St George of Barcelona

I first wrote this for the Time Out Barcelona Guide.

St George by Raphael
St George by Raphael

What do William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and St George have in common? They all died on 23 April, with the master dramaturge and literary don arranging well-nigh simultaneous exits in 1616. Of course, we’re slightly less certain about the exact date of St George’s death – the more sceptical among historians doubting the fact of his birth let alone the time of his passing – but that has not stopped the enterprising Catalans from amalgamating the feast of their patron saint with the celebrations of the two literary lions. La Diada de Sant Jordi (St George’s day) had been associated since medieval times with lovers, the paramours giving gifts of roses, but in the 1920s the writer Vicent Clavel Andrés proposed marking the birth of Cervantes as a book day. A little tweaking saw the date changed to the more universal 23 April in 1930 and since then the Dia del Libre has gone from strength to strength, with Unesco declaring, in 1995, that 23 April should be World Book and Copyright Day.

Icon of St George
Icon of St George

Thus this most adaptable and travelled of saints makes his way into the 21st century world of supra-national organisations and officially endorsed culture. George has come a long way from the little town in Cappadocia where he was, possibly, born. Of course, there is no historical source for where he came from, nor for the idea that he was a Roman soldier, and not even that he was martyred. But then, there aren’t that many historical sources at all for obscure 3rd century soldiers. What we do have, however, are traces of a man whose mark in history has been all but obscured by the accumulation of later legends. His cult spread rapidly through the eastern Roman empire and by 494 he was cautiously canonised by Pope Gelasius I as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God’.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the religious mind dislikes a blank canvas, so the story of St George soon began to be filled in. The oldest traditions state that he was a soldier who refused to abjure his religion despite the orders of the Emperor Diocletian, who launched the last great persecution of Christians in 303, and was beheaded on 23 April. George’s sufferings soon underwent inflation, taking in poison drinks, being cut into pieces, molten lead and being sawn into two. If some of these sufferings sound a trifle, well, terminal, don’t worry since George was restored to life three times before finally expiring. Pope Gelasius, while accepting George’s sanctity, was somewhat more skeptical about his invulnerability and forbade the promulgation of these lurid legends.

The cult of St George really took off with the Crusades. Those knights that survived brought the Cappadocian home with them, and in the 13th century the best seller of the age, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, featured a new twist to the tale: dragon killing. George became the emblem of the courtly, chivalric culture of medieval Europe, the ideal to be attempted by the rowdy, licentious but essentially pious nobility and a hero to the peasantry who took every advantage of clerically sanctioned days off. Since St George offered protection to those travelling by sea (as well as soldiers, farmers, horsemen, lepers and shepherds among others – he was a busy saint) port cities like Barcelona, Venice and Genoa adopted him as patron. The saint, who didn’t get where he got without results, reciprocated. According to Jaume I George helped the Catalans conquer the city of Mallorca, and the soldier saint played his part in a number of the battles of the long Reconquista, including the 1237 victory at Puig that opened the way for the recapture of the province of Valencia.

Despite a dip in popularity during the Enlightenment and the determined assaults of some recent scholars, St George’s recent move into the literary realm suggests that the old warhorse still has some legs in him. This is one old soldier who positively relishes new tricks.

Back from holiday

We’ve been away in the garden of England – Kent – for the last week, hence my blogging silence. Not that Kent is beyond the reach of the information superhighway, but I left my computer at home and my mobile – an ancient beast in itself – switched off; digital silence…

On Hythe beach
On Hythe beach

Kent was surprisingly lovely, and I’ll long remember the clattering roar of the waves on the pebble beaches at Hythe and Deal, so different from the sound of water on sand. And Dover Castle is magnificent – William may have been a Bastard (the other standard appellation for the Conqueror was ‘the Bastard’) but he certainly knew how to build castles.

While we were away, Edwin started on his blog tour and so far it is going well, with excellent reviews, giveaways and even an interview with me (containing the most interesting set of questions I’ve yet been posed).  Here’s Edwin’s schedule:

Edwin: High King of Britain Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, August 25
Review at Princess of Eboli
Review at 2 Book Lovers Reviews

Tuesday, August 26
Review at Just One More Chapter
Review & Giveaway at Unshelfish

Wednesday, August 27
Interview & Giveaway at Dab of Darkness

Thursday, August 28
Review at Dab of Darkness

Monday, September 1
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Review at Queen of All She Reads

Tuesday, September 2
Review at Flashlight Commentary

Wednesday, September 3
Review at The Writing Desk
Review at The Mad Reviewer

Friday, September 5
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Monday, September 8
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Tuesday, September 9
Review at Book Nerd

Wednesday, September 10
Review & Giveaway at 100 Pages a Day – Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Interview & Giveaway at Thoughts in Progress

Friday, September 12
Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews

Monday, September 15
Review & Giveaway at Words and Peace

Tuesday, September 16
Review at Layered Pages

Thursday, September 18
Review & Giveaway at Beth’s Book Reviews

Friday, September 19
Review at Book Drunkard


Catalan Monsters

This article was first published in the Time Out Barcelona Guide.

What to do if little Johnny won’t go to sleep at bedtime? A glass of warm milk? A gentle lullaby? Or a blood-curdling horror story of child abduction and flesh-eating monsters? Catalan folklore is full of decidedly non-PC espantanens (‘child-frighteners’), designed to make kids behave and – as a side effect – turn them into gibbering emotional wrecks.

El Coco; Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
El Coco; Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
El Coco is one of the best known. With shaggy black hair and fluorescent eyes, El Coco preys on children who don’t go to bed when they’re told. Only leaving his hidey-hole in the dead of night, he lingers in the shadowy corners of children’s bedrooms and taunts them with a scary grunting noise, before grabbing them and carrying them home to eat raw. Sadly, it can be just as dangerous to go to sleep, at least when La Pesanta is around. In the form of a huge black dog with human hands, she jumps on to the chest of those who sleep on their backs; her great weight gives them terrible nightmares before suffocating them to death.

Warning of ‘stranger danger’ is L’Home del Sac (the ‘bag man’), a sinister old man dressed in old brown rags with shaggy hair and a giant sack on his back. Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he lures over any children he sees out alone with sweets and toys and then tosses them in his sack. Back in his castle, he boils down the children’s juicy flesh to produce a fine oil, which he uses to grease the train tracks.


Then there’s the Caçamentides (‘liar hunter’), a man as tall and wide as the towers of the cathedral and with fingers as sharp as claws, which he uses to snatch up children who tell lies. He knows who they are because when a lie comes out of a child’s mouth, it turns into an invisible bird that flies away after leaving a dark stain on their teeth. The birds fly to Caçamentides and tell him where the child is to be found. He barbecues his captives and eats them seven by seven.

Much feared by little girls who live in Bruç, Esparreguera and Piera is the Cardapeçois, a strange and bad-tempered old woman who’s obsessed with well-combed hair. She visits little girls with long, tangled locks and goes at them with thistle heads and, in especially bad cases, the sharp iron spikes used to card sheep wool. She combs until she’s pulled all the hair out, and the offender is left bleeding and bald.

Putting on the frighteners out in La Vall de Ribes de Freser is Jan de Gel, a boy made of ice, and so cold-hearted that children freeze just by looking at him. He throws the human popsicle on his back and carries it to his ice cave to make it into a hearty soup. Another winter sprite is La Tinyosa, who appears as a mass of foggy cloud, descending over any children lost in her territory of the Montserrat mountains and the plains of Vic, and carrying them away.

Our Lady of Mercé

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé
Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?

A Walk Around Mersea Island

First published in The Great Outdoors magazine.

A wild walk can be an excursion into time as well as place. I’ve always been fascinated by how the geography of Britain has changed over the centuries, with generations of farmers nibbling at the sea, while the sea gnaws the coast elsewhere. Mersea, a tidal island in the Colne Estuary, demonstrates this vividly. And who wouldn’t want to walk around an island?

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn
View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

To avoid the July heat, I crossed The Strood, the causeway linking Mersea to the mainland, at dawn. Now tarmac, and regularly inundated at high spring tides, The Strood is itself a link to the past, for the causeway was first laid around 700 AD, when an Anglo-Saxon magnate ordered three to five thousand oak pilings to be sunk into the underlying clay. Oak pilings don’t talk, and later Viking invaders destroyed pretty well all written records in East Anglia and Essex, but one candidate as builder was the monk-king, Sæbbi of Essex, who abdicated to devote himself to prayer.

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn
View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

The rising sun drew a morning mist from the ground and sea. The tide was coming in, and in the dawn silence I heard it slow swirl through the channels of the mud flats. Continuing across the island to West Mersea, I parked and set off clockwise around the island. Walking away from the harbour, seaweed shaggy pilings rulered out into the slowly filling channel and, when I again reached the causeway, the lunarscape of mud flats had been replaced by flat sheets of grey water.

Anti erosion pilings near West Mersea
Anti erosion pilings near West Mersea

From here, a short detour inland made for a long walk into the past. At the top of the rise overlooking the causeway is a barrow dating from the start of the second century AD. Now topped with an oak tree, it would once have been the most visible feature of the landscape for people crossing the causeway. When the mound was excavated early in the twentieth century, archaeologists found, at the heart of the barrow, a lead box containing cremated bones, creating a conundrum under the hill. For the Romans did not raise barrows, and the Britons did not cremate the dead. But here were both.

The oak tree atop the barrow
The oak tree atop the barrow

Returning to island circumnavigation, I followed the Pyefleet Channel. The sun had burned off the morning mist and the water sparkled in the early light. Saxon invaders, in their shallow-drafted boats, used these channels as highways into the country’s heart. Not far up the coast, at Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon king was buried in one of these boats, accompanied into the next life by some of the most magnificent jewellery and armour ever made. It was not hard to imagine the creak of oarlocks and the hiss of oars as the dragon-prowed boats moved stealthily upstream. Indeed, the settlers and invaders of 1,500 years ago were accompanied by much the same soundtrack as I was: the harsh croak of seagulls, the piping whistles of curlews, and the hiss of water and wind. For a few miles I walked in a soundscape unaltered for thousands of years.

Salt marsh on the north coast of Mersea Island
Salt marsh on the north coast of Mersea Island

The north shore of Mersea Island is quiet. I saw a handful of people, mostly on boats, but many swifts, the birds of eternal summer, jinking over the salt marshes, and, along a thistle-lined stretch of path, a cortege of butterflies accompanied me on my way.

View from eastern tip of island
View from eastern tip of island

Reaching the tip of the island, the North Sea opened out, unusually blue and tranquil, to the south, the land marked by shallow orange cliffs. The sea is hard gnawing the land here. Tree roots jut out into empty space, clawing against the inevitable, and then, finally, tumble down upon the beach. The cliffs were laid down 300,000 years ago, when elephants, rhinos and bear roamed the area, and fossil hunters still turn up remains.

Cliffs edging Cudmore Grove country park
Cliffs edging Cudmore Grove country park

The sun was up and I was thirsty and hungry. An advantage of this walk was ending it at one of the excellent seafood shacks in West Mersea, eating the wildlife – oysters, cockles, shellfish – that had, unseen, underwater, accompanied me around the island.

Belgian Beaches

The unlikely fact of Belgian beaches produced a couple of articles, including this one for the in-flight magazine of BMI airlines.

Mention Belgium, and beer, chocolate and Poirot are likely to come to mind. Beaches probably won’t figure. In fact, it might come as a surprise that Belgium even has a coastline, but it does, some 69 kilometres of it, squeezed in between France and the Netherlands, and from one end to the other, the land slides gingerly into the North Sea via miles of carefully tended, perfectly manicured sand. Add to these unexpected beaches Belgian expertise in food, design and fashion, and you have the ingredients for a surprisingly varied get away.

The coast tram (de Kusttram)

The Kusstram
The Kusstram

Sitting by the North Sea, Belgium can’t rely on its weather, so it has to try that bit harder to attract visitors. A Eurostar train ticket carries with it free onward railway travel anywhere within Belgium, so no queuing to pay for a connection at Brussels station. Even more remarkable, however, is the coast tram ( This runs the length of Belgium’s shore, from De Knokke in the east to De Panne in the west, with 70 stops along the way and a journey time from end to end of a little over two hours. With nowhere more than a short walk from a stop, all the resorts become easily accessible. During the summer services run every five to ten minutes, so should the crowds become too thick on one particular stretch of beach, it’s an easy matter to hop on the tram and alight a short time later among grass-covered dunes and stroll down to a relatively empty shore.

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Travel Northumberland

I first wrote this article for Time Out magazine. Since our first son was one at the time, it’s older than I thought!

Bamburgh Castle and beach - at high tide!
Bamburgh Castle and beach – at high tide!

‘It’s perfect, isn’t it?’ My gesture took in not one but two castles, three lighthouses and a beach, broad and empty as the moon.

‘If perfection includes sand blasting and freezing water,’ said my wife.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The Northumberland coast produces extreme reactions. People either think it the most wonderful place they’ve ever seen, and make annual visits as faithfully as the pilgrims to Holy Island, or they get on a plane to a country where toes dipped in the sea don’t turn blue, and wind defences are not a prerequisite for a day at the beach.

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The Weird of Alderley

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

England is tame. It’s been shorn of mystery, its wildness cut away as mercilessly as Aslan’s mane. But there are places where something wild and mysterious lingers on, and some of these places lie hidden in plain sight, side by side with all the excesses of modern-day England. Of these, none is stranger, nor juxtaposed more jarringly with its surroundings, than Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

What is Alderley Edge? In the blunt fashion of so many English place names, the answer is given in the asking. It’s a sandstone ridge, an edge that, depending on how you look at it, is the last ripple of the Pennines before it sinks into the Cheshire Plain or the first step upward from the flat lands. As such, it is border country, and this quality of strangeness is still palpable today. It was this strangeness that made the Edge the ideal setting for Alan Garner’s classic children’s books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. 2010 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone, and the book has remained in print throughout.

Beeston Castle from the Cheshire Plain.
Beeston Castle from the Cheshire Plain.

To get an idea of the geography of the area there is no better vantage point than Beeston Castle (Tarporley, Cheshire, CW6 9TX; 01829 260464;; £5.30 adults, £4.50 concessions, £2.70 children), which is about 25 miles south west of Alderley Edge. The ruins of the medieval castle stand atop and around a great rock crag jutting some 500 feet out of the plain – it may be the best view for the shortest climb in the country! To the west are the Welsh hills, south lies The Wrekin and east is Alderley Edge, marked out by the unmistakeable circle of Jodrell Bank just in the foreground, with the Pennines lying beyond (the visibility of the dish does rather depend on where it is pointing though). But what the view also shows is that this is a settled land, one deeply embedded in history and legend. And it is this that makes the British Isles so much more evocative than their size or comparatively gentle landscape would suggest.

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The Call of the Wilds

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, whereas for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you – given that you’re reading The Great Outdoors – it’s likely the same. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.


Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc predeceased him. In Mike’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.

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