread liberally.  Eggs were still warm from under the hens.  We had homemade jam on fresh-baked scones in the afternoon. Basic. Idyllic. The sun always shone.

At the time I simply enjoyed it.  It was only much later that I realised how privileged I had been to have a glimpse into the past, into how rural folk used to live.

Recognising how important it is for society to remember its past, the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans, 15 minutes from where I used to live in Cardiff, was established in 1947.  In the words of the introduction on its website, it is “part of a Scandinavian-inspired movement, concerned with collecting and preserving examples of a disappearing, primarily rural, way of life  …….. that had been in existence since the Middle Ages”.  The museum is not a collection of artefacts but of buildings – farmhouses, bakeries, shops, dovecots, pigsties – all dismantled brick by brick in their original location and moved to the 104-acre site.  It is a record of how ordinary local folk lived rather than the grand castles and fortifications, mostly built by Roman and then Anglo/Norman invaders, for which Wales is better known.

This interest in how people lived years ago has stayed with me.  Along with the active craters in the main caldera and the dramatic volcanic rocks, it’s part of the reason why I continue to find Nisyros fascinating.  There are old buildings and structures, ‘heritage’, wherever you go.  Indeed, there is so much to see, despite the ravages of time and volcanic eruptions, that as well as being known as ‘The Volcano’ it deserves the title ‘Heritage Island’ though thankfully it is not marketed as such.

At the harbour in Mandraki day-trippers from Kos get on the bus to the edge of the main crater and brave the heat and the sulphur smell to go down the rough path to the crater floor and walk among the fumaroles.  Most then walk the length of the town and maybe climb the steps from the narrow alleys to the monastery of Panagia Spiliani (The Madonna of the Cave).  Some opt for a more extended coach tour taking in the fascinating caldera-rim villages of Emborios and Nikia.  A few (very few) trek up the stone-paved kalderimi to the immense Paleocastro dating back more than two millennia and built of stone blocks each the size of a banqueting table.  All worthwhile and very dramatic.

But there is far more to Nisyros than meets the day-tripper’s eye.  Both on the surface and beneath it.  Trek into the mountains and the true scale of past settlement is clear.

The first and most obvious indication is the extent of agricultural terraces rising steeply to the tops of mountains on all but the most precipitous and rockiest slopes, taking every possible advantage of the richness of volcanic soil.  The high, narrow terraces would, could only, have, been worked by hand, triggering the thought:  “how many people did it take to work this vast area and where did they live?”

Even if you only stay on the trails which cross-cross the island the ubiquity of stone-built dwellings soon becomes clear, far greater in number and more widely distributed than on either Symi or Tilos, the other two nearby Dodecanese islands with which I’m most familiar.  On those islands the abandoned dwellings of the past are grouped in small villages such as Mikro Horio and Ghera on Tilos and Ghria on Symi.

Two questions.  Why are settlements so much more widely distributed on Nisyros than on other islands? Why have so many of them survived relatively intact, particularly given continuing seismic activity?

That’s it for now.  You will have to wait for the answers.

My academic background is in the location and morphology (form, shape) of settlements and this, together with my childhood memories, has triggered me to try to write more about the history of settlement on Nisyros and what can still be seen today.  Too much for a blog post, this is meant as an appetiser.  When I have completed my next book, I’ll be writing a short piece – not a full-blown book so much as an extended, illustrated, essay.  Which will be posted on this blog.

My next book?  ‘A Small Life in Twenty Memories’.   Working on the final chapter now.  Hopefully available on Amazon Kindle around Easter.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, why not take a look at, ‘Greece Unpackaged: travels in a foreign language’ available from Amazon on Kindle.  Get ready for your upcoming summer.

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Icy art

Temperature in Canadian Banff, where I usually am at this time of year, is between a high of minus 20 and 25 in the afternoon.  Not quite so cold in the UK despite dramatic and completely unfounded headlines in some of the less reliable newspapers.  However, an overnight frost produced a work of art on the car bonnet one morning. Helps keep the spirits up in Grey Britain.

20UK02w-1071

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