Ireland visits Mt Vic (Devonport dog walks #3)

Ireland the Labrador loves walking up Mount Victoria/Takarunga, known by Devonport locals as Mt Vic. Of unknown age, it is the tallest volcanic cone on Auckland’s North Shore, though being only 87 metres high it is really a hill rather than a mountain. The wooded lower slopes are surrounded by old houses, churches and a primary school and there are several access points.

Mount Victoria viewed from Cambria Park

We usually approach the site through the historic cemetery, dating from the late 1800s, where the Maori warrior and peacemaker Patuone is buried alongside early white settlers.

Mount Victoria cemetery

Mt Vic was once a Maori pa (fortified settlement) and the remains of old terraces and kumara pits can be seen alongside the walking tracks that now encircle the site. Ireland seems fascinated by the place and sometimes, perhaps drawn by sights or smells or spirits of the past, he dashes up the steep grassy hillside and on one occasion took half an hour to return. At other times he freezes on the path as if hypnotised.

Ireland transfixed

On the summit, with its panoramic views of Rangitoto, the Hauraki Gulf, Waitemata Harbour and Auckland’s CBD, are various modern structures: mushroom-shaped vents for an underground reservoir, a signal station for shipping, a disappearing gun. There are a few older military remains on Mt Vic and a delapidated army hut, known as the Bunker, is the venue for the local folk music club.

The Bunker

After completing the steepest part of the walk, Ireland and I stop for a rest and a snack.

Ireland hoping for another biscuit

Ireland visits a maze (Devonport dog walks #2)

Last week I wrote about taking Ireland, my dogshare Labrador, to North Head. Another of our favourite places to walk around Devonport is Ngataringa Park. Developed in the 1990s from an old landfill site, this is not a formal park but mostly consists of large fields which provide an ideal space for dogs to run and play and roll in the long grass.

Various local landmarks can be seen from the curved path that runs through the park. Auckland’s harbour bridge, viewed from across the tidal estuary with its mangrove swamps. Mount Victoria, or Takarunga – the highest volcanic cone on the North Shore – and another good place for a dog walk. The massive new retirement complex being built on a nearby hill overlooking the site. There is a skate park in one of the fields, and a piece of artwork, a pair of wooden statues called The Guardians.

At the far end of the path is a maze, intended to represent the interweaving between Maori and Celtic cultures. Beside it, a network of small circular paths bordered by stones is hidden in a group of trees. This is the halfway point of our walk, and while I have a rest on one of the rustic seats made of driftwood, Ireland eats a few biscuits and then waits patiently at my feet.

We can either go back the same way that we came, across the fields, or take the lower path which is shaded by an arch of trees.

Ireland visits North Head (Devonport dog walks #1)

As Auckland’s lockdown continues and we are told to stay within our own postcode area, the highlight of my daily routine is a walk with my dogshare Labrador, Ireland. There are several interesting places nearby and one of our favourites is the hill called North Head, or Maungauika, which forms a prominent landmark at the end of the Devonport peninsula.

Dogs are permitted here – on lead

The hill is encircled with a network of paths and from the higher ones there are spectacular views of Cheltenham beach to the north, Rangitoto and the islands of the Hauraki gulf to the east, the Waitemata harbour and Auckland’s CBD to the south. It was a wonderful location for watching the yacht races during last summer’s Americas Cup.

Cheltenham beach
Rangitoto

North Head was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions about 50,000 years ago. About 1,000 years ago it became occupied by a Maori tribe, then after European settlers arrived was put to use as a coastal defence site. During the late 19th century a number of large guns were installed to deter a feared Russian invasion. Fortifications including more guns, searchlights, tunnels and underground rooms were added, using prison labour, to cope with subsequent threats during the two world wars. The army left the site in the 1950s but a naval training school remained on the summit until 1996. The site is now managed by the Tupuna Maunga Authority and open to walkers and their dogs (on lead).

One of the many guns on North Head

Remains of the old military installations can be seen around the site. Some of the tunnels are open to the public, others shrouded in mystery and rumoured to contain aircraft or military secrets. At present however all the tunnels are closed due to Covid restrictions, as is the colourful toilet bock.

Ireland denied access to tunnel
The toilet block

I find North Head a fascinating place which carries an air of mystique. It features in Carmen’s Roses, the first short novel I wrote after coming to live in Devonport.

Murder mystery in Matakana

Matakana, a pretty village in the wine-growing region north of Auckland, was the venue for Sunday’s launch of the novel Blood on Vines by my friend Madeleine Eskedahl. My husband and I attended the event and stayed in the Matakana Motel overnight.

Matakana Estate, photo from TripAdvisor

I am unable to drive while recovering from a wrist fracture, so we took public transport. This involved working out the connections between four bus routes: 814 to Akoranga, NX1 to Hibiscus Coast, 995 to Warkworth and 997 to Matakana. We were almost the only passengers for parts of the journey, and as the modern double-decker NX1 on its dedicated busway sped past the traffic jams on the parallel motorway we wondered why Aucklanders are so wedded to their cars. However the trip did take a long time because the rural buses are infrequent. Our wait in the charming little town of Warkworth was pleasantly occupied with lunch and a riverside walk.

The book launch took place in The Vintry, Matakana, an intimate bar in a complex which also contains a cinema, restaurant and boutique shops. We were served with a selection of local wines accompanied by platters of cheeses and tapas while listening to readings from Madeleine’s novel. I haven’t opened my copy yet so can only quote from the back cover blurb: “… an ex-wine-maker is murdered … a rampage of death is about to rock the local community to its core.” The event was well attended and it was good to see some fellow members of the Auckland Crime Writers group.

Madeleine and Jennifer

Afterwards a walk down Wharf Road to the Matakana River. The public toilet buildings at the top of the road looked most distinctive.

Photo by Brian Barraclough

A dip in the pool at the Matakana Motel, and a delicious dinner at the Matakana Country Kitchen, rounded off the evening and our overnight accomodation was quiet and comfortable. There was a spot of panic in the morning when, due to a discrepancy between the timetable on the bus shelter and the information on the Auckland Transport app, we risked missing the 997 on its occasional trip from Matakana to Warkworth. But all was well and we were home by lunchtime. It felt good to have had a “mini-break” especially considering that, due to lockdowns, I haven’t been away from Auckland since my last visit to England in 2019.

Trauma on Cheltenham beach

One of the loveliest walks on Auckland’s north shore, only possible at low tide, goes around the headland between Cheltenham and Narrow Neck beaches. Three weeks ago I set out on this walk but slipped over backwards on a wet rock and automatically put out my hand to break my fall. A sharp pain, accompanied by faintness and nausea, told me I had broken my wrist. A kind passerby helped me walk to the road, and a kind friend drove me to an emergency clinic where Xray confirmed a displaced Colles fracture of the radius and fractured tip of the ulna. Over to the public hospital, and a long wait to have the fracture reduced under local anaesthetic. Home at midnight with swollen fingers peeping out from a pink plaster cast.

Having had previous injuries that recovered quite easily, I wasn’t prepared for the long haul ahead. For the first fortnight I was constantly in pain, and struggled with basic self-care. It was a great help to have my husband taking over household tasks, and relatives and friends providing meals. I expected the worst would soon be over, but met with a setback. A followup Xray at the outpatient clinic showed that the bones had slipped back out of place and a further attempt at reduction, this time without local anaesthetic, was unsuccessful.

Surgery was proposed. I packed my bags and spent an anxious few days awaiting the call to come into the hospital, after starving from midnight. But apparently, discussion within the orthopaedic team had reached the conclusion that the likely benefit of the operation was too marginal to justify the risks (and New Zealand had just gone back into another Covid lockdown, limiting hospital services). I’ll find out more at my next appointment this week, but from what I gather so far the recovery will be a slow process and I’m likely to be left with some permanent deformity and weakness. Things could be far worse, I know, and I hope to be able to return to my former activities of dog-walking, cathedral choir, swimming and driving before too long. Meanwhile I can still go for walks, and enjoy the glorious summer weather. And in theory I have plenty of time to work on my next novel, though typing with one hand is cumbersome and inspiration lacking.

I’d like to be able to say that my recent exploration of Stoic philosophy is helping me to cope with all this. A recent article https://classicalwisdom.com/philosophy/stoicism/marcus-aurelius-stoicism-and-pain/ emphasises the basic precept of focusing only on those aspects of an illness or injury that are under personal control – for example making informed choices about treatment, and taking general steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle. There is no point dwelling on the negative aspects, or getting stuck in feelings of resentment, frustration or regret. The aim is to accept the situation and develop a constructive response. Simple basic advice, not so easy to put into practice.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. Details can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

Summerland and Hope Gap

For many years after coming to live in New Zealand in 2000, I was able to make regular return visits to England to see my friends, relatives and favourite places. Spending a day with Lesley, who lives in East Sussex, was a regular feature. After having lunch either at her home or in a local pub we would go for a walk on the windswept downland between Seaford and Eastbourne with its views of the Seven Sisters cliffs (inspiring a scene in my novel You Yet Shall Die) followed by a cup of tea in her beach hut.

My 2020 visit had to be cancelled due to the pandemic restrictions. It’s been some compensation to be able to talk to people on Zoom, and to see my home country on screen. I was excited when Lesley told me that two movies – Hope Gap and Summerland – had been filmed in the area where we used to walk.

Hope Gap, which I saw last year, is a family drama charting the breakdown of the marriage of a middle aged middle class couple. Their young adult son takes long walks by the sea while pondering how to mediate between his introverted father, who has announced that he is leaving to live with another woman, and his melodramatic mother who is devastated by the situation. This film tackles its subject seriously but with touches of humour. It would not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it an absorbing story intelligently told.

Summerland has only just arrived in New Zealand cinemas and I saw it yesterday. The main action is set during World War 2. A reclusive woman writer, embittered since the ending of a lesbian love affair, is furious when she is forced to take in a boy evacuated from bomb-ravaged London. Predictably, her heart eventually softens and the film has a happy ending. I found the story rather sentimental and contrived, but the scenery was lovely. Although allegedly taking place in Kent, most of it had been filmed in the same part of the East Sussex coast pictured above.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

Expat blues

Even though I’ve been very happy living in New Zealand for the past twenty years, I expect England will always feel like home. I’ve been fortunate to be able to return for a short visit every summer – until now. I had booked to fly to London next week but my trip has been cancelled due to Covid-related restrictions.

Earlier visits involved a joyful, if exhausting, whirlwind of activity – travelling round the British Isles by train and plane, staying a night or two in several different places, often having lunch, tea and dinner engagements with different people on the same day. The itinerary has gradually become less demanding, as I realise I can’t see everyone every time, so recently I’ve just stayed in London and done day trips. I always try to see my closest friends and relatives, and visit some favourite places – Oxford, Malvern, the countryside of Kent and Sussex – which hold special memories or are featured in my novels. I also like to visit one or two tourist attractions such as Blenheim Palace or the Tower of London. And I always buy something from Marks and Spencer.

The change to a less hectic pace is partly my own choice, as I don’t have so much energy as I used to, but partly because my circle of friends – mostly in their 70s and 80s – is shrinking. Six of those I knew and loved have died in recent years. I was able to visit all of them in the last months of their lives, but because of being back in New Zealand was unable to attend any of their funerals. Several of my surviving friends are unwell at present, and one of the hardest things about being unable to travel this year is not knowing when and if I will see them again.

Apart from that, I don’t mind staying home. I have my memories and photos of England, and the internet has made it easy to keep in contact with people at the other side of the world, even if not all of them can accesss Zoom. I’m glad not to be parted from Brian, the cats and the dog. And Auckland is a lovely place to be, even in winter, with the weather reasonably warm and many flowers in bloom.

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Jennifer Barraclough’s latest novel You Yet Shall Die, set in Kent and Sussex, is available from Amazon.

Memories of a childhood in Kent

Apple blossom in Kent: photo courtesy of Bruce Williamson on Unsplash

Until the age of nine I lived with my family in Gravesend, Kent. I was happy there and did not want to leave, but life took me in other directions and it was about sixty years before I went back. I found many changes, but still felt an attachment to the town and the surrounding countryside, and had intended to return this summer from my present home in New Zealand. That trip is no longer possible because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Instead I joined several Facebook groups devoted to the area, and seeing all the old photos posted there has triggered a few memories of my own.

Our address was 22 The Overcliff, a Victorian house which is now a children’s day care centre. I believe there had been an orchard on that site, and the back garden contained many fruit trees, mainly apples and pears. The Bramley apples, individually wrapped, were stored in the basement over the winter. The front bedroom looked out over the Thames, with the port of Tilbury on the other side, always busy with ships sailing in and out. Between the street and the river was a disused chalk quarry where I used to play, for children were left to their own devices in those days. It was a short walk down to the river itself, and it was there that I learned to swim; no doubt the waters were polluted but I came to no harm.

I attended Milton Road Primary School but remember very little about that, and it’s not there any more. My best friend was called Jennifer Clements; we lost touch years ago.

Much clearer memories relate to outings with my grandfather, Ernest Guy. He was head of the Technical School in the 1940s till the early 50s. He had a great love and knowledge of the English countryside and, especially after he retired, took every opportunity to drive his old black car (an Austin 7?) to different parts of Kent. Summer holidays were spent camping in the Isle of Sheppey, or visiting resorts on the south coast.

Short local visits involved identifying wild flowers and birds, exploring local churches, collecting nuts or blackberries or mushrooms to cook for tea. I remember the orchards and hop fields and oast houses, and walks near Meopham, Shorne, Cobham Woods, Holly Hill … and wonder how many of the old footpaths and woodlands have now been built over, and how many “areas of natural beauty” developed into tourist sites. With no prospect of international travel in the near future perhaps it is best to remember these places as they used to be.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die, a family mystery set on the North Kent marshes, is available from Amazon.com.

A writing retreat

Writers who work from home, especially if they live with a family or flatmates, often find it hard to focus due to a continual stream of demands and distractions. As advised in my short e-book Wellbeing for Writers, interruptions can be minimised by strict time management, setting of boundaries, and self discipline. I know this in theory but still often find myself breaking off to unload the washing machine or dishwasher, check on the cooking, feed a hungry cat or remove it from the computer, or make another cup of coffee. Although standing up and walking about at frequent intervals is better for the health than sitting down for long periods, it does interfere with concentration.

It can be easiest to complete a writing project in a new environment, and thanks to the generosity of a kind friend I recently spent two days in her holiday house on Waiheke Island, revising the draft of my latest novel. All my regular engagements for those days – choir practice, Zumba class, and walking my dogshare Labrador – had been cancelled. Maybe the universe arranged all these synchronicities to support my desire for an undisturbed retreat. But if so, it went too far by causing my precious iPhone to fail beyond repair on the first day. The enforced digital detox threw me into a panic, and I remembered the maxim “Be careful what you wish for”.

Waiheke, with its sandy beaches and vineyards, is just a 40-minute boat ride from downtown Auckland but seems like a world apart. In the summer there are hordes of visitors but now in the middle of the New Zealand winter it is almost deserted, with few sounds except the chirping of birds and the waves breaking on the shore. Here is the view from the deck of my friend’s house.

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It felt strange at first, being on my own in this peaceful place, unable to communicate with the outside world, and having nothing to do except check through the final draft of my novel for errors and inconsistencies. Working on a printed manuscript with a red pencil, after years of only using a computer, also felt unfamiliar. But I soon came to appreciate the quiet solitude, adapted to the absence of my iPhone, and worked both days on my book with just short breaks for lunches at the beachside cafe and walks on the sand. It was the perfect setting for a writing retreat.

It is easy to miss your own typos, so for the the next step I will take another piece of my own advice from Wellbeing for Writers and obtain an independent check from a copy-editor before publishing the novel.

Wellbeing for Writers: Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk Smashwords

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