From Tintern to Tintagel

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It was a dark and foggy autumn day when we set off from the farm in Hereford. We were driving through Wales on our way to Cornwall. Our route took us past the ruins of Tintern Abbey rising above the wreaths of cold mist.

Tintern Abbey, or Abaty Tyndyrn in Welsh, seemed as unreal as its pictures in a book of poems. Yet there it stood, founded in 1131 near Tintern village in Monmouthshire on the Welsh bank of the River Wye. I looked at the remains and imagined the music that once filled the monastery now replaced by roosting crows.

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The skies brightened as we passed through the border to England and headed to the Cornish coast. St Ives didn’t offer sunshine, but it did provide peaceful seaside views and a tasty Cornish pasty.

The next day we were on the road again to Land’s End. It was our three-year anniversary. The sun came out and the sky was brilliant blue along the winding cliff roads. It had been almost 10 years since I last visited Cornwall and to me it hadn’t changed a bit.

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At the end of the country John took me past the famous signpost to a quiet spot overlooking the sea. Here he asked me to marry him and I said yes. That done in a manner that suited us, we were engaged.

A short walk along the cliff path took us to a small farm where we met a cat called Felix the Mighty and his human friend Edward, who I thought might be a pirate. Felix has the honourable title of first and last cat of Britain because he lives at Land’s End where planes fly over to and from the British Isles.

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Edward told us a story about memory and time travel, which I won’t share with you here because it is his story. To say thank you, I shared our secret with Felix and I was rewarded with a semi-precious stone from the mighty cat’s treasure box. John was not so lucky. Edward told him the points along the coastline of Land’s End where a proposal must be done and to take me there immediately.

And so we walked further up the cliffs where John proposed twice more – in all, three times for the three years we have been together.

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The sun was starting to fade as we drove to the charming village of Marazion. We parked for a late afternoon stroll across the Giant’s causeway to St Michael’s Mount – we had till 6pm before the tide returned. “Keep an eye on the sea,” said a local as we went across. “Because God and tide are two different things.”

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The castle at the top of the mount is almost 900-years-old and belongs to the St Aubyn family, who have lived there since the 17th century. According to Cornish legend, a giant’s stone heart is trapped within the mount.

The island village itself is all cobbled streets and cottages surrounding the castle’s subtropical gardens. When the tide is out, the beach is the children’s playground and when the tide is in they have the sea all to themselves.

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Our journey through Cornwall, or Kernow in Cornish, continued from St Ives to Newquay to visit The Eden Project. John drove off the map to discover more of the rugged Cornish coastline like Perranporth. Here the blustery week had turned out perfectly for kite-flyers and dog-walkers.

The surfers’ paradise of Newquay offered us a brief moment to catch our breath before taking off again to explore Eden.

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Another surprise was waiting at The Eden Project – bees! These three colourful bee hives are part of a project to conserve the British black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) in Cornwall and the UK.

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The Eden Project is home to artificial biodomes housing a captive rainforest and a Mediterranean habitat with thousands of plants collected from all around the world.

As a beekeeper, the giant bee resting in the flower beds and the hexagonal-celled biodomes made me feel quite at home. Of course, there was lots more to see.

Inside the rainforest we found exotic flowers, curious birds, waterfalls and a baobab tree offering welcome refreshment for the humidity.

From Eden to King Arthur’s country, the remains of Tintagel castle waited on the last day of our holiday.

It was a steep climb up the stone steps to the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. The ruined Medieval fortification is split in two by rocks and sea, which make views of Tintagel simply breathtaking.

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Even more exciting than the castle was the discovery of the Tintagel Honey Shop owned by very charming beekeeper. A whirlwind shopping trip and a couple of jars of honey later, we were due back in Hereford for tea time, I had tasted some delicious local honeys and had a nice chat about bees.

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From Tintern Abbey to St Ives, we’d travelled to the end of the country, seen a giant’s castle and explored King Arthur’s land. I said farewell to Cornwall and a thank you to John for our surprise engagement holiday. That done, we drove back to Hereford racing hot air balloons along the way.

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LINKS

You can follow the adventures of Felix the Mighty, the first and last cat of Britain, on his Facebook Page.

All about Cornwall
St Ives
Land’s End
St Michael’s Mount
Perranporth
Newquay
The Eden Project
Tintagel
Tintern Abbey

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I will have a lot to tell the bees next Saturday! My next post will be about beekeeping notes for November with a flurry of snow.

This is our garden

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This is our garden. The trees are rustling and the plants are awakening. We don’t know any of them yet.

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The fountain sprinkles in a pond where brightly coloured fish swim. We are keepers of fish now.

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The sun shines through the windows of the kitchen bringing warmth and light to our new home.

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Today is moving day. John and I are moving to our new house. The journey to get here at the start of the year was longer than we thought it would be, but we finally arrived. With the help and love of our families. Our very first house.

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Dreams do come true.

Venice, city of water and light

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In the cold month of February comes St Valentine’s Day, the 14th, with skeleton trees in parks and plants shrivelled away by frost. It seems a strange season to celebrate romance, but I saved this pretty picture post for when winter should be stirring with thoughts of spring.

In December I was whisked away for a birthday surprise to Venice. John had planned the trip in secret, revealing our destination last-minute at the airport. I was so excited – Venice, an impossible city floating on the water, just a few hours away by plane.

John is a seasoned traveller, but even he was struck by the uniqueness of Venice. Our boat bus took us past brightly coloured buildings along the canals, water seeping in doors and lapping at shuttered windows. The city, said to be founded with the dedication of the first church at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421, is built on 117 islands linked by bridges across waterways.

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We stayed at Piazzo St Marco, the main public square with gulls flying over the famous Basilica during the day and fairy lights illuminating passage ways at night. Walking in Venice is the best way to get around the little streets and bridges. It is a quieter place in winter with fewer tourists and, of course, no cars. Breakfast views of early morning gondolas to night-time scenes of beautiful moonlit palaces, Venice is a jewel of old world charm, art and architecture, culture and history. Here’s our holiday highlights…

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As travellers we felt welcomed by the local culture and traditional way of life.

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Of course, we had to do the tourist thing.

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How’s this for romance? The house where George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin.

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A short island hop took us from the main city to Murano, a beautiful paradise of rainbows and glass.

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And twilight had so many colours mirrored in the skies and seas.

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Venice by night is magical, like stepping back in time. I felt truly spoiled – thank you John for the most wonderful birthday surprise!

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We needed only a few days to become familiar and fascinated by Venice. Flying away from the city of water and light, John found a video that explained: How does Venice work? Enjoy watching Venice backstage…

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Inbetween not-a-bee post

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We stood on high ground overlooking the rural moors and rugged hills of Lancashire. Sheep stared quizzically as I raised my iPhone to take a photograph. The camera was in the car boot, and time spent admiring the darkly inviting Northern countryside was measured by a lack of road signs and failing satnavs.

Crossing an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) meant we were spoilt for choice for taking pictures, but the weekend was a whirl from start to finish: a wedding in Stonyhurst, a farmers market and ukulele band at Otley, and a reunion with mutual friends from Dubai in Bradford. The camera never got out of its case, but we took plenty of pictures.

Here’s a fantastic photo taken by John as we stumbled across a stony brook at the Inn at Whitewell.

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And a snap I took walking through the village of Silsden, still decked out for Tour de France.

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When we got back home to London on Sunday night I unpacked my camera with a pang of guilt, mixed with satisfaction there was no memory card to process.

I inherited my passion for photography from my photographer grandmother, Antonie Dees, who had a studio called Cameracraft in Surbiton, London. My interest grew as a magazine editor working photoshoots with professionals like Mark David Hill and Jonathan Perugia, till I finally bought my Canon DSLR.

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The joy of using my Canon camera to capture almost what my eyes can see – the light, colours, textures, detail – hasn’t diminished. However, I’ve learnt that a good picture can come from seizing, as well as seeing, the right moment, like the photo above taken while we explored Cowley on a rainy Saturday afternoon. So I’ve put my camera aside this summer for a busy time at work and a new resolution at beekeeping to focus more on keeping bees than photographing honeybees.

And bumble bees…

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Instagram started as a tool to improve the quality of iPhone photos for my blog, but it fast became an opportunity to see a great photo on the move and take it quickly. And it was fun. Here is a space not only for snapshots of daily life but for creating a scrapbook of moments. As a teenager I loved making scrapbooks and now I have a virtual one on my phone, called @cameracraft2010 after my grandmother’s studio.

Mark David Hill once said to me, “All you need is a camera phone.” He was right. Here’s the story of the summer so far in a stream of scrapbook-style memories…

Swans frolicking in the lido and a woodland train ride at Ruislip.

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People or bird watching at lunchtime.

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Or just noticing the ordinariness or splendour of where you are.

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I hope you found some inspiration here for camera phone pictures too!

This is an inbetween not-a-bee post while the honey is harvested, but bee drama returns next week.

INSTAGRAM 101

Thinking of trying Instagram? Do, it’s easy and fun to use. If you want to use it professionally, such as brand building or networking, then the same applies as any communication channel – post excellent content that stands above the rest (less is more) and which appeals to a very, clearly defined audience. There are many articles online that give advice about times to post and hashtags to use, but there’s no real secret to success other than posting good stuff.

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

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A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

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There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

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Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

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There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

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I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

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On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

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On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

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This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

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What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

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Nanny Africa

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On this day in 1927 Antonie Ursula Dees was born. Photographer, traveller and explorer, Antonie was an enigma to all who knew her. To me, she was grandmother. Antonie was a restless spirit, but she found her heart in Cape Town, South Africa, where she spent many years. In later life, she returned to Germany and lived in Dannenberg until she died on 9 May 2013.

My grandfather called her ‘The African Connection’, which I think she liked. When Nelson Mandela died last week, I reflected how strange it was that another life passing can make the grief well for a loss not yet felt. Mandela inspired a nation and his story caught the world. My grandmother was my African connection and my inspiration. This is her story.

Antonie was born in Pritzwalk, a village in what was then East Germany. Her parents, Franziska and Rudolf, had five children – Antonie, her two sisters Inge and Ilse, and two brothers Heinz and Rudolf. ‘When we were little my father would wake us early,’ I remember my grandmother telling me how they would ‘rub down in snow and go for a run before breakfast’.

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My great grandmother Franziska with Antonie as a baby and her two brothers Heinz and Rudolf.

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My grandmother was a beauty. Here she is aged 17.

Before the start of World War II, the family moved to Hamburg and when the war began Antonie recalled how everything changed. ‘We had to watch in the playground at school as the old Deutschland flag was lowered and the new Nazi flag raised up the mast.’ Antonie and her sisters also quickly learned to choose their friends with care. ‘A Nazi youth caught Inge talking to a Mexican boy and warned her not to speak to him again. We were afraid because families disappeared overnight.’

When Antonie’s father, my great grandfather, refused to let his children join the Hitler Youth, he was sent to the front line in France where he was killed by a British bomb. In later years, my grandmother and her siblings traced their father to an unmarked mass grave in France.

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Antonie Dees, photographic student in war-torn Hamburg c1934.

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My grandmother knew a sculptor who made this bust of her. It was destroyed by British soldiers after the war.

Antonie was a photographic student growing up in war-torn Hamburg. She remembered night-time raids and women with babies running to the River Elbe to dowse the flames. Hamburg was demolished by the time the war was over and the British troops arrived. ‘My older brother Heinz made friends with a British RAF soldier who gave him food to feed the family. Then one day Heinz brought the soldier home.’ The British soldier was Kenneth Spooner, my grandfather. Antonie and Kenneth fell in love and he asked her to return to England as his bride. My grandmother was one of many young German women who sailed to England on a war brides’ ship. ‘They had boats in front to break the ice as we travelled across the North Sea.’

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My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa during World War II.

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British soldier Kenneth Spooner stationed in post-war Hamburg.

I can remember my grandmother tell of her amazement when she arrived in England. ‘There were apples, oranges and bananas that we had not seen for years.’ Antonie said that the British people were very welcoming and she soon felt at home in England.
Kenneth and Antonie had two children, Kenneth and Veronica – my mother.

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Kenneth and Antonie Spooner with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951, London W13.

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Kenneth and Veronica, my uncle and mother (aged 10 and 6) in Ealing c1957.

Sadly their marriage was not to last and after it ended Antonie opened a studio in West Drayton called CameraCraft.

By my mother’s accounts, nanny was a trailblazer in her day. Antonie was the first woman to take the photography course, and pass her exams, at Ealing Polytechnic and Harrow College. Highlights of her career included aerial photography in a Hughes 300 helicopter, travelling to Austria and Switzerland to make films, shooting actress Una Stubbs for Women’s Magazine, and training an apprentice for renowned British photographer David Bailey.

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Reaching the height of her profession, Antonie was featured in a newspaper article ‘Mrs. Dees Great Experience’. The article reported ‘she accomplished something few women have’ on her experience of going up in a helicopter to take photographs for a local authority. The reporter wrote: ‘Mrs. Dees feels she can photograph practically anything. She has photographed wounds in hospitals; vehicles jammed under bridges, the Lord and Lady Mayor of London, and many other events.’

She loved to travel and explore faraway places. Cape Town, South Africa, was far from London being on the other side of the world. Antonie was enraptured with the country and its people so she decided to live there. And that was that. Without much in the way of permission, my free-spirited grandmother in her early fifties left her home and flew to South Africa to start a new life. She quickly made many friends and had many adventures. Here are some photos from her albums.

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Antonie got a job as the first woman working for the Boiler Maker Union where she changed the oil in large tanks to pay her way. She eventually settled in a small flat in Cape Town at the foot of Table Mountain and overshadowed by the Lion’s Head. Her experience in photography allowed her to get a job at the South African Government library archives where she completed a huge project to microfilm all of the newspapers of the last century by the time she retired.

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My grandmother at her work for the South African Government library archives. Her maxim ‘We don’t just talk about it. We do it’.

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Antonie never lost her passion for photography. She liked to take photos of everything she saw.

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View of Lion’s Head mountain, Cape Town, South Africa.

I remember infrequent visits by my grandmother from Cape Town to London. She was a mysterious and glamorous figure in my life growing up, and on one of her visits she brought back an owl ivory necklace for me, ‘her little wise owl’. We loved her stories of travels and safaris and would miss her so much when she returned to South Africa. My mother took my sister and I to visit Antonie for a month in Cape Town, and we all understood why she fell in love with Africa.

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Windy memories in South Africa with my mother and younger sister. My grandmother is behind the lens.

Some years after Apartheid ended, and now retired, my grandmother returned to her roots in Germany. She lived the remainder of her life in Dannenberg.

Antonie Ursula Dees, our African Connection or Nanny Africa as my sister and I called her, passed away on 9 May 2013. Her life burned very brightly and she will always be my inspiration. Farewell nanny.

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Thank you to my mother, Veronica Ilse Howard, for the photographs from my grandmother’s albums for this post.

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In the Land of Fire and Ice

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Iceland – the Land of Fire and Ice. Where rainbows live in waterfalls…

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Hot pools bubble and mountains rumble…

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Northern Lights beckon…

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And locals don’t deny the existence of elves. They live in the lava…

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‘We started the year with hot volcanoes so let’s end it with cold volcanoes,’ said John as we booked a holiday to celebrate the first year anniversary of when we met. He was referring to our trip to Lanzarote in spring and now Iceland waited for us in autumn.

A place of incredible natural wonder, I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, which John knew. So one night he stayed up till 1am to surprise me with an Icelandic adventure in two parts. First, we would explore Reykjavik, a city of art and literature, and then we would discover Iceland, a country of snow-capped volcanoes and frost-covered lava fields.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel on the outskirts of the city and a brisk 20-minute walk to the centre, although it took longer as we dawdled taking photographs on the sea front…

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Reykjavik is a sprawling city of beguiling beauty – historic and modern at the same time with colourful old houses and art deco buildings overlooked by Mt Esja and surrounded by the cold blue sea.

There are so many things to do and so much stuff to see that we were lucky to have our own guide, Hjalmar – an Icelandic beekeeper, show us around his city for the afternoon. And there were a few gems that we stumbled upon ourselves, including…

The Sun Voyager – a hauntingly beautiful sculpture of a Viking ship facing the sea. The sculptor, Jón Gunnar Árnason, created the monument to remind Icelanders of their Viking heritage.

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The Old Harbor – where you’ll find ships, whale watching, Northern Lights tours, restaurants serving fruits of the sea, and a friendly atmosphere.

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Perlan – Reykjavik’s most futuristic building, and home to the Saga Museum, built on four rotating cylinders with a 360-degree viewing platform that provided panoramic views of the city. I loved this beautiful sun dial.

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The iconic white tower is Hallgrímskirkja – the church named after Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. It was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson to symbolise the flowing basalt lava fields of Iceland.

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Harpa – Iceland’s biggest concert hall where a recital of Rachmaninoff was playing when we took a look inside.

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We walked the circular route around the expansive suburbs of rivers and parks, past pretty residential areas to the lake near the town centre. Sunset is striking in Reykjavik.

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And as night falls fast and freezes, the mirror-like Harpa building is lit by multi-coloured lights. John thought it reflected the Northern Lights.

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Image by John Maund

Mid-week we woke up excited to start part two of our Icelandic adventures – from eclectic city break to exploring a strange volcanic wilderness of moss-and-lichen covered rocks with thermal vents of steam rising into the icy air.

We left the luxury of the Grand Hotel to meet our Explore group at Keflavik airport. There was some time to get to know our fellow Explorers before our itinerary started with a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Can you imagine a place so magical that it’s indescribable? This, for me, is the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa pooling into the heart of a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, south-western Iceland. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur – you can smell the sulphur – to which the lagoon is attributed healing powers for skin diseases like psoriasis. I don’t know about that, but I do know my skin has never felt so soft and silky from head to toe after swimming in the Blue Lagoon.

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Magical is one word to describe the Blue Lagoon. Otherworldly is another. ‘It’s like we’re in a science fiction movie,’ said John, as we swam in the hot steaming pools. We were surrounded by a weird volcanic landscape like something out Prometheus, which incidentally filmed the alien world on location in Iceland. I can’t describe anything more romantic than swimming in the mist-covered Blue Lagoon as the setting sun caught the sky on fire and cast a red-and-orange glow across the blue waters.

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Image by John Maund

The Blue Lagoon was a highlight of our holiday, but even better was yet to come.

Hjalmar had warned us of winds from the ‘Northern Pole’ arriving later in the week, and they did. A snow storm blew in as we set off to discover the Golden Circle – one of Iceland’s most popular tours.

Our guide was an Icelander named Valli (I think, at least it was pronounced ‘valley’), and a true bard. Valli was quite kooky, like many Icelanders – I like them! She told and sung us the story of Iceland on our journey – an Icelandic folk song, Christmas carols and the national anthem as we drove past dark serpentine rivers and snowy mountain ranges.

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Image by John Maund

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‘Iceland is the youngest country in the world,’ Valli told us. Geologically speaking. And it is still growing, forming, changing. Our Golden Circle tour encompassed the natural wonders of a country newly emerged from volcanoes and glaciers as it continued to evolve. The land is torn and ravaged by sharp ravines, rift valleys, deep gorges and spouting geysers.

At times it was far too snowy and windy for my DSLR to capture, so this was when John’s automatic was very handy.

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We were travelling in the company of a great Explore group and the blizzard made the day very atmospheric, but Valli had an extra surprise in store. For 200 ISK, or about 70p, we could experience an earthquake 6,3 on the Richter scale.

In 2008 there was a 6,3 earthquake under Mt. Ingólfsfjall – Valli remembers it well – that hit in Hveragerði, Selfoss. Today there is an exhibition of the earthquake – the opening in the earth is covered by glass and an earthquake simulator stands nearby! This is kooky Icelandic humour at work, I think. Valli smiled knowingly as we walked into the shed (earthquake simulator) and walked out shaken (literally) by the experience.

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Our fellow Explorers and Valli made the Golden Circle tour lots of fun, but the best day ever was still to come.

The untamed shores of Southern Iceland have black sand beaches, troublesome volcanoes, waterfalls bursting out of mountain sides and ice caves sculpted in glaciers. Our trip to the coast was met with the return of the sun and scenes so awesome and dazzling that no one could put down their camera.

You may recognise the popular tourist spot below – the unpronounceable volcano that Icelanders fondly call the ‘problem child’. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 spewing ash clouds that caused havoc to air travel across Europe.

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However, this is just a baby volcano. Icelanders are waiting for Katla.

The surrounding area of Eyjafjallajökull is covered in volcanic ash. ‘Please take a bag,’ said our guide and bus driver. ‘We have plenty. No really, take away as much as you want.’

We were so lucky that the weather had changed again, because without the sun we would not have seen the famous rainbows in waterfalls. John joked that I had the biggest smile stuck to my face, but I have never seen anything like this. This is actually real…

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Iceland is magical. Where else could I walk to the end of a rainbow?

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A sense of wonder? Wow.

And the day just got better. We went ice climbing on a glacier…

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Our beautiful mountaineer who took us safely around the glacier. She and her team were absolutely brilliant. And made sure we had a fantastic time.

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John, the intrepid explorer.

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Drinking pure glacier water – delicious! Image by John Maund

Walked across beaches with alien black sand…

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And roamed behind thundering waterfalls…

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And did we find the elusive Northern Lights? They took some hunting down…

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And more than a few nights searching. Lucky that John had booked us extra time on our tour so that we could try one more time…

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A week had sped past and as our plane flew away from the Land of Fire and Ice, I thought of how many dreams had come true.

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I hope you get to go to Iceland too.

Useful links

Flights – we flew with Icelandair
Accommodation – we stayed at the Grand Hotel
Activities – we booked with Explore

Food and drink – there are lots of excellent restaurants in downtown Reykjavik. Is it expensive? I’d say central London prices. And I particularly recommend eating at the Laundromat.

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Next post 23 November: back to the bees!

Beekeeping in Iceland

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I watched our bees fly home on a mild autumn day with the treasures of their colourful forage bulging out of pollen baskets, and wondered when they would start to huddle up to survive the forecast of a long, harsh winter. I couldn’t imagine then that a colony would flourish in a place where autumn cooled to 0–3°C during the day and dropped to below zero at night.

The following week John and I flew to Reykjavik in Iceland for the first year anniversary of when we met expecting to see glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes and, of course, the Northern Lights. We had packed thermals, knitted jumpers, hats, scarves, gloves and waterproofs to prepare for wind, rain and snow, although we soon found that the weather report changed from hour to hour and, as the locals said, ‘If you stand still for five minutes you will have all-new weather’.

We had a full itinerary to explore the eclectic city of Reykjavik and discover the strange and fantastical country of Iceland. We hoped also to find time to meet an Icelandic beekeeper, Hjalmar Jonsson, who had contacted Emily through her blog and, after hearing that John and I were visiting Iceland, had generously offered to show his hives and take us around Reykjavik. When I emailed to arrange to meet on Tuesday, he replied that we were lucky to arrive early in the week as ‘strong wind from the Northern Pole was on his way’.

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Iceland was not the first country I thought of when thinking about bees and beekeeping, but Hjalmar is part of a growing beekeeping community in Reykjavik and neighbouring towns. After meeting at the Grand Hotel, he told us a bit about beekeeping in Iceland as he drove us to see his hives. The honeybees in Iceland are Italian and usually imported from Sweden or Norway where they are bred. We were told the colonies have little or no disease or problems with varroa due to their isolation. The main challenge the bees face is not the snow and cold but wind and rain. Hjalmar uses polystyrene Langstroth hives to help keep the bees warm and we later saw that these were firmly strapped down and lined up against a wind barrier of trees and bracken.

This year the summer in Iceland was wet with prolonged spells of rain and a poor honey harvest for Hjalmar, who has two hives, and his neighbour, who has six or maybe more! But Hjalmar was content to have two strong colonies to overwinter and had even set aside two jars of honey for myself and Emily. A very valuable and generous gift!

The day was full of cold bright sunshine with a sharp bite in the air as we walked along the path to take our first view of Icelandic bees. We could have been looking at a row of hives in London, it was all so familiar. We took a few photos and Hjalmar said ‘Now let’s take a closer look.’

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A deserted Warre hive stood empty to the side and in which Hjalmar said the bees had only built two boxes before giving up. He thought the Warre hive might not have been warm enough to keep the colonies going. There was an observation panel at the back revealing the beautiful emptied nest of natural honeycomb inside. I thought how much fun it would be to observe the hives this way in winter, although our bees would likely propolise the window to stop us from being nosy.

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Natural honeycomb built by bees inside a Warre hive.

We walked back towards the Langstroth hives where Hjalmar pointed to a piece of honeycomb lying outside the entrance, he thought it was drone comb. ‘This is when it is hard for us males, John,’ he said. ‘To see when we are no longer needed by nature.’ He was referring, of course, to the end of summer when the males (drones) are evicted from the nest by the females (workers) – a gripe of many male beekeepers. I sensed bonding was occurring.

Unconcerned by the fate of their brothers, a few workers were flying in and out of the entrance, perhaps on cleansing flights or to stretch their wings on a clear day. I asked Hjalmar if his bees were good natured and he nodded, ‘Except one time when I opened the hive too early in the year. They weren’t ready for me’.

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Leaving the bees to enjoy their winter break, we took a stroll along the path to a salmon river – an oasis of calm outside the city populated by dog walkers, ramblers, birds, and salmon. Birdwatching is another passion of Hjalmar’s along with a growing interest in photography and blogging. And he was very pleased to show us the untouched beauty of his country as we drove to see a vast mirror-like lake – Iceland is a land of incredible natural beauty.

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Another surprise was waiting – a visit to a farm in the suburbs where the farmer has been keeping bees and growing apple trees, which, like many trees, are scarce in Iceland.

We were warmly greeted by the farmer’s daughter who was keen to show her father’s hives. ‘We make mistakes and we are learning all the time.’ They were learning fast and their happy, healthy bees suggested they didn’t make many mistakes. Two rows of Langstroth hives were situated under a wind shelter with bees contentedly floating around jars of sugar syrup warming in the sun outside the entrances.

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There were even thermostats on the roofs, so while we were shivering in 2–3°C outside, I could see that the bees were a snug 22°C inside.

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Having grown up on a farm in Hereford, John was keen to look around and we were treated to more Icelandic hospitality with a tour of the greenhouse apple orchard and egg factory. We even left with organic apples in our pockets to eat later.

Iceland is a relaxed country to put it mildly, and Icelanders have a quiet, dry humour that I was only just beginning to appreciate. So when Hjalmar told us we were going to see the president of Iceland, I thought he was joking. He was, sort of.

It is possible to drive up to the President of Iceland’s house, which is white, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík. The residence is surrounded by mountains and sea and overlooks a view of the city. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and his very popular First Lady Dorrit Moussaieffare are said to sometimes enjoy strolls with visitors in the grounds. You can read more about it on this blogger’s visit. Amazing. It gave me a real sense of the closeness and ease of the Icelandic community, which I liked very much.

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I took this one. Behind the church is the house of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, in Bessastaðir, Álftanes, a town in Reykjavík.

After all that bee-ing and sightseeing, it was time for a trip to the oldest coffee house in Reykjavik. If you ever visit, you must go there. Mokka-Kaffi opened in 1958 from its beginnings as a place for artists to meet and today is famous for its hot chocolate. Hjalmar nodded towards a man sitting by the window sketching into a notebook.

As our day was drawing to an end, Hjalmar drove us to the harbour ‘and to take photos’. Hjalmar is practising photography for his blog, which I hope to post a link on these pages soon. The city looked even more picturesque from the other side of the harbour with the sea sparkling across the bay.

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My lovely boyfriend John and official photographer for the day!

John and I had been overwhelmed by the Icelandic hospitality and generosity we had received that day and as Hjalmar dropped us off at the Aurora Borealis museum, I said that we hoped to see him in London next year to visit our hives.

We have kept in touch since and as Hjalmar said, we were very lucky with our visit to Iceland. This was only part one of our holiday, part two including bubbling hot springs, rumbling mountains, waterfalls and glaciers was yet to come…

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Further reading

I suspect the farm Hjalmar took us to visit was the same as featured in BeeCraft magazine: ‘Beekeeping in the land of fire and ice’.

You can read more about Icelandic beekeeping on the association website.

A great blog/website with a personal view of all you need to know about a trip to Iceland

Beautiful Hereford

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As autumn suddenly arrived last week bringing fog, rain, chill winds and giant house spiders, I reflected on one of the best summers in recent years. The sun shone on May’s bank holidays, a heat wave followed in July, and my winter coat and boots were kept in the wardrobe from early June to late August.

This summer I also rediscovered my own country with two visits to beautiful Hereford, the hometown of my boyfriend John. Herefordshire and The Wye Valley are sometimes called ‘the undiscovered country’ with scenic rural views of quiet farms, wooded hills, and tranquil rivers. The historic cathedral city of Hereford is peaceful and picturesque and provides pleasant walks along the River Wye. ‘Herefordshire Cathedral,’ John told me ‘is home to the 13th Century Mappa Mundi – the largest medieval map of the world.’

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We were lucky with the weather in May and had sunny days to explore the English countryside.

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John grew up on a beautiful farm in Hereford and in late August we enjoyed the warm days of harvest, walking through fields of maize corn and picking ripe plums from trees.

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Wherever I go bees are never far! A walk through Queenswood Country Park and Arboretum revealed a ‘Bees in the trees trail’ that we tried to follow…

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While a visit to a country fair and falconry display at Oakchurch unexpectedly fulfilled a life-long dream… an encounter with my favourite bird – the owl! John captured all the action.

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The last days of summer passed almost unnoticed as we walked The Rhea, spied on sheep and herded cattle.

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And as we drove back to London, the first day of autumn ended with a spectacular sunset.

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Next week: autumn bees, mushrooms and raspberry cake at the apiary (although you may first read a preview on Emily’s blog!)

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100th post: Fire mountains of Lanzarote

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Just a four-hour flight away from London lies Lanzarote and the promise of guaranteed sunshine that is too good to resist when the British winter has overstayed its welcome.

Lanzarote is the most easterly of the Canary Islands emerging about 15 million years ago after the break-up of the continental plates of Africa and America. The island was born through fiery volcanic activity and its most recent eruptions in the 18th and 19th centuries left behind a ravaged ‘Martian’ landscape of lava fields and dramatic rock formations.

A speck on the map in the Atlantic Ocean situated off the northwest coast of Africa, Lanzarote is the fourth largest of the Canary Islands, although locals say it is possible to drive from one end to the other in two hours. But who would want to do that when there is so much to see?

This is my 100th post and what better way to mark a blogging milestone than a visit to a volcano!

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The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago and each one blends Spanish influences with its own unique identity. Lanzarote is said to be the most visually striking – a scorched earth of volcanic ash, crumbling rocks, craters and caverns, and lava coastlines – perfect for artistic travel photography!

We stayed at one of the larger resorts at Puerto del Carmen. After a day spent at the poolside, we ventured out to explore the island’s famous Timanfaya National Park, which was established in 1974 to protect the volcanic landscape.

The Grand Tour started with a dromedary ride across the weird lunar desert. (The dromedary is the one-humped or Arabian camel and it gets the hump if you call it a camel, apparently. The term ‘camel’ usually means the two-humped Bactrian camel.)

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As our dromedary caravan set off we passed the point of no return – the devil’s sign. The devil is the symbol of Timanfaya where he still lives, of course. Devilish signs are found throughout Lanzarote because early settlers thought the volcanic eruptions were caused by a demon.

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Lanzarote is currently declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO and large regions of this adventure island are only accessible by coach. So after a fun ride on the dromedaries we took the Ruta de los Volcanes (Route of the Volcanoes) by coach to experience the Montanas del Fuego (Mountains of Fire) up close.

At Islote de Hilario, where the ground was warm beneath our feet, we witnessed ground tests of the volcano. Our guide told us to stand in a circle as hot gravel was dug up and poured into our hands. A burning brush thrust into a pit in the ground and water thrown into holes ejecting turbulently upwards was more evidence of geothermal activity.

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There was even a cooking demonstration at El Diablo restaurant where chickens and vegetable kebabs were slowly roasted over geothermal heat on a cast-iron grill. The restaurant was designed by celebrated artist and architect César Manrique (24 April 1919–25 September 1992) who was born in Arrecife, Lanzarote. His artistic influence is seen across the island.

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And while we couldn’t wander freely around the volcanoes, we were given short breaks to take in the hauntingly beautiful scenery. Here are a few pictures of me and John, a far more intrepid traveller, exploring the semi-active volcano of Timanfaya and the choppy coastline of Los Hervideros.

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As our coach continued to snake around the sleeping fire mountain of Timanfaya, we were treated to a movie-style commentary of Lanzarote ‘on location’. The island has provided the backdrop for a number of films, including One Million Years BC, Enemy Mine, Krull, Clash of the Titans (2010 remake) and Doctor Who: Planet of Fire.

I love this picture taken from inside the coach because the tint of the glass creates a ‘technicolor’ old Hollywood movie effect. I could imagine Raquel Welch running over the hill in her famous cave-girl bikini chased by a plasticine dinosaur.

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We winded through the famous wine region of La Gería where vineyards grow out of volcanic lapilli – little stones that fell out of the air and coated the ground during the volcanic eruptions. Single vines are grown in individual pits protected from the wind by low curved stone walls. This agricultural technique makes an attractive feature across the mountains and the vines are among the few plants to be seen other than cacti and hardy lichens.

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Our visit included a free wine tasting and more opportunity to indulge in arty photography!

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After a quick stop at Lanzarote’s famous cactus garden, Jardin de Cactus, which is home to the world’s spiniest plants and the most out-of-place windmill, our tour finished at Jameos del Agua – an underground volcanic passage formed at the foot of the volcano Monte de la Corona.

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Jameos del Agua is a place of incredible natural beauty enhanced by the artistic touches of César Manrique. The cave system is part of a volcanic tube where local people once hid from marauding pirates and I could imagine this as a scene out of Pirates of the Caribbean.

The underground lagoon is also home to a unique species of blind albino crabs, which can be seen everywhere in the black water like tiny white stars.

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The Grand Tour done, we hired a pedalo-style bike to explore the long beaches of Puerto del Carmen and discovered the flavours of the old town. There is a lot more to Lanzarote than volcanoes, there is also sun, sea and sand, spas, shops, bars, restaurants and a night life that was quite well hidden out-of-season!

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I hope you’ve enjoyed my 100th post. And while it’s back to bees next time, here’s a little video of Lanzarote holiday memories.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother Antoiné Dees who was a talented photographer and adventurous traveller. I only hope that I can follow half as far in her footsteps.

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