Thursday, June 30, 2005

Equine Initiation

My first horse riding lesson was on a recent midweek summer's evening, at an equestrian centre out in the country which sits on a hill with a wonderful view of The City, at just the right distance - close enough to admire it, far enough away to make it peaceful and silent, existing only as a backdrop and visual counterpoint to the gentling rolling lanscape which surrounds it. I travelled to this place with Miss C and several of our mutual friends, rattling along country lanes, which in these parts are a kind of fragrant green maze, sign-posts as gratefully received by the traveller as oases might be in the Rub Al Khali, navigating collaboratively by car-to-car phone calls.

Alas, we had only a passing gimpse of the scenery - on this occasion, we were not to be trusted out of doors, but confined to a large shed, part of which functioned as stabling, and part of which was set up as an arena - almost certainly, the dustiest, most cob-web infested arena in the land. The fine brown dust lay thickly everywhere - upon the rafters, and the walls, on shelving, and on the floor. It even hung in the air as a barely perceptible haze, thrown up by young riders from an earlier class who were still riding slow circuits. There was a good deal of nervousness among our group as we watched and waited, most of our number never having ridden. Two among us, Mr B and Miss A, an affianced couple, had had several previous lessons and brought their own crops, boots, helmets and so on - which gave them great status in our eyes.

Having chosen helmets from a selection which showed variations in size and design - but not in colour (dust, of course) - we were ready to mount. This was done very slowly, the trainer eyeing us up and down, assessing us (I presume) for length of leg, mass, and perhaps temperament. One by one, our companions were led to a succesion of horses which stood placidly beside a make-shift mounting block, while nervous novices struggled aboard. Each rider, once mounted, joined the others in walking slow circles around the arena, nose to tail. Miss A led the riders, sitting high on a fine white horse, the largest animal there, and apparently the leader.

After what seemed an interminable delay, I too found myself joining the circle. My horse, like all the others was quite tame and well-behaved, its only fault one common to man and beast - laziness. Now the lesson began: one by one, our postures were critiqued - we sat too far forward or too far back, our legs were not under us, our feet were not properly set in the stirrups. In the course of this education, we also learnt to respond not to our own names, but to that our of mounts, a very practical system, if not terribly flattering to ourselves. If the trainer had a command for all the horses, he would speak directly to Miss A's huge mount, whose line and pace the others would follow.

Trotting came next: and this was where I realised how well the horses knew their work, because the trainer had only to say a word or two, and all the mounts moved up to a trot instantly, requiring no input at all from the riders. They seemed to like it too - no more lagging. A trot is much more challenging than a walk: the motion is quite different, and the rider must learn to adjust to the rhythm, which is very jarring when at first you cannot catch it, and get it exactly wrong. I enjoy the trot - it gives the rider something to do, and when done well, or at least not very wrong, the shared and co-ordinate motion gives the rider a sense of common purpose with the animal (also, it feels rather riskier than the walk : I always feel that risk improves a sport in much the same way that black pepper improves mashed potatoes, giving a more intense flavour to an experience which might otherwise be pleasant but somewhat bland - however, one should add pepper in a measured way, and never too much).

I found my horse to be quite biddable, willing to be turned if I made my intention clear, although somewhat resistant to encouragement from crop and heels. However, all our mounts emonstrated a clear independence of thought where calls of nature were concerned, ignoring our signals to wander out of the circle, and stand meditatively while relieving themselves, with the novelty of the thing providing great entertainment for the class, and the luckless rider blushing at the shamelessness and conspicousness of it all. Thinking back on it, the horses, in their straightforward and practical approach to this, are perhaps thinking more clearly than their riders. As to the behaviour of the riders - in controlling the animals, we were very careless and ignorant - we would dig our heels in, out of nervousness and to get a better grip, and then become alarmed when our mounts obeyed the accidental command and would not stop. Or, we would hold the reins tightly, for support, and the poor beasts would slow up, only to receive a slap from a crop for idling!

The lesson ended as follows: the riders, or rather their horses, were summoned one by one to The centre of the circle, where the rider dismounted. We were called in reverse of our mounting order, so that last mounted was first off. Very disappointing, after the wait we had earlier, to have our rides cut short. The reason the trainer gave us was that the horses were creatures of habit, accustomed to following a familiar bottom, and, like the aristocracy, not fond of novelty in matters of precedence. Looking back on it now, I did not lose much by having the shortest ride - only strolling circuits, which are not very interesting. Here is hoping that in future lessons, we may perhaps mount up simultaneously and venture outside the shed - very pretty country thereabouts. Miss C and I hope to keep up our lessons, for the pleasure and the exercising, and the meeting with our friends. So, let's say, to be continued...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Stranger in a strange land

Being an account of the author's first day in the Middle Kingdom,which he visited in spring of this year.

My first impression of China: incredible aridity. My previous experience of great dryness, the heat of a Spanish summer, hard-baked land of scrubby trees and the abstemious cactus, has nothing on this. Approaching Beijing from the direction of Mongolia, it was quite sometime before I saw a riverbed that had could boast an actual flowing river. This impression was reinforced on landing - swirling dust which makes a veil of the dry, dry air, and its myriad collisions with the human body imparts sufficient charge to make one a living battery, constantly being sparked by grounded metal or less-insulated companions - and not in the mild way that happens from time to time at home, but arcs of sizzling power, mini-lightning strikes.

Collected at the airport by Miss C, who is in these parts on business, I begin, on my journey to our hotel in outer Beijing, to grasp the scale of the place. A modern motorway connects the airport to the city,which is vast. Old apartment blocks emerge from the sand-coloured sky, challenged in many places by huge and gleaming upstarts - the banks, corporations, luxury hotels of the New China. All around us, new construction projects are climbing steadily skywards: mirrored glass gleaming, beside the grime and tatter of the old blocks, and both standing immense above the brown one-storey courtyards of the old city (the hutongs, whose layout and construction have changed little in centuries, the body and bulk of the city, home to huge numbers of the poor, some of the rich, and many of the shops and workshops).
I am also becoming familiar with a component of Beijing life which will be my constant companion here: the thick and greasy smog, which addsa tincture of diesel and coal dust to every mouthful of air - the flavour thick and strong, far worse than the filthiest air of my previous experience (L.A., in the grip of an August smog).

Arriving at our hotel, 5 stars, part of a Major International Group, Miss C and I enjoyed a fine lunch - that old Chinese standby, pizza! We are certainly being looked after - real prosciutto, which must have flown nearly as far as I have just done. Post lunch, Miss C returned to business, and so, solitary, I had the magnificently-attired doorman summon me a taxi to bring me to Tianamen Square, which lies at the very heart of Beijing, in more than merely a geographic sense. In fact, it is not a square, but a huge and very elongated rectangle. Even on a weekday afternoon, it is to my European eyes very busy - throngs of people stroll about, fly kites, take pictures, hawk souvenirs. A simple stroll quickly becomes a crash course in local street etiquette - hawkers consider one fair game if given the slightest encouragement. In this context, "encouragement" includes walking slowly enough for the hawker to come alongside and begin to pitch. I soon discover that, in such places, a westerner must be like a shark - ever moving - or sink beneath the weight of postcards, "designer" socks, "authentic copy" DVDs and reproductions of Mao's "Little Red book" which will be pressed upon him. This was also a lesson in economic realities: here, I'm not "comfortably off" or "middle class" - I'm rich. With a monthly income perhaps 40 times that of the average person walking the square, I was, like any other westerner, an irresistable target.

Pursued by the foot-soldiers of capitalism, I moved about the square inspecting monuments to the heroes of Chinese communism,before exiting to the north, into the Forbidden City, where Mao's portrait, appropriately enough, gazes down from the entrance to the home of the emperors - who ruled here more absolutely than him? The bridges over the moat are carrying a heavy traffic - huge numbers of Chinese, many, to judge from their complexions and poorer dress, visiting from rural areas. Unlike other countries that I have visited, sites of major interest here are mostly visited by local people - it isn't that many foreigners do not visit but their numbers are very diluted, among the teeming natives.

My progress through the forbidden city mostly followed its main north-south axis, crossing a succession of courtyards dividedby steps, ramps and large halls, many-bayed throne rooms. These were often un-walled, huge and highly elaborate roofs held up by massive wooden pillars, all thickly plastered and lacquered to become uniformly smooth and red, like party cadres. These rooms were guarded by pairs of lions, some stone, some bronze, which sat patiently before them, always female with cub to the left, male with globe (pearl?) to the right. A fine complex, and very alien to me- not at all like the castles and palaces of Europe. Perhaps the most striking point was the invariance of the detailing, with even minor details of the eaves apparently formed by rigid protocol - repeated in building after building. My stroll through the emperor's home ended with a garden, mostly of pine trees, whose branches twist in extraordinary contortions. The pathways are all pebble-mosaics, and there is a small mountain, made, I think, from pieces of limestone which nature has carved into very unlikely forms - a pocket-sized wilderness, carefully ordered "nature". Once more, a somewhat alien place, but beautiful.

Leaving the forbidden city from the north, I was at a loss as to how I should fill the remaining two hours or so before my dinner engagement with Miss C: a problem solved for me by a peddle-rickshaw driver whose lack of English equalled my own lack of Mandarin. Our communication extended to bargaining over price and time - and then we were off, into the traffic of central Beijing, not an experience for the faint-hearted. My driver had been engaged to take me through the ancient hutongs, and soon we left a broad avenue perilous with motor traffic for a narrow alley used only by foot traffic and the occasional cyclist. This was another world, quite different from the international luxury of my hotel and the totalitarian triumphalism of the square and palace - few walls rising beyong a single storey, modest doorways and grimy windows, some with caged songbirds. Behind each wall lay a courtyard, and in almost every courtyard, magnolia trees stood waiting for spring (which, already begunto the south, was only just approaching Beijing). Some doorways were graced by intricate stone carving, and some framed by slogans on paper banners, gold characters on red - how strange to be suddenly illiterate.

The alleys were quiet, and the atmosphere friendly - smiles of recognition for my driver, smiles of welcome for me. I believe many facilities are quite basic here: for example, a butcher's shop we passed used an open window and a flatboard to display the meats - all open to the air, and refrigerated by nothing cooler than what breeze reaches into those alleys. Most homes seemed quite poor, but there were signs of enterprise- small tailoring businesses, tiny cafes, heaps of junk awaiting sorting and recycling. Instead of lorries or vans, tricycles are the means of transporting goods within the hutongs (and much of the city outside them) - one that I saw was delivering what seemed to be briquettes of low-quality coal. However,behind some walls lie substantial residences - late model Audis wait in some of the broader alleys, black and gleaming.

By means of pidgin Mandarin, pidgin English and a variety of ingenious hand gestures, I was able to communicate with my driver sufficiently well to know that I saw the residences of: a famous eunuch(vigorous sawing motion at groin level), Mao (his very humbleabode during his first stay in Beijing as a young man) and Chiang Kai-Shek (now changed somewhat, but clearly a large and luxurious compound), with the war he lost to Mao and his subsequent flight to Taiwan conveyed by mime.

The China I saw on my first day was a confusion of old and modern,of conflicting ideologies and cultural collisions. A fascinating place.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sunday in the Sun

This was supposed to be another day of independent adventuring, but it didn't work out that way. En route to my next adventure, I got a call from my better half - her weekend-long party had broken up early. So, I arranged to meet her and Miss P in the nearest convenient town for some lunch. Miss P is she-who-must-be-obeyed's (Miss C's) closest friend in the city where we now live - they work side by side for the same company, and play the same sports and musical instruments.

Post lunch, I succeeded in persuading both of the ladies that learning to surf would be just the way to pass the afternoon, on the same nearby beach that I had found the previous day with Mr. T.

Miss P was the first into her hired suit and onto the sand, where I attached to her ankle a long leash, the other end of which was tethered to a 9ft board (her first time on a proper surf board).
Miss C soon joined us. Now, she is a lady who likes water very well - so long as she can keep her head clear of it. She was attached by a short leash to my body board, which is made from polyeurathane foam (stiff enough to be useful, but soft enough not to threaten skulls or teeth). My great advantage on this occasion was a certain friendly rivalry which exists between the Misses - both are extremely competitive, and very hesistant indeed to cede the other an advantage. So, Miss C was obliged to borrow a little of the carefree attitude of Miss P, and moved into the surf very bravely. She did show a certain diffidence in the face of advancing waves, but overcame it: I made encouraging noises, turned her nose to the shore, and let her launch on the next wave - saw her vanish, screaming, in the foam - happy-nervous screams.

Miss P, meanwhile, was struggling to mount the big board - she would point it at the shore and lie crossways on it, or she would lie straight on, but point the board across the oncoming wave, with rather sorry and unsatisfactory results - spending a lot of time underneath the water, and in fact, an innocent onlooker fresh-arrived from some land-bound territory might have supposed from her activities that surf-riding is a sub-marine activity. Grasping her board firmly at the stern, I talked her into the correct position, waited for an appropriate wave, made a final steering adjustment and gave an encouraging shove. Success! The long board floats very well, and Miss P rode it clear into the sand before dismounting - big smile!

There followed many a launch and mislaunch: Miss C growing in confidence with every new trial, and perfectly well able to catch her own rides. Miss P faced a more technically demanding proposition, and came to grief with a correspondingly greater frequency. As for me, mostly boardless on this occasion - well, to play in the shorebreak on a sunny Sunday afternoon with two lovely young ladies all aglow with fun, and that fun edged, sharpened by the hint of danger they saw in the sea - it was a Kodak moment.

It seemed that affairs were proceeding almost too smoothly, and sure enough, Murphy's law soon caught up with us. Miss C exchanged vehicles with Miss P, and that is where the trouble started. Miss C's first ride or two were a great success, me launching her with greate care, and observing the happy results with great satisfaction. However, I must have become neglectful of her trim: a later launch saw two small feet move skywards from the crest of a shoreward-running wave: these then vanished downwards into the foam, and were replaced by a most surprising sight. Small though the shorebreak was - two to three feet - the wave had enough power to spit that 9ft board skywards, completely clear of the water: I watched it reach apogee and fall back in treacle-slow nightmare-motion. Imagine my relief to see a spluttering and utterly sea-soaked Miss C emerge unscathed from beside the splash-down site! Sadly, the experience soured her somewhat on that board - she missed its sky-larking antics, but did not enjoy the dip, whose blame she placed squarely (and not unjustly) at my feet.

Miss P was returned to the long board, and had some fun, turnabout with myself, who had a few nice stand-up rides (Miss P remarking that I spent more time looking around for an audience than attending to my balance, in which she was probably quite right). Sadly, this adventure was to end in bloody violence: a launch of Miss P assisted by myself ended in a spill (she was maybe too far forward, and the nose pitched down) in which the board oncemore rose skyward. Miss P was up already from her plunge, and was ready for the first touch down, which missed her - only for a following wave to grab the board and run it into her mouth. Approaching in the clumsy half-run that waist-deep water forces, I discovered her bleeding a little in the mouth from a small cut and somewhat shocked, but otherwise intact. Relief, and guilt, in equal measures!
We left the water then, and returned to our seperate vehicles to change.

Remembering what Mr. T. had told me about his walk, I took My Lady and Miss P along the westward shore, which was just as scenic as promised. There were rocks for me to scramble on - haven't done that in a while - and we found the sea-arch quite easily. The cave was trickier - but was identified by the hollow slap-sigh sound that rose up a steep and grassy gully which disappeared into a sheer bedrock-walled drop. We could just make out blue water below, and since this pool was seperated from the sea by dry land overhead, we had our cave - but, being with My Lady, I was forbidden from going too deep in the gully. I obeyed: but will surely return some other day, when the swell is low. I will approach carefully from the sea, perhaps on a line, and try to enter from the seaward side and climb out by the gully - now that will be an Adventure!

This was not an Adventuring day, though - so I lay in the soft grass of the upper gully with the Misses, under the warmth of the sun and the soft breeze. There were apples from Miss P, there was gentle limbs-locked lazing with Miss C, and later snapshots - sea-side Eden.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

To the waters and the wild...

Well, I may be back in the thick of it now, customer service reports drifting into my inbox like electric confetti - but I certainly got the most out of my weekend.

Up bright and early I was (for a Saturday), out the door by 10:10 to meet a very old friend whom I haven't seen much of these last 7 or 8 years. Today, "she who must be obeyed" is "otherwise engaged" at a weekend-long women-only party - which leaves me footloose and fancyfree, and determined to seek Adventure while I may. The old friend - call him Mr. T - was my companion in a particularly venturesome bit of sailing many years ago, and is keen to join me in further such trips. We've booked a high-performance dinghy for 11:30.

Tragedy! We arrive at the cove where our boat is waiting - but the promised wind has not materialised. However, this coast usually develops quite a respectable breeze during the afternoon, so we decide to go for a coastal drive to fill the intervening hours. This particular coast is very pretty, and having only just moved here, I'm keen to seek out its hidden places. The driving is very pleasant - although we are often away from the coast, the inland roads are also very pretty, trees and hedgerows wrapping us in a green tunnel, filtering the sunlight to dappled gold. We reach a small headland, upon which a derelict hotel looks down on a very pleasant beach, golden sand and a clean blue swell. For some reason, surf makes Mr. T slightly nervous - but he very graciously lets me pop in for a quick set or two. I paddle out on a very "friendly" 9 foot board, much more stable than what I'm used to. The surf is a little bigger than I expected, strong enough to drive quite an intimidating rip on one side of the beach, and my first trip out is a fairly strenous business - I have trouble ducking the board under the waves, so that I must go over them. Several spills later, I gain the lineup - the place where surfers wait, a little beyond the point where the average wave breaks, waiting for The Big One. There isn't long to wait, and soon I'm trying for my first ride. Tipping over the rising crest and sliding down the face of the wave, I soon discover that my weight would really have been better employed towards the stern of the board - when the nose slices deep into the trough. What follows is the familiar experience of plunging deep into sand-blackened water, arms tight over the head to protect from a surfboard which may by now have shot clear of the sea like a breaching dolphin, 9ft of Damoclean fibreclass. Back on the surface after only a mild spin-cycle inside the wave, I'm pleased to find the board bobbing to shoreward at the end of my leash and the next wave a safe distance to seaward - literally, I have breathing space.

Subsequent attempts go more smoothly as I pay more attention to trim (balance on the foreward/aft axis): I take the drop from the crest with hands clamped to the rails (sides of the board), rising to my feet only as I clear the foam. Once upright, I do try to steer a little - but mostly, I just enjoy the swift and the airy effortlessness of it, hightened by the contrast of the prone slog of the outward paddle. This early in the day, the hoi polloi have yet to arrive from the city, and the water is pleasently uncrowded - no need to bail out early to save some poor paddler from being run over.

Post-surf, Mr. T tells me how he passed the time - there is a walk that leads west along and above the shoreline, along low sea cliffs. He's see a sea arch, and found a sea cave - I ask him about getting into it at water level, but he doesn't think there is access. I'm taking mental notes...

Back to the sailing centre, and the wind has picked up - not much, but enough. Our launch is smooth, but within minutes I've handed the helm to Mr. T - and we're capsized, drifting quickly to our lee shore. Mr. T is in the water (serves him right!), I'm sitting on top of the hull grinning down, and then I see the crash boat making for us. Oh the humiliation - Mr. T is promptly ordered around to the stern, and I promptly right the boat and begin tidying away the spinnaker I had been attempting to launch at the time of our upset. I also get us back sailing very promptly indeed... and the crash boat allows itself to be waved off.

Mr. T doesn't know how to sail - but he is a quick learner, picking up the vocabulary as required, and soon knows his tack from his gybe, his jibsheet from his main. We even get a little competitive, chasing other sailors - and usually overhauling them - always trying for the weathergauge, always careful of our trim, always testing and adjusting our rig. Although the wind is fluky and light, we make the most of it - the spinnaker is missing its sheets, but gets launched anyway, jury-rigged with a trapeze wire. Fun!

So... a good day, which leaves me somewhat battered (stopped a surfboard with my head at one point) and aching (muscles complaining about the time spent battling waves and hauling ropes) and sunburnt, but very pleased. Think Mr.T and myself will be shipmates again before too long. To be continued...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A visit to Death's antechamber

At the weekend, I went to visit my parents, who live in a long green valley sprinkled with rolling drumlins. It is bounded on three sides by hills (those to the north are quite imposing) and on the fourth by water, where the valley reaches the sea and becomes a long thin bay. The shallow end of this bay has a sprinkling of islands, drumlins caught and half-drowned by the post-glacial advance of the sea. Beyond the islands, the shoreline becomes more severe, hillsides dropping away into seacliffs, citadel walls whose weaknesses are ceaselessly probed by the swells marching in from the ocean. On a mid-June weekend, with the hedge-rows in full-summer foliage, blue skys and a warm south-west breeze - well, it is very nice.

On this particular weekend, my mum had plans for my fiancee and I: she wanted to take us to see an old friend, a former Matron in our local hospital. Once resident in the local convent, her advancing age and the dwindling numbers of her fellow nuns have left her in her present situation: confined to a local nursing home. Time treats some people rather brutally, doesn't it?I'm sure this isn't a bad nursing home, but I wouldn't wish such a place on any of my friends or relatives.

Beginning with the front door, one leaves the summer behind - this door is kept locked at all times, for fear a resident might wander out onto the road. Summer does not happen here: it is part of the Outside. If the valley is Eden, then this is purgatory. The locked door is quite unnecessary for many of the residents - they sit hunched and unfocused, their withering bodies barely occupied by failing minds. Our own health, youth, the very way we spent our afternoon (rowing in the bay) seem obscene, like wealth by slums. Many of the residents are still mobile and aware of their surroundings, at least to some extent, and these look up, smile, try to catch our eyes - I look away, afraid to become involved. With some shock, I realise that we, as visitors are an event here. Today is a Saturday: but there are no visiting friends or relatives - even we can hardly be counted, as we are mere acquaintances.

The old nun we have come to see is quickly joined by two other ladies more fortunate than the rest. The years have certainly take a heavy toll: she shuffles slowly with a wheeled zimmer frame, needs help with chairs, and has casts on both wrists, which she has fractured. But she's smiling and chatty, and very well able to carry on a conversation. On long-familiar topics, her memory is still good - you might say her thoughts run well, in the deep ruts. Her fellow-inmates say very little, but seem to be enjoying the company. Eventually, the time comes to leave - we have a dinner engagement, out in the world where dinner is with friends, and not fetched by nurses to a timetable. I feel very guilty for ending the visit - everyone we have met has been so pleased to see us - strangers. How can it be that we care so little for these people, these who have spent their lives working for others, that we leave them to the company of a television?

The long slide into the night of senility and the terminus of death, with the accompanying indignities that age inflicts seem terrible enough, without we condemn these passengers to loneliness and terminal boredom in their last years. What hypocrites we shall be, that attend their funerals, who did not attend them in the closing scenes of their lives!


Since last Saturday, my mum, who is really very good about visiting the sick and the very old, has, with the approval of the nursing home, begun to organise a visiting comittee from among her friends. I hope it goes well - what a pitiful situation those poor people are in.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Hello Everyone

What am I blogging? I'm hoping to use this blog to present to you, dear public, those of my adventures I think suitable for your entertainment or instruction. Adventures may be of the present, or dredged from the depths of my storied past. Additionally, I reserve the bloggers most sacred privilege: the right to rant or muse on whatever topic may take my fancy (or fill a post or two in a fallow period for adventures). My adventures will usually involve water in some form, and occasionally travel. Musing will most likely involve current affairs or technology.

Tale the First
Not actually an adventure as such...

Having recently moved house and job to live happily ever after with my intended, I find myself living much closer to salt water than I have in quite some time. So, taking advantage of a particularly fine mid-week June evening, I loaded up my car with wetsuit, bodyboard and fiancee, and headed for the beach. This particular beach is a very beautiful place, broad yellow sands with clean water and an interesting rocky headland for contrast. It is also known as quite a reasonable surfing spot, and I had fair hopes of an interesting evening (rumours of 4ft surf, which would be nice).

Alas... the rumours have been much exagerated. There waves are really very small, just 2ft or so, and even those are very irregular. Still, there are worse ways to spend a sunny evening than bobbing in the atlantic, contemplating the horizon - so that is what I did. In fact, it is what most surfers do, most of the time - a very meditative sort of sport. The quiet, the gentle up and down, the slow succession of the swells, and the gentle warmth of sun on neoprene send me into a semi-trance - mind empty, relaxed, deeply at ease.

Allmost too relaxed, after a while. I did get a few gentle rides, with no spills, but most of the waves are not really rideable. Even the experienced surfers aren't doing much, so I eventually trade my body board for a snorkel, and set off to do a little exploring. I haven't been in the water for some time, and I don't usually bother on beaches with so much sand, so I'm quite entertained for a while by watching the turbulence on the seabed when a wave passes over - the sand is ripped up into racings "clouds", like the sandstorms I've seen in the cinema, above which I float, zeppelin-like in my black wetsuit, elongated by my huge fins. Moving into deeper water, I make short dives to 2M or so, practicing my equalisation (forcing air into my eustacian tubes to avoid a painful "pressure squeeze" when the external pressure of the sea exceeds the air pressure in the air spaces within one's head).

Eventually I tire of the sands below me, which harbour only drifting weed - no fish or crabs - and turn to watching the waves, slipping under with my back to the seabed and watching flattened bubbles rise like discs of mercury towards the surface and the setting sun. Moving close to the rocks of the headland, I find that the swell which is inadequate for surfing is just high enough to make snorkeling "interesting" - the sand comes right up to the head, and in shallow water like this, it fills it like a fog, with sharp rocks emerging very suddenly from the murk. Undeterred, I begin to work along the ins and outs, paying special attention to corners and ledges. This is a great place for limpets, and I decide to try an "ambush" - they are known for the tremendous strength of their hold on the rocks, but I have heard that if taken by surprise, they are easily plucked loose. I begin to move as stealthily as possible in the rolling waves, doing my best to avoid bumping against the rocks and signalling my approach. Sure enough, my first grab is a success! My victim is a good size, perhaps an inch and a half wide at the base, with a muscular yellow foot on the underside and a very thin fringe around the edge. In all my years on the seashore, I don't think I've ever seen this side of the creature. Feeling a little guilt, I return my victim to the same spot - where I am relieved to see that it seems to stick back quite easily, non the worse for my meddling.

Moving on, I seek more active "prey" - a deep corner in the rock with poor handholds (I'm fighting the buoyancy of my wetsuit, which is unweighted, and the air in my lungs), I find a very frightened little green crab, its shell not more than half the width of my hand. Trapped, it runs from side to side, over and back - but the rocks offer no shelter. From my left, another runs in to join its fellow - then a larger wave surges in, blinding me with sand and throwing me up and out of the corner. Returning, I see my prisoners have escaped.

Further into the shallows, I see a curious sight - very light coloured sand has been stirred up, but rises only so far in the water column, for all the world like a fog over the rocks and soft bottom beneath. Then visibility worsens... I'm feeling my way in now, with the sand thickening about me, avoiding the rocks more my touch than by sight. Time to go home.

What of the fiancee? She waited for me ashore, with the patience of an angel, and was rewarded with fishcakes in a nearby town.

Until the next day...
be careful out there!