Category Archives: resilience

Ice and Mirrors

There was barely time to repack my bags before I had to head off for a few days in London.  I took a Berry’s Coaches bus to Hammersmith in the morning.  My neighbour was part of a group of retired Girl Guide leaders – we began to chat when she commented on my lucet.  Not many people would know what one was!

I navigated to my destination in the far West of London – the very area ravaged by H.G.Wells’ Martians – by bus. Regular travellers may complain about the incessant destination announcements, but they are vital to the tourist

My sister and I took the train from Surbiton to Waterloo for a day out on the South Bank. The Tate Modern had an outdoor exhibition by Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson, called Ice Watch.  Thirty blocks of ice from Greenland were arranged in a rough spiral, reminiscent of standing stones, and left to melt, as a statement about global warming.

ice watch exhibition at tate modern london dec18 1

Some of the ice had veins of subtle colour running through it.

ice watch exhibition at tate modern london 5 dec18

It became very cold that night.  I wondered what kind of statement it would be if the ice gained weight instead, and whether the effect of the cold weather on the pool of water the exhibit generated had been properly considered

We climbed the stairs to the Members’ cafe, which has a good viewing balcony.

ice watch from the members balcony at the tate modern december 2018

The traditional vista with St Paul’s cathedral was impressive too.

classic london skyline from members balcony tate modern dec18

The Hayward Gallery also had an interesting exhibition, called Space Shifters, featuring mirrors and transparency.  The rocks and pillars in the picture below changed colour in a most intriguing fashion as you walked among the frames, some of which were filled with glass.

colour changing rocks at hayward gallery london south bank december 2018

yayoi kusama at hayward gallery london south bank dec18

This picture is of ‘Narcissus Garden’ by Yayoi Kusama.

oil reflections richard wilson hayward gallery dec18

The exhibit by Richard Wilson was genuinely unsettling.  The metal structure is a walkway projecting into a room filled with used engine oil right up to the very level of the handrail.  Although the oil is deep black, it holds a perfect reflection of the upper half of the room.  The walkway narrows as you go deeper in.  One is held by the illusion, yet at the same time aware that to touch the edge of the walkway is to court disaster – at least for your clothes!

As a country mouse I always find the South Bank entrancing.  It seems to me to be the real heart of London, with the booksellers’ market, the colourful skateboard arena, and the performance artists.  This vibrant street life takes place against the backdrop of the art galleries, the famous Globe Theatre, the London Eye.  If you tire of land, you can lean on the handrail and watch the River Thames rolling slowly to the sea, washing scraps of history up along its gravel shores.

It’s a good place for reflections.

 

The ice blocks have melted now and there is a good timelapse film of this, which can be found on Olafur Eliasson’s website.  Like its subject, the film is already vanishing into the sea – this one of the discarded ephemera from yesterday’s social media.

It’s easy to find beginnings, new news, the latest topic.  Discovering what happens next, how it ends, is far more difficult.

Next post, by popular demand…..How to be realistic about storing food for Brexit

 

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Reflections on 2018 – the Year of the Earth Dog

A strange year, which somehow seemed to span two or three, yet provide hardly any time for writing.

I’m sure the dramatic contrast of heavy snow in March with the searing drought of June contributed to this illusion.  It was certainly hard work to grow food, and we’re going to redesign the allotment towards even lower maintenance.

It’s being replaced by more raised beds in the Resilience Garden, to fully utilise the south-facing aspect.  When I worked at outdoor events, this area was paved to store equipment trailers; now the slabs look untidy, so I’m just creating another layer on top.  Our experiences with the allotment validated our use of raised beds in difficult growing areas.  One day town car parks may return to the market gardens they once were.

I completed my photo diary of Towntree Farm in all its seasons.  It’s a pity I couldn’t catch it under snow, but I’d never be able to get there through the lanes!  Now I just have to sort the pictures and decide what to print.  I plan to make an album as a gift to the farmer.

Statue at Towntree farm

Having retired from event services, ambushed by a lack of pension, I supplement earnings from my writings  by cleaning in some of the high-end bed and breakfast places locally.  The sense of ambience developed by arranging festivals is a completely transferable skill.  A room cannot be cleaned properly for a new guest in under an hour – if I can’t have that when travelling, I’d rather go to hostels.

However, there are only a limited number of hours in the day to accomplish this.  Visitors start to leave at ten and new ones will arrive by four o’clock at the latest.  The work should be done by then – many cleaners prefer to be unseen by guests, like invisible fairies!

The nature of the job is thus that one must work six days a week to earn enough to keep a house going at even the most basic level.  A room in a shared house would be easier to manage, but this is part of the resilience agenda where I encounter barriers.  Shared housing is increasingly popular among young people in cities, but not well supported elsewhere.

Despite the hard work and general air of gloom over the latter part of the year, I did manage a couple of short adventures.  My daughter took me to Cardiff to see Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’ musical show, which was awesome!

waiting for the show to start war of the worlds dec18
waiting for the show to start

The whole concept is unique, harking back as it does to a book written 120 years ago, and the performers did it justice.  The way in which sound, lighting and special effects can be combined these days would surely delight the original author, whose love of science was well known!

We stayed at the Park Plaza Hotel, which was pleasant and well situated.  We were able to walk from the central station and leave our luggage at the desk, since we were early for check in.  Xmas shopping was in full swing; we picked up novelties like chocolate spanners and giant marshmallow teacakes, which haven’t made it to rural Somerset yet.

A rare double decker carousel entertains Xmas crowds in Cardiff
A rare double decker carousel entertains Xmas crowds in Cardiff

An excellent buffet breakfast in the morning, and more retail therapy in the big city, before returning to Somerset by train and bus.  I’m using public transport, instead of driving, far more these days – another car on the roads doesn’t seem helpful.

The Park Plaza Hotel grows some of its own kitchen herbs
The Park Plaza Hotel grows some of its own kitchen herbs – very resilient!

There was barely time to repack my bags before I had to head off for a few days in London….but that’s another story

 

When I speak of the plans based on ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to Survive in the 21st Century’ I refer to ‘Level One’.   This is, as described in the Handbook, the very basic level of practical resilience which should be second nature to any citizen, and is easily achievable even today.

The universal understanding of key infrastructure is crucial.  Remote, centralised systems should be moved towards local  management.  We need to become a resilient civilisation, and start the long process now.  There are clear, measurable goals at every level from personal to global.

I’ve refrained from describing further levels until now, collecting feedback on the first stages of the Resilience Project, but I have been exploring them.   The work I’m doing on food security would be about Level Five, I suppose.  It’s embedded in a much deeper lifestyle change though – living as though resilience was already happening.  What would be the same?  How might things change?

Buy ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to Survive in the 21st Century’ from this site, not through Amazon, so that the project actually benefits from your purchase. 

As the song says don’t ‘give all your money to millionaires’!

Next post – Ice and Mirrors

Damage Limitation

Certain seagulls, who lay single eggs on cliff faces, prefer larger eggs to smaller. This can be observed by providing gulls with false eggs to nurture. They will reject their own egg in favour of one so large that the bird looks ridiculous trying to cover it.

There wasn’t any need to programme an upper limit into this genetically controlled behaviour. There were other limits on the size of egg likely to be laid, and no other birds of that size used this precarious habitat.

Humans are social creatures. Alone, we are poorly equipped for survival compared to other animals. Small family groups are also vulnerable, due to the long periods of child care required. In general, the larger the group, the better. Genetically controlled behaviour leads humans to feel more comfortable as part of a large group; other limiting factors controlled group size.

Most isolated humans would feel impelled to join a group, the larger the better. Advertisers, religions and political parties exploit this impulse to the hilt. Join our label, be part of our congregation, follow our leader!

Such unfeasibly large groups must sever their relationship with the land which supports them, such that other instincts like resource conflict seem irrelevant. These instincts do not go away, however, but simmer deep in the subconscious, informing behaviours which seem incomprehensible on the surface.

Competition for territory comes mainly from members of your own species, who require exactly the same resources as you. An expanding tribe would eventually encounter the borders of another group. Conflict might ensue, each group against the ‘other’.

In modern times, this was played out in destructive wars between nations. Now that it is far too dangerous to fully indulge this, different ways of identifying the ‘other’ are employed by primitive instincts trying to surface. In the absence of clear group markers, this leads to confused behaviours.

These instincts, around the potential of resource scarcity and the need to defend a ‘territory’ which cannot be defined, need to be brought into the open and dealt with honestly. We have indeed exceeded the carrying capacity of the entire planet, by a good long way, and urgently need to manage ourselves down from that while we can still prop up the process with non-renewable resources.

There’s no point looking at Science for answers. Science put the solution on the table back in the Sixties – efficient, cheap family planning. If we’d prioritised resilience over economic growth in the Seventies, Britain would be in far less trouble now. We may even have achieved the Age of Leisure as depicted in old science fiction novels, instead of having to work harder than medieval peasants.

However, it’s better to cry over split milk than to try and put it back in the bottle. Although it’s past time for an easy answer, there is a way forward. Start at ground level, resist the allure of labels, and consider what you couldn’t do without. Food, water and electricity are a good start.

Grow a resilient, sustainable civilisation underneath the worn out ways; the old will fall away like a broken eggshell as the new emerges.

I’ve done my bit by writing ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to Survive in the 21st Century’….now you need to read it!

Food, Travel and Practical Resilience

Things have felt pretty relentless this summer – no sooner have I dealt with one thing than another challenge comes forward! Many other people seem to be experiencing the same problem; if you’re one of them, I think October should be a bit calmer. It’ll be a ‘new normal’ though.

With the struggle to keep the vegetables watered, we’ve had to let half of the Resilience Allotment go. The soil isn’t only poor, but infested with smothering weeds and disease. The brassicas succumb to a white mildew, peas dislike the exposed site and potato blight is endemic (because it’s ‘such a good idea’ to plant sprouting supermarket potatoes).

Beans, garlic and courgettes do well, and the raised beds used clean soil imported from the Resilience Garden so the potato crop was small but healthy. Due to years of selective weeding, this soil is full of seeds from edible plants. Left unattended for awhile, borage, marigold, rocket and spinach flourish. Unlike the perennial weeds they replace, these plants can be pulled up easily and composted.

allotment summer 2018

Towards the end of autumn, I’ll clear the ground and plant broad beans and garlic. Instead of the allotment area, I plan to build a few more raised beds in the garden. It’s easier to cultivate food plants nearer home when you have a busy lifestyle!

However, growing just that bit of extra food has meant far less trips to the supermarket, with a considerable saving in money. I got caught out the other day though. Hungry, and with a day’s wages in my pocket, I popped into the local supermarket to get a little piece of steak and some mustard. The bill for all the things I didn’t really need came to over £25! And I forgot the mustard!

Food is a major part of community resilience. It’s such a large subject that I had to write another book (‘Recipes for Resilience’ – out soon!) just to cover the basics of gardening and cooking.

Travel, on the other hand, benefits your personal resilience, as well as providing a welcome break from a dull or oppressive routine, You don’t have to go far – take a picnic lunch and buy a Day Explorer bus ticket. Pretend to be a tourist in your local area for the day.

Travel takes you out of your comfort zone and lets you practise carrying just what you need to get by. Combine it with attending a workshop on your chosen craft, or even go on a survival course for maximum resilience!

So that’s why I write a lot about food and travel. There are many other aspects to practical resilience however, and I’ll spend some time this winter going over the other sections of the Resilience Wheel.

Keep paying attention!

the resilience wheel

 

July Diary 2018

The hot dry weather continues.  Here in Somerset, we’ve only had about five days with even a light shower of rain since Easter.  It’s been a relentless round of watering; not so difficult in the garden, but a real challenge down at the allotment.

allotment irrigation

This gravity fed system delivers a trickle of water to the tomatoes and courgettes, but the barrel has to be topped up manually.

allotment view July 2018

The raised beds are filled with a mixture of leaf mould, shredded paper and soil imported from the Resilience Garden.  This is full of seeds from useful, fast growing annuals which are shading out the perennial weeds.   Borage, marigold and poppy can be seen in the picture; lower ground cover is supplied by scarlet pimpernel and blue speedwell.

These are easy to pull up, and good to compost, unlike the bindweed, horsetail (outwitting vertebrates since the Triassic) and couch grasses they replace.  Most of the weeds have to go to landfill just now, which deprives this poor soil of even more nutrients.

horsetail plant collecting dew
A horsetail shoot collecting morning dew in its specially designed leaves

We took some time out to go to the Scythe Fair in June.  Adventurous visitors could sail down the River Parrret and catch the horse drawn bus to site!

horse bus scythe fair

Most people came by car though, and this is finally becoming a problem.  It’s a wonderful event and its popularity means that some formalities will have to be put in place.  Perhaps it will lose some of its rustic charm…

rope machine demonstration at the scythe fair
A demonstration of rope making

scythe fair signwriter

….or perhaps not.  Suppose it was possible to close the whole lane for a day, so visitors had to leave their cars (in a convenient field) and walk or cycle to the event?   The locals would need to go along with the plan too, and not use their cars for a day.

The management felt that was too radical a concept – and I agree.  It’s a shame that everyone is so attached to their cars!

I’m just about to set off on another adventure, spreading the Resilience word …more when I return!

 

 

The Men’s Shed

In my father’s day, few men in the newly created suburbia lacked a garden shed. The sharp tools and poisonous chemicals, which were still part of everyday life, allowed a ban on children entering. The shed was a haven of orderly peace.

The men justified its existence by repairing household goods and DIY projects. They could indulge hobbies; many people were still quite skilled at craft work. The consumer culture disposed of the first two functions. Dispirited, the lure of the TV replaced the last. When the neglected shed finally collapsed, decking took its place.

Television, though entertaining, is not much company. Once out of the workplace, retired men find few opportunities to socialise and their health is often affected by loneliness and boredom. Inspired to address this issue, the Men’s Shed movement began in Australia just over ten years ago

Essentially, these are community workshops where a group of people meet up to work on their own projects. Rather than an actual shed, which might not be large enough, many are housed in portacabins or empty buildings. Most members, but not all, are retired men.

Street Mens Shed outside apr18
Street Men’s Shed Open Day

The UK Men’s Shed Association was founded in 2013, to provide an umbrella group for the thirty sheds already established. Today, there are over 400 in operation, with another 100 in the planning stages.

The Sheds mainly provide workshop space and tea. They host a wide variety of crafts – wood and metal working, electronics, model-making. Other community organisations soon learned that they could ask for tools to be fixed, or equipment made. Often adapted for disabled access, the Sheds are providing a valuable resource for care services.

Street Mens shed inside apr18

The Association’s website has a map showing your nearest UK Shed, and a resource library to help you start one. Street Men’s Shed in Somerset, who hosted the remarkably well attended AGM in the pictures above, take their information stand to local events. Shed days welcome drop-in visitors, though you may need to be a member to use the facilities; there will be a small charge.

The Reskilling section of the Resilience Handbook outlines the importance of keeping craft skills alive. If you’re following the Resilience Plan, you can see how becoming involved with this group will cover everything you need to know in this section and a great deal of the Community section too. Achieving a useful level of resilience isn’t hard – it just requires the sort of gentle steady progress so unfashionable these days.

A community, town or nation which values resilience doesn’t need public campaigns to live a sustainable lifestyle. Everybody understands where their resources come from, and that payment isn’t always to do with money.

The true goal of a resilient community – and this is a long way off – is to be able to survive on its own, with no imports of goods and no exports of waste, for a year. Once you begin working out how this could be possible, it’s clear that we need to start progress to a smaller population. It’s not so hard to keep a form of internet going, even in a low-technology situation.

Perhaps we could finally depart from the city-state model, which always ends in environmental degradation and the obliteration of a once-proud culture.

…Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away”

 

 

 

 

 

Basic Emergency Planning

Most emergencies you’re likely to encounter are simple domestic ones.  If you lock yourself out, you’ll need a locksmith. Here’s some simple precautions to take, and a few things to try first.

Sometimes things may get more serious.  Suppose you’re snowed in and can’t get to work? Take a look at this guide to your legal position – as both an employee and an employer.  Is your area at risk from flooding? What should you do?

Hebden Bridge floods

Do you know how to turn your utilities off safely? You can protect your home better if you understand these basic principles.

If your area is hit by an emergency, you will either be evacuated or isolated from one or more mains services.   There’s a whole section in the Resilience Handbook about coping with both situations, but here’s some quick tips:-

Keep a camping stove and a portable heater; if you don’t have room for the latter, some hot water bottles at least.  A large flask is also useful.  Have a store of food and water – its size depends on how much suitable space you have.

a box of emergency food supplies

In the UK, the National Health Service and the Government websites will be used for emergency announcements; you could bookmark them.  Announcements can also be made on local radio – it’s a challenge to list all the local radio stations in the UK, but Wikipedia have had a go!

If you’re evacuated, you’ll need a grab bag;  keep this ready packed and check it once every few months.  American preppers are always good for practical survival tips; here’s instructions for assembling a first aid kit.

On the subject of medicines – always take your medications and a copy of the prescription with you in an evacuation!  You may expect to be gone for only a couple of hours, but these situations have a habit of escalating; pack for at least one night away.

There are many ways you can contribute to forming a resilient society, but keeping a grab bag ready is only a small chore.  There may not be much time to escape a flood, so people who are ready to go are really helpful.  If you’ve packed some useful things to share – a deck of cards, some sweets, a spare torch – things can go much better during the long wait at the evacuation centre.

And, if there’s never an emergency….take your grab bag out on a camping adventure and see how it works for real!

 

Some Notes on Apples

It’s starting to look like a late Spring here in a thawed, but still shocked, Somerset.  Plants are cautiously emerging, but the buds on the trees remain resolutely closed.  As their roots are still dormant,  you’ve a little time left to plant out saplings.  This should be done before late March.

Apples are such a staple food that it’s good to have a tree in your garden.  Our estate was built on an old orchard, and a few of the original trees are left.  My neighbour has one, left to grow to its full size over several decades.

You don’t necessarily want one that large.   Techniques for growing smaller trees have been developed over the centuries since the sweet Chinese apple came over the Silk Road to Europe.  Our native crabapple was bitter, but adapted to the climate.  The sciences of grafting, pruning and cross breeding were known to ancient cultures.

Today, a vigorous rootstock is grown, then the top part of this tree replaced with a branch from a ‘fruitstock’.  The resultant apple tree takes on the shape of the root variety, yet provides fruit  from the graft type.   You can buy dwarf trees, bearing your favourite apple but staying quite small.

These aren’t cheap, and will be something of a fixture; it can be several years before you get any fruit at all.  It’s worth going to a short course with an expert to learn the basics of orchard management and how to apply these to your garden.  Knowledge of this kind is a community asset, as described in the Handbook, so I went on a refresher course.

Anthony Ward, our tutor, is the keeper of the Chalice Well orchard in Glastonbury.  We were planting some trees in a new field at Brook End Farm, situated where the Levels rise into hillier ground to the east.

You can see the knobbly bit on the trunk from the graft.  If you have a pot-bound tree like this, dig your hole square so the roots can spread out easier.

The stake is driven in after the tree is planted.  Modern ties allow more movement, as the action of the wind strengthens the roots.  The grass is kept away from the trunk with a mulch; a precaution ignored with less valuable trees.  For the first few weeks, make sure the sapling neither dries out nor sits in a puddle.  Then forget about it till it needs pruning, which is a whole other story.

This is the apple tree in the Resilience Garden.  It grew from an apple core hidden in a plant pot by my daughter.  Although it produces good red eating apples, it clearly wants to be a very large tree.  It’s an example of very bad pruning;  I tried to make a ‘goblet’ shape without taking into account the shading from the fence behind.  After that, I appreciated the courses more.

The mulch to the right of the tree is the filling from a defunct futon mattress, which I’m covering with a thick layer of leaf mould.  I have access to a large pile of this; otherwise I’d use soil exported from the raised beds.  The green shoots are wild garlic; they’ll be ready to harvest soon.

Wild Garlic Pesto

2 rounded tablespoons of crushed nuts (50 grams; 2 ounces)

2 handfuls of wild garlic leaves, washed and shaken dry (100 grams; 4 ounces)

1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese – vegans can substitute yeast flakes

4 – 6 tablespoons of olive oil (100 – 150 ml; 4 – 6 fluid ounces)

a dash of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to taste

Blend everything together and serve with pasta!

I couldn’t resist adding that recipe, from ‘Recipes for Resilience‘…..wild garlic does make a lovely pesto and it has quite a short season.  I grow a lot of it under bushes and in the wild areas, as very reliable spring greens.  The nettles are coming up too – vitamins arriving at just the right time!

I’ve been asked to talk about resilience at the Earth Hour event in Chard, Somerset on the 24th March; I’ll be signing Resilience Handbooks too.   The daytime events are free, so drop in if you’re in the area!

 

The Great Wall of China

Dawn at the Mercure Wanshang, Beijing
Dawn at the Mercure Wanshang, Beijing

It was a cold morning in Beijing, below zero before dawn. We packed our lunch and were off on the coach at 8 o’clock for the Great Wall, some 45 km away. The Wall originally stretched for over 6000 miles, from the sea in the east to the Gobi desert in the west. The best preserved section is at Badaling.

The Great Wall isn’t one continuous structure, nor was it all built at once. Many Chinese empires and states constructed such fortifications along their northern borders, to protect themselves from the fierce nomads who lived on the wild steppes. As these depended on horses to make their raids, a wall was a useful deterrent.

The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who we have already met – it was his terracotta army – unified many of these state walls, so is often credited with building the Great Wall. Very little of his actual work survives though; the upgrades carried out by the Ming dynasty (1368 -1664) are what we see today.

going up the Great Wall of China November 2017

We disembarked on a plaza surrounded by little shops and found ourselves barely prepared for the bitter cold, worsened by the thin, icy wind. This bit deeper as we ventured out along the Wall itself, which is naturally on the highest ground.

Great wall of China, walking back down

The first part of the ascent was steps, then rather steep ridged cobbles. These could have been difficult in wet weather. Although you could walk quite a long way along this section, we only made it to the third guard tower before the cold got the better of us. At least there weren’t the crowds we’d been warned about.

Great Wall third guardhouse

We could see that it would be a splendid place for a hike in the spring, following the dragon-like curves away into the hills. There are hotels in Badaling, as well as day tours from Beijing, but it may not be either safe or permitted to take off on your own for any length of time. A number of guided walking holidays are available. It’s a good policy to check reviews before booking.

View of the Great Wall of China at Badaling

The surfaces of the walls are covered in graffiti marks scratched into the stone, possibly by the hundreds of soldiers standing guard in this cold and lonely outpost over the centuries.  This custom explains the baffling ‘No Scratching’ notices we’d seen around other important monuments!

Ancient Graffiti on great wall of China

Most of us returned to the Hotel Cafe quite soon. The staff gave us bottles of hot water to hold as we ordered coffee!

Great Wall Plaque

Tired and cold, Linda and I rebelled against the walk in the park and the Ming tombs. We stayed on our tour bus and enjoyed the peace of the country. The bus driver chatted to the persimmon seller at her roadside stall; it was nice to just be there, in an ordinary place.

Peaceful car park

By the time we arrived at the tea garden, we were fairly awake again, and a few sips of refreshing samples were welcome. I bought some Puer tea, which improves with age unlike the other herb teas languishing on my shelf. More elaborate brews unfolded into flowers in your cup!

Flower teas

We were offered some optional extra tours – a rickshaw ride, viewing the night lights – but none of these involved going back to the hotel for a rest first. ‘Maybe later’ we all said and grumbled so much we got taken back in time for dinner. Nobody wanted to miss the final day by being too tired!

Wooden toys
Wooden toys seem more popular than plastic ones in the homeland of the latter!

Written Chinese is 1900 years old. There are 8 – 10 thousand characters to remember. About 2.5 thousand are learned in primary school. 3,000 to 4,000 are enough for everyday life; 5,000 for a writer. Over that, you are counted as an expert.

Over the centuries, the complicated characters became very difficult to understand, such that literacy was only possible for the leisured classes. After the formation of the People’s Republic, written Chinese was simplified in various important ways, and now nearly everyone can read.

Next week – The Forbidden City and the Dragon Throne

Beijing and the Quest for Carrefour

We left the Grand Dynasty Culture Hotel and drove through the choking smog of the morning rush hour to Xi’an airport. We had a lot of turbulence on the flight to Beijing, but landed safely and were whisked off for more sightseeing.

It was much colder here; the ‘maybe later’ marketeers sold fur-lined Mao hats and warm gloves. Tired from the flight, it was difficult to properly appreciate the beautiful Summer Palace.

Summer palace lake with lotus

The Dragon Boats were moored for the winter; in the summer season, these rowed out on the lake. Once, the entire court used to sail between the Palace and the Forbidden City.

dragon boat Summer Palace

Although our own camera batteries were nearly done, we did feature in a lot of photos. Despite the crowds, there were very few Westerners here, and we were a centre of covert attention every time we stopped.

We crossed the Palace grounds at a brisk walk from East Gate to North Gate along painted cloisters (restored after the Opium Wars of 1860) used by the Empress Cixi. She was the widow of the Emperor, and ruled for 48 years until her death in 1906 at the age of 73. Her son predeceased her.

cloister windows Summer Palace

The sun set behind hills on our way to the hotel. Autumn had been and gone here, the leaves already fallen; it seems quite abrupt.

We were in a Mercure hotel, out on the fifth ring road of seven. Security was high; there was great confusion in the lifts before everyone realised you had to swipe your room card before you could select a floor!

The next day was to be a long trip to the Great Wall, which was apparently even colder than the city. Linda needed a hat and gloves; we were both out of camera batteries. There was rumoured to be a supermarket just opposite the hotel; we were highly motivated to go out and look for it.

Mercure hotel beijing

Careful to pick up a ‘please take me home’ card from the hotel reception, and take a photo of the entrance, we set off. There was nothing but a large empty courtyard behind the buildings directly opposite; we headed for the road and turned left, away from the hotel.

Most of the high rise surrounding us were decorated with coloured lights, so it was quite easy to identify landmarks. At the next intersection, we risked another perilous crossing – you have to watch out for cars turning into your road, even when pedestrian lights show green. The cycles and scooters are in a world of their own when it comes to traffic control, but they travel quite slowly.

Spotting a Pizza Hut in the distance, we made for that, and found a large shopping mall tucked away behind it. Our quest for a cheap hat led us deep inside, past the designer outlets, right to the far end. Here, we found a Carrefour sign and an escalator down to the strangest supermarket I’ve ever seen!

Camera batteries and gloves secured, we turned our attention to food. The mystery vegetables served at dinner were displayed in heaps; so much fresh meat was out that it was a wonder what they did with it at closing time. Bread and a profusion of little cakes were supplied by an in-store bakery; there was a selection of chocolate and biscuits, some of which were actually familiar.

Back at the hotel bar, we heard the tales from our fellow adventurers. Some people had found the supermarket; many had missed it and found other places; nobody got entirely lost!

view from room Beijing

In China, the culture is to buy rather than rent. A boy’s family must be able to purchase a property and pay for the wedding, or no girl will marry him. The families like to plant trees for their children in order to make furniture for their new home. Although Ikea is an important source, one or two pieces should be traditionally crafted to ensure a long marriage.

The relaxation of the one-child policy, dating from 1979, allows only children to have a second child without the usual massive fine. This is to help with elderly care, though youngsters employed by private companies are reluctant to take it up as they fear losing their jobs. Generally both parents must work, but childcare and schools are good.

Next week – The Great Wall of China