My writing covers a variety of subjects including walking routes, outdoor courses and activities, travel-related themes and wildlife encounters. Over the years I have contributed to a wide range of publications and reported on topics such as an underwater hotel for Geographical magazine and dog sledding in the UK and facial reconstruction for The Times. My interests are far ranging so my writing reflects this.
You'll find a selection of my work below:
COPYRIGHT - If you'd like to use or reference anything you see on this site, please contact me.
1) Tenerife's Milky Way
2) Bushcraft weekend course with Ray Mears
3) Sweden – Tales of the Unexpected
4) The Adrenaline Cruise
5) On the Lowry Trail
6) Colchester Zoo safari
7) Potential Champions
8) Royal Ballet School director - interview
10) Ballet Shoe Maker
1) Tenerife's Milky Way
(published in the Independent on Sunday)
At the time when tourists in the lively south of Tenerife are still considering which nightclub to go to, I am already seeing stars. Far from being inebriated, I am looking at the Moon through a large black telescope. The Moon is almost full " not ideal for stargazing but perfect, when magnified 48 times, for comparing it to a roundel of goats' cheese.
'No telescope, however powerful, can see anything on the Moon's surface that measures less than 300 metres,' explains Juan Vicente, who gives a star-gazing presentation every Friday night at the Parador de Canadas del Teide, a hotel in the centre of Tenerife's national park in the Canary Islands. The parador has three telescopes for guests and we are using the largest. This remote hotel is a large mountain chalet that lies in the crater zone, more than 2,000 metres above sea level, an area of around 16 square kilometres that is made up of lava fields, a sandy crater and unusual, giant rock formations. The views of the 3,718m Mount Teide, the highest mountain in Spain, and the surrounding landscape are stunning. The dining room at the parador has large windows which, by day, are well placed for catching a glimpse of the cable car as it makes its six-minute journey to the top of the mountain.
The combination of high altitude, low humidity and little artificial light makes the island one of the best places in the world to observe the stars and the Solar System. We take it in turns to view the Moon as Juan moves the lens to pick up different aspects of the planet's surface. The huge number of craters gives us a clue about its violent past. 'Can you see the long spider's legs?' he asks. 'That's where the asteroid penetrated the surface.'
Observing the sky at night in this way, we feel as if only Mount Teide and the twilight separate us from the blanket of stars twinkling above our heads. Juan highlights the formations we are about to study with a giant image of the constellations projected on to one side of the parador. After a brief summary, he turns off the power and we wait a while for our eyes to adapt to the dark again. I learn how to recognise Jupiter and Sagittarius, and that one star in his bow is 250 times brighter than the Sun.
Since it raises questions about our origins and our place in the universe, stargazing has fascinated people for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese produced the first sky maps and the Egyptians planned their festivals and events around the Moon, Sun and stars. But it was the ancient Greeks who turned looking at the sky into a science. Surprisingly, the existence of planets outside the Solar System was confirmed only 10 years ago when 51 Pegasi, a planet around a star was discovered. Since then, 130 extra- solar planets have been found but these are visible only with highly sophisticated equipment.
One of the most important solar observatories in the world is based on the edge of the national park, a 20-minute drive from the parador...
2) Bushcraft weekend course with Ray Mears
(published in The Times)
Get ready, go!" shouts James, our instructor, to mark the start of the fire-lighting contest. It is a bright, spring day in an area of ancient woodland close to Etchingham in East Sussex where Ray Mears runs bushcraft courses. They are so popular that most are booked up a year in advance. Crouched over our bundles of tinder and wood, we use a knife and a flint striker to create the necessary shower of white-hot sparks. It is supposed to be a bit of fun, but Tony, a racing driver, is in competitive mode and unable to light his fire.Thirty seconds later, my hands are shaking with excitement as I add more tinder and small twigs to the roaring flame I have just created. I had not expected such a simple task to be so thrilling.
This course is a two-day introduction to bushcraft and I am one of three women and 12 men taking part. Base camp is an elevated area of the woodland and consists of a campfire, a circle of upturned logs for seating and an overhead canopy made of parachute silk. This will be our meeting place and dining area for the weekend.
Later in the day, Ray joins us for a walk in the woods. He is not only knowledgeable and unpretentious but has a calm, charming way of sharing his passion for the outdoors."A walk in the countryside was our ancestors' equivalent of a trip to Tesco," he says. "This was their open air supermarket where they searched for edible plants and signs of animals."We learn about the flexible willow, which grows near riverbanks and is used for making baskets, and Lady Smock, a pretty purple plant that is a good source of vitamin C. "Do you see those deer tracks and that tiny paw print in the mud?" says Ray, who began tracking foxes at night from the age of seven. As we pass a large pond, he casually points to the cat-tail, a plant rich in carbohydrate and suggests we pick some to eat later. We remove our boots and socks, wade through the cold water, reach into the mud and rip the plants out by their roots. An hour later, he demonstrates some fire-lighting techniques. Ray's popular survival programmes on television have made him a household name, but to sit a metre from him as he lights a fire using a hand drill is pure magic.Later that evening I realise that my current lightweight sleeping bag will be no match for a cold night in a tent. At the last minute, I had thrown a duvet in the car but how could I collect it without attracting attention? I decide to wait until dark when no one will see me, and successfully manage to squeeze it into my tiny tent. Relieved that my secret is safe, I sleep soundly...
3) Sweden – Tales of the Unexpected
(published in The Guardian)
Nothing prepares you for a Swedish night underwater. The room, with glass-panelled walls, is hardly big enough to swing a squid but it contains twin beds and a bedside table. It also lies 6 metres below the surface of Lake Malaren in Vasteras, Sweden. Staying here is like being in a goldfish bowl: a bit like taking part in an underwater version of Big Brother where viewers can observe you 24 hours a day without having to lift a fin. I shine a torch on a pike but it swims along to the next glass panel and I begin to feel slightly exposed.
The Utter Inn, my quirky accommodation for the night, weighs 25 tonnes and has a solar-panelled roof; heating and electricity is generated from a car battery and is the brainchild of Mikael Genberg, a local artist and sculptor who has chosen to focus on "making art for the public".
A night spent underwater is not the ideal place to stay if you are remotely claustrophobic. "My work makes people question their perception about what is safe and secure, and when you experience fear, it sharpens your senses," explains Genberg. I can vouch for that.
That evening, we sat in deck chairs on the pontoon, eating a takeaway meal delivered from the mainland by boat and polishing off a bottle of chablis. Two Polish seamen in a speed-boat hovered for a while, no doubt attracted by the sight of a red light above what resembles a garden shed bobbing on the water. Apart from this, and an all-male crew on a Sigma shouting something undecipherable in Swedish, we were left alone to catch the magnificent sunset. Even craft heading for the nearby marina created just enough waves to gently rock the pontoon, so what happened later that night was a tad unexpected.
I awoke at 3am to find our room rocking sideways like a seesaw and sure we were about to drown, scrambled up the aluminium ladder to the floor above and pushed my brow against one of the portholes. Utter darkness. I ventured outside on to the swaying platform but saw no sign of anything that could have caused such a commotion. Only the damp floor and some cutlery and candles sprawled across the room confirmed that I had not experienced my first underwater nightmare.
The next day, Genberg tells us it was probably the wake from the early morning ferry on its way to one of the islands on the lake. Ah, if only he’d said so earlier…
Nearby, the island of Ridon, a relaxing 40-minute journey in a catamaran from Vasteras, has rolling hills, forests, small-scale farming and fishing - and four inhabitants. One of these runs a riding centre on the island and Ingela Gorjeby meets us at the jetty and transports us in a trailer behind her motor-powered quad bike, a bizarrely modern version of the horse and cart.
We make a slight detour to see the youth hostel, coated in the traditional copper-based red paint to preserve the wood, and pass some of the 25 summer houses owned by the mainlanders. Since 1978, the island has been preserved as a nature reserve, one of more than 40 such places in Vastmanland. At one time, the area boasted so many oak trees that a shipyard was set up here, but nowadays Ridon is renowned for its Icelandic riding school. We set out on a pony trek and I discover the tölt, a sort of running walk which Icelandic ponies have and feels to the rider as if you are gliding through the air.
Less than 30km from Vasteras, beside another nature reserve, is Engsö Manor. This attracts many visitors looking for a supernatural experience, as there are regular sightings of ghosts. The stone manor house is no longer lived in but even to a sceptic, the building seems exceedingly eerie. At the end of each step of the wide stone staircase are three white circles, thought to be painted in egg yolk in the 18th century to highlight the stairs in the dark, and also to keep out the gnomes, or "small people".
Superstition has a big role to play in the everyday life of the area and one of the items on display at the manor house is the gold chain won, according to legend, by Count Sparre during a game of Nordic backgammon with the devil. Reputedly, Engsö catches fire every time this chain leaves the premises.
Vasteras itself has plenty to offer including some good restaurants such as KonserthusTerrassen in the concert hall, and the waterside å restaurant and bar on Slottsgatan. I enjoyed discovering the sculptures in the city, including the group of cyclists, in the main square and the cathedral and art museums are superb. Vasteras is a city of contrasts but one thing is certain - it will undoubtedly sharpen your senses...
4) The Adrenaline Cruise
(published in The Guardian)
Adrenaline is not something you normally associate with a cruise holiday. Neither is riding a bicycle in the centre of Rome while trying to avoid screeching scooters and hooting cars but when you are on an excursion with Ocean Village, it is par for the course.
I had chosen the five-hour "relax" mountain-bike tour of Rome after seeing the ship's bold motto, "See more, do more, be more". But for someone who has never cycled in London for fear of the traffic, I was feeling far less positive once in the saddle. The two guides, Gunter and Johannes, who had already seen me fall while trying to negotiate a kerb, led seven of us on a sightseeing tour to the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain and St Peter's Basilica before losing me when I merged into the right-hand lane of traffic instead of turning left with the others. As I feebly followed some Italian pensioners across the road, Gunter emerged from a side alley with a look of utter relief on his face. By the end of the day, my manoeuvring skills were still not up to scratch, but my nerves were notably hardened by the experience, and, far from feeling jaded, I was energised and ready for another white-knuckle ride.
The 64,000-tonne Ocean Village is a ship with a difference. Its mission is to break down the barriers to traditional cruising and it represents P&O's first foray into the informal and, it hopes, younger cruise market. The atmosphere is relaxed and the dress casual, so the only DJs you'll find here will be playing tracks in the nightclub, and only a handful of officers wear white. Gone are the formal seating arrangements, the captain's cocktail party and passengers with big or blue hair: this new concept means you can dine when, where and with whom you like, wear what you like and choose from some exciting excursions ashore, ranging from mountain-bike tours to rafting.
Thinking that I would be ready to jump ship if I spent 14 nights on board, I opted for a pre-cruise seven-night stay in the Hotel Tucan on the east coast of Mallorca, which is perfectly located for exploring the pretty turquoise coves nearby. After finding an older age group staying at the hotel, I was relieved to see a younger set on board Ocean Village. It would appear that busy, active 30-50-somethings prefer to fly directly to the ship, which was full to its capacity of 1,600 passengers. Despite this, the initial impression was one of space. To the sound of Wham's Club Tropicana I explored the leisure deck with its four Jacuzzis, two pools and swim-up splash bar and met Maeve, a sunburned pensioner from Devon, who had been staying at the hotel. "I've travelled on the QE2 but these pools are much larger," she said. We watched as four couples loudly braced themselves for a swim in the cool fresh water, with varying degrees of success, and I ordered my first cocktail, a strawberry daiquiri, that remained a firm favourite from the 22 or so cocktails served on board....
5) On the Lowry Trail
(published in the Daily Telegraph)
Below me are the red rooftops of the town and ahead, along the coast, I can just make out Holy Island, nine miles south. The elevated Elizabethan walls surrounding Berwick-Upon-Tweed, England's only completely walled town, offer some of the best views in Northumberland and make for a bracing and exhilarating walk.
In the 1930s the town also made a big impression on the artist LS Lowry. His visits spanned almost four decades and the first thing that strikes me about the high street is how little the town has changed since Lowry captured it on canvas. Unlike many of the places the artist painted in Manchester and Salford, most of the buildings in Berwick have been preserved. This link has been cleverly developed into a six-mile Lowry Trail, where 18 display boards of his paintings appear at points around the town and across the river, in Spittal and Tweedmouth.
My walk begins at the imposing 18th-century town hall, built of sandstone and oak and once the town's prison. The display board opposite the stocks features Lowry's painting Old Berwick. This was part of his first one-man exhibition in London in 1939 and, given that the average weekly wage was 30 shillings (pounds 1.50), its price tag of 30 guineas (pounds 31.50) must have seemed incredible at the time. From here, the streets lead downhill to the quayside and its narrow alleys. These intrigued Lowry, who sketched medieval Dewar's Lane, where the ruts in the stone made by cartwheels taking grain to the quayside can still be seen. Here, too, is the last disused granary in Berwick and plans are afoot to turn this building into a youth hostel with a cafe and exhibition area featuring, naturally, some of Lowry's work.
A 17th-century house in an adjacent alley, Sallyport, is my weekend base. Lizzie Middlemiss, the exuberant owner of No 1 Sallyport, recently won an award for the best bed and breakfast in Northumberland, and it's easy to see why. The three luxurious bedrooms have designer furniture, widescreen televisions, extravagant toiletries and huge vases of fresh flowers. The guests' kitchen has a supply of homemade shortbread, teas galore and an honesty bar.
Located just two miles from the Scottish border, Berwick has a turbulent history: it had changed hands between the Scots and the English 14 times by 1482. Realising that this wild frontier town needed special protection, Queen Elizabeth I set about building the huge walls. The project took 22 years - half of her reign - to complete. Berwick's unique location also accounts for the accent, a mixture of mild Geordie and soft Scots. One of the most impressive views of the town is from Scotsgate, a triple archway leading to Scotland. Lowry painted this scene of the high street and Berwick town hall in 1935 and almost 70 years later little has changed.
The circular walk round the walls takes about an hour and includes a display board of Lowry's pencil and ballpoint pen Football Match. This area is known as The Stanks, a Scottish word meaning "ditch'', and sure enough, the green bank here drops steeply to a football pitch below, which was once part of the moat that surrounded the walls. As I continue along this idyllic stretch, I turn a corner, past another bastion, and come face to face with the imposing Lions House. Decades ago, when it was in dire need of renovation, it is rumoured that Lowry was thinking of buying this large house with its two lion sculptures. He once said: "I'm attracted to decay . . . a derelict house gets me.'' But he didn't buy it, and instead continued to visit Berwick. Nearby is an area of allotments overlooking the coast and from here I head towards the pier in search of the beach shelter, the main catalyst for the Lowry Trail. Portrayed in Lowry's 1959 oil painting On the Sands, the derelict shelter was saved from the bulldozers five years ago by a number of sponsors including the Berwick Preservation Trust...
6) Colchester Zoo safari
(published in the Times Education Supplement)
Rub your hands together afterwards, it's magic," says Graham, who has just been handling a giant African snail at one of the minibeast encounter sessions held at Colchester Zoo. Most of his five-year-old classmates from Fairhouse infants school in Basildon are keen to touch the next contender, a giant millipede, but some are less impressed with what follows. One boy grimaces and turns away when a container of cockroaches is passed round, but the others watch in amazement and begin to count the insect's legs. Hayley Green, a foundation stage teacher with the group, explains that the children have been learning about small creatures and their habitats.
"Until now we have concentrated on ladybirds and butterflies and I have taken the children on local hunts, but looking at a wider range of animals in this way brings it all together," she says.
Francesca Gale, head of education at the zoo, strongly believes that children who have an encounter with an animal have a greater respect for wildlife...
7) Potential Champions
(written for The Times)
On a cold Friday morning in a gym club in Lymington, Hampshire, a dozen 12-year-olds are wearing a focus mitt on one hand and a boxing glove on the other. It's a far cry from the usual bout of physical education as part of the normal school curriculum and most of the boys have never picked up a boxing glove before.
This physical element, together with discussion-led classroom activities is part of a new one-day scheme to motivate potentially troublesome children and set them on the right track. It was devised by Paul Stevens (PJ), director of LEAP Performance and Life Coaching who has more than 12 years experience in the business with clients including Estee Lauder, BMW and the Olympic sailing squad. Given that all successful companies depend on individuals for good leadership and communication skills, the scheme uses these elements in a simplified format to which children can relate.
The seeds for the idea were sown 18 months ago in his local gym. "I was working out with an ex-professional boxer friend and we began discussing how kids' behaviour had become more disruptive," explains PJ. "We felt that what they needed was some motivation and a set of hallmarks to set them on the right track before any problems arose and with Justin's boxing background and my experience as a life coach, we realised that we had the perfect combination to formulate a programme."
PJ adapted his adult corporate training programme to suit children aged between 12 and 15 years of age, re-named it 'Potential Champions' and set about contacting schools in the area. The first to promote the scheme was Priestlands School, a Lymington comprehensive with 1,200 pupils, 20 per cent of which have special needs. It has since sponsored more than 10 workshops. Andy Marshall, PE teacher and manager of the learning support centre at the school says: "Since we began the pilot sessions last year, the feedback from the kids has been fantastic; their attitudes have improved and we have seen a much reduced exclusion rate and a drop in the number of detentions "
Reasons for being excluded from schools can include fighting, verbal abuse and drug taking but truancy is also a serious issue. Those who skip classes are more likely to turn to crime and anti-social behaviour and a recent report from the National Audit Office revealed that around one child in every 13 is a serial truant. This is an enormous amount of lost opportunity for the children themselves and the Auditor General has admitted that absenteeism from schools in England has proved difficult to reduce.
According to Chris Willsher, headmaster of Priestlands School, the way forward is not only to invest money in education but to target children who are experiencing difficulties earlier. He has no doubt that the one-day workshops will be more significant to some children than others. "It's harder for schools to take the moral high ground as people have come to expect less of youngsters and the boundaries have become eroded," he says. "Although it is too early to assess the outcome of the scheme, this is one plank among many that works and schools need to develop a wide range of workshops including the arts, music and science to engage pupils and get them back into the learning process."
Back at the Old Lawrence Boys Club gym the gloves and mitts have been removed and the children are now seated in an upstairs room facing PJ and a white board. This session in the programme is about perception, and it turns out to be quite revealing. One of the pupils is asked which of the group is the most likely to enjoy cuddles. He suggests George and receives a resounding "No" from the endearing but detention-seeking 12-year-old. Then when PJ asks for those who enjoy being cuddled to raise their hands, at least two thirds of the group do - much to George's surprise.
Association as a tool is used to good effect in these workshops. Since naughty children often associate with other naughty kids, PJ encourages them to break this link and develop a new association to the best champions in sport and life.
"Let's look at some photos of some well-known people," says Mr Marshall, pointing to one of Ellen MacArthur. "She has trust, determination and courage but if I saw her walking along Lymington High Street, I wouldn't for a moment think she could have sailed round the world single-handed," he adds. This leads to the importance of goal-setting - another topic not usually covered in the school curriculum. PJ compares it to satellite navigation, where the goal or objective must be set before it can be reached. George suggests that his goal is to be better at sport and to take school more seriously.
Children participating in these sessions are a cross-section of pupils who need some direction, together with a couple of role models. They are chosen by teachers at the school who liaise with Mr Marshall about possible candidates.
"Obviously, there is a demand to achieve GCSEs but social skills are paramount for a community spirit and this sort of scheme is the future," explains Mr Marshall. "Lymington may seem like an affluent area but not all the parents have yachts and some are struggling. Ideally, we would like people outside of the education system to become involved in this scheme too."
The Potential Champions scheme has already received backing from Simon Hayes, Chairman of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Police Authority. "All too often young people don't get the support and advice they need to develop their best potential," he says. "It is remarkable but after a day's involvement in this project those taking part had grown in confidence and trust, both with each other and towards the trainers. The scheme highlights the importance of working with others to achieve success."
It is hard to imagine that one day could make such a difference but the scheme takes place in a new and exciting environment, PJ and Justin are new faces and the fact they are investing in the children and encouraging them to question their thoughts certainly seems to have a positive effect.
The final part of the day consists of a 'sparring' session with Justin in a full-sized boxing ring at the club. Due to previous sessions, word has already spread that this takes place but the youngsters look eager and excited - except for George, who asks if he can watch instead. Nicknames are chosen. The boys become 'Wild Thing', 'Superman' and 'Cassius Clegg' and focus on Justin's glove, concentrate on making eye contact and getting their footwork right, as they stay on their toes for 90 seconds.
Eventually, George decides to follow the others into the ring. He focuses well, stays on his feet and manages more than a few lunges at Justin. As the boys depart at the end of an intensive but obviously rewarding day, I sense that George was glad he had taken to the ring. "Yeah, it was great. It was the best part of the whole day," he enthused.
PJ reckons that if you can take a step into a boxing ring with Justin you can also do other things you thought impossible. Indeed, after one child attended the workshop, he rejoined a Maths class and also asked one of the teachers for some extra help with his English course.
"Our ultimate aim is to get all the children involved as I know this scheme can really work," adds Mr Marshall. "It boosts their self-esteem and they appear a lot happier and more settled. They will remember the 90 seconds in the ring for the rest of their lives as a positive experience and I would challenge any young person not to get anything out of the day."
PJ has written a further two stages of the scheme, which is now a registered charity.
"We would like to expand and eventually take the scheme nationwide, perhaps to inner cities," he says. "Ultimately, it's important to invest in the young and get them out of detention and in to the classroom."
8) Royal Ballet School
(published in Times 2)
As director of the Royal Ballet School, Gailene Stock splits her time between the upper school in Covent Garden, London, and the lower school in Richmond Park, Surrey.
They couldn’t be more different: the former is a new purpose-built base near the Royal Opera House, and the latter a white mansion in the heart of a royal park. It’s an attractive setting; the walls of Richmond’s reception area are covered with black and white photographs of famous dancers and choreographers, including Rudolf Nureyev and Kenneth MacMillan, and there is a life-sized bronze statue of Margot Fonteyn.
After a 16-year dancing career, Stock, an Australian, was director of the Australian Ballet School for nine years before she came to the UK.
“The move from dancing to becoming a director was quite difficult. As a dancer you just have to worry about your form and performance for a particular evening but, as a director, I had 400 students and their parents, staff and budgets to take on board,” she explains. “It was certainly a challenge and a lot of it was self-taught.”
Rachel Hollings, her PA, studied music, dance and drama at university. She says: “Ballet has always been my first love and I do like working within education and being in a position to give guidance to young people with high aspirations.”
The Royal Ballet School is one of the top institutions for dance training in the world and since Stock arrived four years ago the percentage of students finding work after graduation has increased from 48 per cent to 98 per cent.
“Gailene is a great ambassador for the school and will market it when visiting other European schools, but there are so many other demands on her here involving teaching and administration,” says Hollings.
Although Hollings is based at the Covent Garden office, her boss spends two days each week at the lower school where her office overlooks the park. This idyllic place to combine dance with schoolwork was featured in the film Billy Elliot. “The film was good as it drew people’s attention to the school and the selection process, but we are nowhere near as severe as it portrayed,” says Stock.
“Although physical proportions are important — as dancing is a vocation — tenacity and determination are also vital and I will only take children I consider have a good chance of earning a living out of dance.”
The school can certainly cream off the best talent around. There are 1,000 applications each year for just 60 pla- ces. Stock often watches and teaches classes at both schools and is also involved with wardrobe requirements for productions, as well as supervising at rehearsals.
When her previous PA retired two years ago, Stock searched extensively for a replacement. She says: “I knew immediately that Rachel was the right person for the job as she is open, friendly, articulate and organised.”
Hollings says: “Personal rapport is very important and I feel really valued by Gailene. Dance training gives you transferable skills and when ex-dancers apply themselves to other jobs, they usually have great motivation. Gailene’s enthusiasm rubs off on me.”
Variety is high on the agenda for Hollings — as is being trusted. “One minute I’m greeting ballet supporters and ex-dancers at a function, and the next dealing with students. Gailene trusts me with information relating to students so that I can handle issues in her absence and prioritise where necessary,” she explains.
Stock adds: “Our work is more than just a job. We’re trying to realise the dreams of a generation and it takes more than a ‘just a job’ mentality to do that.”
(published in the Daily Telegraph)
The brochure was enticing: "Sit back in awe and take an exhilarating ride up the Machincang escarpment... to enjoy 360-degree views of the island." Views aside, with midday temperatures reaching the 90s, the anticipated cool breeze from the top of Langkawi's second highest mountain sounded irresistible.
The island's cable car, with its 42-degree incline, offers one of the world's steepest rides. Ten minutes later, at the steepest point of its 1¼-mile journey, our gondola came to a halt and all was quiet, apart from the sound of the wind swaying our metal and glass bubble. A sign above our heads read: "In case of stoppage sit and enjoy the scenery, help is on the way."
At 520 million years of age, Mount Machincang is one of the oldest rock formations in South-East Asia and is cloaked in jungle so dense that in some places 150 species of tree can be found in less than a square mile.
Within 15 minutes our cocoon was on its way again and from the top platforms we had a view of Langkawi and some of its neighbouring islands.
The Langkawi archipelago consists of 99 islands located off the north-west coast of Malaysia and just south of the Equator. More than 65 per cent of Pulau Langkawi, the largest of these and the one most people mean when they refer to Langkawi, remains covered in rainforest, which helps to make it one of the least spoilt tourist spots in South-East Asia.
We had come to Langkawi for a three-week winter break and, for variety, had booked three hotels; but secretly, I wondered if I would go crazy after a week. Not one to lie on a sunbed for long, I wondered whether there would be enough to do without feeling the need to escape to one of the other islands.
I needn't have worried: Langkawi, slightly larger than Barbados, had enough places to explore, delicious cuisine, abundant wildlife, friendly locals and rustic charm to keep us amused. When we felt lazy there were some fine beaches, including a long stretch of sand at the main resort of Pantai Cenang, and when we felt in need of adventure we didn't have to look far, either.
We booked ourselves on a birdwatching tour led by Dev, a naturalist, who drove to Gunung Raya, which, at 3,000 feet, is the island's highest mountain. There, he taught us how to identify the three types of hornbill and the difference between a grey-faced buzzard and a mountain eagle. Cute hummingbirds sunned themselves on rhododendrons and a flock of bee-eaters followed our car, attracted by the insects in its slipstream. Common mynah birds were everywhere, but their tuneful song was anything but ordinary. That morning we saw almost 25 of the 200 species of birds found on Langkawi.
Dev's Dutch business partner, Anne-Marie, was so impressed with Langkawi that she decided to make it her home. "I knew this was where I wanted to live within half an hour of stepping on to the beach," she said. "The weather's great, it's stress-free and safe and there's plenty of wildlife." She was right on all counts.
It was also very cheap: for £7 a day we hired a car and returned to Gunung Raya the following day for our own wildlife safari. The 950cc engine survived the climb and we were rewarded with the sight of a group of clown-like dusky-leaf monkeys eating high in the trees, hornbills swooping between fig trees, and a family of long-tailed macaques leaping from branch to branch. By the time we left, it was twilight.
On most days we would catch a glimpse of the cable car from a distance. Part of the Machincang range is shaped like a reclining head, with the forehead, nose and chin covered in jungle.
We discovered it was possible to trek to the top after visiting an area known as Telaga Tujuh, a series of seven natural pools leading to a waterfall. From here, we followed a steep jungle trail using the tree roots as a staircase and a series of ropes secured around tree trunks to pull our bodies to the top. Three exhilarating hours later, we made our descent through the tropical rainforest to a chorus of cicadas.
The insects weren't the only ones in good spirits. Back at our first hotel, the informal, Austrian-run Beach Garden Resort in Pantai Cenang, I inquired about the batik throw in our room and was told I could buy the material at the night market at Padang Matsirat.
So off we went, past paddy-fields sprinkled with water buffalo and kingfishers, to the market and its collection of food stalls. Among a cluster of noisy generators were stalls selling laksa, a type of rice noodle, satay chicken and spicy vegetable dishes, all for a few ringgits. The fabric shop, unfortunately, was closed.
The following day, Zana, one of the receptionists, offered to help. A bag duly arrived in our thatched room containing two pieces of the batik material with a bill attached for little more than £3.
One balmy evening we walked along the beach before sunset, past a group of wading women collecting shellfish in nets, to the nearby fishing village. Since most of the small boats went out after dark there was little to see. We stopped for a drink at a simple fishermen's café, where an old woman offered us a plate with lepat manis, a sticky dessert, and pulut udang, a dish containing prawn, chilli, coconut and onion. She didn't want us to pay for the food - it was for us to try, she told us.
Since Langkawi is influenced by Chinese, Indian and Thai cuisine, the lure of the many restaurants, cafés and hawker stalls proved considerable. We would also tuck into roti canai, Indian-style bread with curry sauce, as an alternative to a western breakfast, and otak otak, a succulent fish with coconut cooked in banana leaves; there were bags of banana fritters for less than a pound.
You don't come here for the nightlife, as names such as Little Lylia's Chillout Bar and the Go Slow Bar suggest, but we had a few evenings sipping cocktails. Sometimes we would start the day by wandering through the villages near Pantai Cenang where there are a few traditional wooden houses on stilts.
Sadly, these beautiful kampungs are in decline, gradually being replaced by cheaper, concrete bungalows. We looked over one of these after meeting a man called Ali during one of our strolls. "Come and see the inside, please," he said with obvious delight, before proudly giving us a tour of his son's half-finished bungalow.
It was uplifting to find cheerful children riding bicycles, boys fishing with homemade rods in streams, and women tending coconut groves. Most days we would stop for a kelapa muda, or coconut milk, from a food seller on the beach and watch him skilfully shape the top into a lid using a cleaver.
We found another example of craftmanship up a meranti%oductions, as well as It brought out the child in me, for as soon as I saw the tree house I knew I had to stay there. Luckily, it was available. A staircase led up to a balcony overlooking the sea and inside was a surprisingly large double bedroom. From our en-suite retreat, we could keep an eagle eye on the parasailers and sampans near the beach and listen to the sound of waves from our bed.
Our final hotel, the Berjaya, at Burau Bay on the north-west coast of the island, was preparing for a visit by a Malaysian dignitary when we arrived. When we told Dev we were staying at the Berjaya he was thrilled and told us it was the best place to see wildlife - especially red giant flying squirrels. He was right to be enthusiastic.
When things quietened down, the resort was a honeypot for animals and one of the best places to see monitor lizards and flying lemurs.
Our last evening was spent at the award-winning Seashells Beach Café along the palm-fringed beach for a meal of grilled sole and local cheesecake followed by some dancing beneath the stars.
The next day we had a final walk through the villages in Pantai Cenang, past the coconut groves and Ali's house. As we left, families were settling down to eat in the bronzed evening light...
10) Ballet Shoe Maker
A Day in the Life of… a ballet shoe maker
Peter Moore has worked at the shoe factory of Freed of London for the past seven years. The expensive pointe shoes he skilfully produces are supplied to the leading ballet companies in the UK as well as companies in Europe and America.
“My father was a block toe maker for 35 years before he retired and after working for a while as an electrician, I decided to follow in his footsteps. He taught me everything he knew and although it took me about four weeks to learn the process, it took far longer to perfect it. My day starts at 6.30 am after a 45-minute journey from my home in Harrow to the factory in Hackney and I’m usually finished by 2 pm. It’s a bit like being on auto pilot for we tend to work through lunch and rarely take coffee breaks.
This factory was a large house with servants’ quarters and used to make fashion shoes in the early 1900s and when Freed of London took it over an old air raid shelter that hadn’t been used since the Second World War was discovered below stairs.
When I come in each morning, I’ll find a bunch of ticket orders on my desk so I never know in advance exactly what I will be doing but I’ll make about 45 pairs of shoes a day. I’m one of 26 block toe makers in the company and together we produce around 10,000 pairs of shoes each week. Half of these will be pointe, or block shoes, and the rest are made up of tap, character shoes, ballroom shoes, and pumps, which are fashionable at the moment.
Today, my requests include an order of 15 pairs of shoes for a dancer with the Paris Opera and one pair for a male dancer from a Monte Carlo company. It’s for a size 10 and not my favourite – most of us here prefer to make smaller sizes. I start by using a ‘last’ as the basis for sizing the shoe. These used to be wooden but are now plastic and come in different sizes and width fittings. Sometimes, I’ll need to use a wooden last, such as for making the size 10 but I’ll put a plastic bag over it as otherwise the paste sticks to it and it’s a devil to work with. After the sole is stapled on to the basic material of satin and calico, the block is made from layers of hessian and paper that are bonded with a paste. This paste is made from flour – Cornflakes are made from the same flour – and is water based. When I hear stories about dancers bending the shoes and banging them with a hammer to soften them it makes me laugh because as the paste is water-based, all they need to do is hold them over a steaming kettle to make them more pliable.
Every shoe is hand crafted and as we all make shoes in a slightly different way, some dancers request a certain maker. One of my colleagues makes shoes for Darcy Bussell. We all have our own sign that we stamp into the back of the sole and mine is the playing card symbol for the ace of clubs.
The shoes are made inside out and when still damp from the paste I mould the block, or tip, of the shoe so that it is flat and then smooth out any bumps on the satin. Another worker stitches them using a Model K machine that is more than 50 years old. Then the shoes are placed in a large oven for 14 hours to dry out overnight.
It’s an unusual job and when you tell people for the first time they tend to think you’re gay. Car insurers have a problem deciding what sort of category to put me in as well but have decided that ballet shoe makers come under ‘light industrial’ employment. My two daughters have decided that they prefer horse riding to dancing and after seeing the state of some dancers’ feet, I’m quite relieved.
People are usually fascinated and I was once asked to give a talk to the WI. I took along some soft toed shoes and showed them how they were pleated, or folded, at the toes and said if they wanted to see the whole process, to come along to the factory. I was surprised when about 10 of the women turned up.
We usually end up with broken nails and cut fingers and it’s one of the hazards of work but we get paid for how many shoes we make so you can’t afford to have time off with cut fingers. The factory closes at set times during the year: at Christmas and also for two weeks during the summer but if you want any extra time off it is unpaid.
The job is repetitive so I sometimes listen to cricket on the radio and it’s also physically demanding. I’m standing for about eight hours a day but I have the best paid job in the factory.”