In My Kitchen

Last month three of Britain’s leading lights invited me into their family homes. In three fly-on-the-wall moments of political genius, Camshaft, Moribund and Clogg each revealed their kitchen’s innermost secrets – how the kitchen was the hub of family life and how they shared the routines of a workaday household. Chopping onions, stirring cake mixture and laying the table were all on show, as were recipes offering the nutrition that helps senior politicians tirelessly conduct themselves with vigour and grace.

I felt it only right to reciprocate their hospitality by inviting the three of them round to my house. I say ‘the three of them’ because once other party leaders got wind of my intention they all wanted to come. At one point seven of them were demanding a piece of the action, which I thought was a bit of a cheek since only three had been considerate enough to show me their kitchens.

(L to R) Camshaft, Moribund and Clogg at ease in my Herefordshire  home

(L to R) Camshaft, Moribund and Clogg at ease in my Herefordshire home

At the appointed time Camshaft and Moribund were delivered by smart limousines, though we had to wait a while for Clogg who’d come by public transport and the connecting double-decker from Gloucester to Ledbury had conked out in the middle of nowhere. Once we were all assembled in my kitchen and Clogg had called his mum to say he’d arrived safely, we got down to business.

I think they were instantly impressed! I’d worried that their kitchens would be a tough act to follow, but I could sense a heap of kitchen envy coming my way. And they seemed pleased to be free of the Westminster maelstrom and to bask instead in the haven of my provincial Herefordshire home.

Camshaft was interested in my two sieves – a coarse, plastic one for vegetables and pasta, and a finer one for rice.

My Twin Sieves

My Twin Sieves

‘Moribund’s economic policies would wash away through either of these,’ he said, with a tight-lipped grin.

‘But joking apart, this system is ideal for the smaller home,’ he added. ‘And if the Cons form a new government it will be our aim for every three-bedroom household in England to have twin sieves.’

 

One of my Kitchen Cupboard Doors

One of my Kitchen Cupboard Doors

I noticed Clogg admiring my kitchen cupboard doors. Personally I find them rather dull, but it was flattering to have them thought of so highly by such a senior figure.

‘Our raising of the Income Tax threshold during the past five years has enabled thousands of ordinary households to install kitchen cupboard doors like these,’ he said.

‘If the Never Nevers form a new government we shall raise it even further, allowing millions to upgrade their flip-top bins and oven extractor fans.’

 

Quietly unnoticed during this door-admiring exchange, Moribund had been closely inspecting my Morphy Richards microwave.

‘That’s strange,’ he said, ‘this microwave is timed in minutes only. There’s no “hours” symbol.

My Microwave Control Panel

My Microwave Control Panel

‘That’s quite normal, isn’t it?’ I suggested.

‘It’s a disgrace!’ he said, with as much bluster as he could summon. ‘If Laborious forms a new government, I shall put an end to the outrageous epidemic of zero-hours microwaves.’

We all sniggered a bit – but, fair enough, I guess he had a point.

 

 

 

To get a better understanding of where they really lay on the all-important matter of cooking and kitchenalia, I set them a challenge. I laid out a number of ingredients from which they each had half an hour to make Welsh rarebit. I would stand by and offer encouragement, and it would be called Master Chief.

Camshaft fussed away, admitting that he’d always steered well clear of Wales and this task was therefore a bit close for comfort. He also pointed out that with the extra million jobs he’d created in the economy there were now a million more people able to enjoy Welsh rarebit as a teatime treat.

Meanwhile Moribund was stirring a suspicious-looking mix like nobody’s business, smacking at the unyielding cheesy lump whilst muttering about the right ingredients for a just and fair society.

Sadly, Clogg disqualified himself, breaking competition rules by phoning his mum to ask whether the Marmite should go underneath or on top of the cheese.

Having hosted them in my kitchen, I felt none the wiser about political affiliation than I had when they entertained me in theirs. My test hadn’t really helped, nor did the subsequent debate on television, where Clogg, Camshaft and Moribund were joined by the four other leaders who’d tried gate-crashing my kitchen event:

  • Nigella Gar-arge             You Fancy a Kip Party
  • Theresa Green              Clean Party
  • Nickaless Urge-On        Scottish Gnats
  • Leanne Would               Plied Comely

TV DebateGrandiose claims on the economy, immigration and the National Health Service were bandied about by seven people during two hours of heated debate, but none had the guts to reaffirm their position on recipes, ladles, kettle wattages or, frankly, kitchen matters of any kind – rather disappointing, I thought, after the early promise of three culinary campaigns.

Only weeks till the big day. Cometh the election, cometh the Leader. If they’re to get my vote they’d be well advised to slot in a few more demos at their marble worktops. I tell you, the first person I spot sporting an anti-slip, toughened-tip, ultra-grip, own brand Wilkinson spatula with matching omelette whisk will shout out at me: “WINNER!”

Paul Costello Copyright © April 2015

click. com – a play by Paul Costello. A comic romp through the joys and pitfalls of internet dating for ‘mature’ people. Showing at Bosbury Parish Hall Friday 24th/Saturday 25th July 2015.

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Donuts and Toilets

On a recent trip to Stroud I spotted a postie delivering letters to the Wy Wong takeaway, and since my mind works in mysterious ways I imagined that the white envelopes scattered across the mat were from dissatisfied customers answering that very question.

2014-08-30 13.56.43‘Because it wasn’t the weightwatchers version I asked for,’ might be one reply, or ‘because as always I was still hungry after eating it.’ Or simply, ‘because you forgot to put in the prawn crackers.’ That sort of thing.

Naturally, I jotted these thoughts in the Moleskine writer’s notebook that follows me around, its pages rich with wacky catering snippets – a source of writing inspiration only surpassed by people’s moronic mismanagement of mobiles in public.

A lot of material has come from Indian Restaurants – probably because I’m in them so often. The chicken madras in the Rice ’n Spice at Haywards Heath according to the menu contained ‘avid black pepper’. In the Bengal Lancer at Llanelli you could get a ‘potion of chips’ (spooky).The Bilash at Rugeley offered ‘King Prawn Roshuni – a pleasant dish of king prawns made by our chef,’ which sounded, well, really pleasant. When I hurried the order along at the Jalsagor in Hereford the manager said he’d ‘hasten the papadums in a minute.’ And in the Taste of India at Leominster the menu described chicken tikka as ‘tender pieces of lamb cooked in …’. I wondered if it might have been ‘torn’ chicken – torn, that is, between whether it was a chicken or a lamb. It got eaten, so we can’t ask it now.

Elsewhere, a sign in Tesco exhorted me to buy puddings: ‘Life’s Short – Eat Dessert First’. In the same store a man asked the shelf filler if they had any Camp coffee. ‘Ooooo, I’m not sure. Now let me see-ee.’ And in a lovely cafe called Quinns in Worcester the menu offered ‘a lovely large bowl of home-made soup, lovely salads, lovely old-fashioned puddings and orange squash served in a lovely plastic cup with a straw’. Lovely. I was, however, appalled to see 30p for a glass of tap water with ice and lemon at Nice Things cafe in Ledbury, a charge sensibly removed by new owners.

Further afield, I liked the English blackboard menu outside the Hotel Verol Restaurant, which included chicken breast with chips, chicken wings with chips – and chicken tights with chips, presumably a thirty denier Las Palmas speciality.

I'm sure there's a chimp in here somewhere.

I’m sure there’s a chimp in here somewhere

And during a three-night stay in Bangkok I took a shine to a nearby fish restaurant – Kuang Seafood – which had numerous fish tanks fronting the street. Families and business people filled the room each evening, waiters brandishing huge trays of mouth-watering delicacies and chefs periodically lowering their nets into the bubbling homes of red snappers and catfish. In Thailand what we know as prawns are called shrimps; and tucked among the long list of shrimp dishes I found ‘Baked Chimp with salt’. I didn’t fancy the salt and opted instead for crab curry and fried rice with fish.

On the move, I particularly enjoyed the jolly Welsh trolley man on Arriva trains between Manchester and Cardiff. Happy in his work and determined to offer travellers a new experience, his operatic rendition of ‘Just One Cornetto’ lightened the atmosphere of a crowded carriage, as did his later promotion of sea serpents and snake venom in as deadpan a way as one might sell Walkers crisps or KitKats.

And on a bus near Gloucester I overheard a woman telling fellow travellers they should try a cafe in Herne Bay, Kent which sold ‘the best garlic bread in the world’. Okay – tomorrow perhaps.

I’m used to restaurants glossing their menus; outrageous descriptions are now so commonplace that I rarely bother noting them. A roadside Brewers Fayre listed ‘fresh, hand-battered, pole-and-line caught Cornish cod, served on a bed of chef’s chunky, crispy-dipped potato strips and topped with a jus of caper-infused mayo rich in mountain tarragon’. To you and me, fish and chips with tartar sauce. Even M&S gets in on the act with ‘handcrafted, British pork sausage rolls’. And I found a fine example at the Seven Stars pub in Ledbury: ‘complex, muscular yet graceful, with fine length and lovely maturity’. Not as I had imagined some sort of sex service, but a bottle of Bolinger for fifty quid. A stark contrast with the pundit on a TV wine tasting who glugged some red and got ‘a WVS clothing store’.

2014-11-04 11.04.31

Only last week I found that a Weston-super-Mare seafront cafe had thoughtfully placed its menu on the outside wall.

Only two choices. But which first, that’s the exciting thing?

Eenie, meenie, miney …

 

 

Copyright © Paul Costello November 2014

Utterly Undiscovered by Paul Costello. A hilarious Bed and Breakfast memoir set in deepest Shropshire. Order through bookshops or direct from http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

Website: www.paulcostello.me                 Twitter: @PaulCostello8

Postcardd ffrom Llanelli

Hiya Holly!

Guess what – I’m in Doctor Who territory! Having trundled along from Cardiff, my Arriva two-coacher dropped me off at Llanelli and disappeared round the bend towards Camarthen, hooting happily like Gordon the Big Blue Engine. And under a perfect holiday sky, I headed for the sea.

Ood

Ood

‘But, hm, where is it?’ I thought, following signs for ‘the beach’. 100_2438Sand and mud stretched for miles, and barren mud gullies, dressed with Asda trollies and bike tyres, reached towards the town like the tentacles of an Ood.

I had to wait till teatime for water briefly to invade the flats – before nothingness returned. And apart from the ubiquitous seagulls, there was little evidence of estuary birds. It’s as if water and waders took one look and decided: ‘Hm – perhaps some other time.’

Alongside the railway and mudflats runs the tundra-like Millennium Coastal Park, its Tarmac trails and rough-cropped grass affording little shade and few benches on which to sit and ponder the mud. A solitary ship-shaped building, the Coastal Park Discovery Centre, offers basic comforts, including a smart cafe and balcony with elevated views of perhaps an extra mile of mud. In the shop, you can buy fluffy green and red dragons, plastic green and red rugby balls with dragons on, and knitted green and red tea cosies (dragons optional), all from a trestle table laid out first thing and cleared away at 4 o’clock sharp. Outside, an overflowing litter bin is clearly popular for burger boxes and nappies.

But what may pass for a lack of imagination is more than made up for by friendly people. And they speak English. In the cafe, I overheard a woman with a strong Welsh accent explaining to her friend how nothing was more annoying than people talking Welsh as you entered the room. I nodded across, smiling!

The Welsh language is distinctive. Lots of ddouble lletters – hard if you have a stutter, llethal with ffalse teeth! And there’s a ‘y’ in every other word, and ‘w’ insteadd of ‘u’, like bws (bus) or Millenniwm (Millennium). The strangest I’ve heardd is a place name on Anglesey starting Fanfare something and endding God God God. Perhaps it’s a religious thing – you know, a call to God? I mean, they do have llots of chapels here.

I’m staying at the Coastal Grill with Accommodation. It seems the ffashion to call places: ‘Bistro with Accommodation’ or ‘Restaurant with Rooms’. Posh soundding – until you step inside and ffind they’re just orddinary B&Bs!

100_2454

Tardis shower

The shower in my room (Nwmber 15) is llike the control console of the Tardis. There are no instrwctions, and the llist on the outside wall talks more of llifestyle than knob control:100_2458

–  Immediately shower after strenuous exercise inadvisable.

–  Leave at once if feel uncomfortable when                                                taking steambath.

Llike David Tennant, I push at the bank of bwttons andd pull at chrome llevers wntil smoke and steam gwshes from every spout and the capsule shwdders as transportation begins. This morning I found myself being llathered ddown by Miss Llanelli 1957 – how I llove that abillity to ddrop in anywhere, anytime!  But it was a sharp awakening as the air cleared to a washbasin with no pllwg, a benddy, plastic toilet seat that ddoesn’t stay wp, and a wardrobe door that swings open when people go in and out of Nwmber 16 – handy when I want a clean shirt.

Each morning, the llandlord, who is also cook, greets people and takes their breakffast ordder. His ddaily pleasure is itemising the Ffull Welsh – never the same two ddays rwnning.

‘Today’s Full Welsh is bacon, sausage, fried egg, half a grilled tomato, baked beans, button mushrooms and a hash brown,’ he said enthusiastically on my ffirst morning.

On the secondd morning, I eagerly awaited the new menu.

‘Today’s Full Welsh is bacon, sausage, fried egg, baked beans, button mushrooms, hash brown, and this morning,’ he added prouddly with ddramatic pause, ‘it’s tinned tomato.’

Tinned tomato! Mmm!

The third dday was like the ffirst bwt with halff a fflat mwshroom insteadd of bwttons. Then, somewhat bizarrely, he added, ‘Or kippers with butter,’ which seemed as incongruous as the Tardis in the beddroom and as unlikely as ffindding ffreshly picked, pimento-stufffed olives in Lidl.

100_2481

Theatre Elli

100_2498

Council garddens

In empathy with its mwddy estuary, Llanelli town has an iddentity crisis. The main shops have moved out, the theatre (Theatr Elli) has closed andd the cinema converted to a Wetherspoons. Home Bargain Stores, Cash Generators and charity shops dominate the centre. Bwt in the middst of this plainness, set out serenely behindd the imposing Victorian Town Hall, lie the beautiffully manicured Council garddens, with colourfful beds, comffortable benches and a grand banddstand lladen with plwsh hanging baskets.

And the llong rows of terraced houses, tidily painted in neat pastels, with satellite ddishes 100_2486pointing symetrically to the heavens llistening for the Doctor’s return, are testimony to the undderlying vibrance of the community. Street names llike Great Western Crescent (Gilgant Great Western), Railway Terrace (Teras y Rheilfordd) andd Railway Place (Fford y Wagen) hint at the extensive railway network servicing the coal, steel andd tin inddustries in Llanelli’s heydday. Only the pretty, toytown coastal lline remains.

Time ffor reffreshment. The delightfful llandllady of the one surviving tradditional town centre pwb, the Double Dragon, ddeffies ddesigner bars like Stamps andd The Met – offering great beer, andd ddarts matches five ddays a week. Andd twcked between the kebab take-aways and overbearing Asda, the Bengal Lancer serves a cracking Prawn Methi andd Aloo Sag. A handdwritten notice promotes ‘Potion of Chips’ for £2.50. But no need for strange brews – ffive pints of Felinfoel and a curry brings on slleep soon enough!

Any llwck with a job yet? I know it’s not easy for gradduates these ddays …

Llove Paul

Paul Costello © August 2013

UTTERLY UNDISCOVERED by Paul Costello

cropped-paul-and-book-7-13-3.jpg

Available through bookshops (ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2) or direct from Fineleaf Editions

www.fineleaf.co.uk/titles/utterlyundiscove.html

A fabulous holiday read!

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Is There Anybody There?

‘Please do not leave bags unattended. Bags found unattended will be removed and may be …’

The hum of conversation I’d heard from outside the eighth floor office suite had promised the camaraderie I thrive on, but inside, muffled voices from nearby booths were the only sign of life.

‘ … is a no-smoking area. Please extinguish …’

I focused on why I was there – for a job as Customer Assistant. Having already declined two offers, one collecting motorway litter on the grounds that fumes were bad for my asthma, the other sluicing the floor of a nearby abattoir because I’m vegan, I had to show the Jobseeker’s people I was serious about work.

An artificial weeping fig offered scant relief in an interview booth surrounded by high screens. As in a hospital cubicle, I sat on the only chair, wondering when a consultant would come.

A woman’s voice made me jump – the same one that half an hour earlier had said: ‘Booth 3 please’.

‘Thank you for attending the Disembodied Voices Recruitment Agency. Please choose one of the following options. For Trains and Buses, say one. For Stations and Airports, say two. For Post Offices and Shops, say three. For Reversing Vehicles, say four. For Telephones, say five. For other enquiries, say six.’

This seemed more a game than a serious interview. I played along.

‘One,’ I said.

‘Now,’ said the voice. ‘Which of the following would you prefer? If you would like Trains, say “Mind the gap”. If you would like Buses, say “Next stop Museum”. Or, if you wish to hear other choices, say “Menu”.

‘Mind the gap,’ I said.

‘I’m sorry, I did not recognise that. Did you say “Mind the gap”?

‘Mind the gap,’ I repeated.

‘Thank you,’ said the disembodied voice. ‘Now. Which of the following would you prefer? If you would like London, say “Underground”. If you would like Welsh Borders, say “Arriva”. Or, if you wish to hear other choices, say “Menu”.

‘Arriva.’

‘Thank you. Now. Which of the following would you prefer? If you would like Stations, say “We regret that the 14.27 to Holyhead is delayed by approximately thirteen minutes”. If you would like Trains, say “We are now approaching Ludlow”. Or, if you wish to hear other choices, say “Menu”.

This was fun. But as the options narrowed I felt that, despite my love of travel, the category didn’t offer enough. I asked for Menu and chose Reversing Vehicles.

‘Thank you. Now. If you would like Dustcarts, say “This vehicle is reversing”. If you would like G4S, say “We blew the Olympics”.

This too had limitations, so I tried Argos which was even worse, only offering “Ticket number 785 is ready for collection”. Primark only had “Till number five please”, the Post Office only “Cashier number three please”, and with Telephones it was clear you’d never see anyone.

Disillusioned, I walked out and took the lift down, wondering how my benefits might be affected. But something didn’t feel right, and before I’d reached the end of the street I realised the perfect opportunity might have been there all the time. Rushing back to the Agency, I opted straight into “other choices”.

*

It was the voice in the lift that had inspired me. I now work from a small hut near the bottom of an elevator shaft at Birmingham University, with three lifts (some with a library) serving ten floors. 

The work is extremely varied; one minute I can be announcing,

‘Mind the doors. Doors Closing. Going down.’

The next it’s a different permutation, say,

‘Sixth floor. Mind the doors. Doors opening.’

And there’s lots of people-contact. Keeping a careful watch on the TV monitors, I relay friendly advice to customers at exactly the right moment. I’m told they used to do this with a recording! How soul destroying – I can see for myself it takes a proper voice to leave people fulfilled as they go about their busy lives.

The lesson is simple. If you baulk at working in a call centre or McDonalds, there are real opportunities through the Disembodied Voices Recruitment Agency. The lift category is popular, so you may be out of luck. But I hear they have vacancies in Trains. Go for the option “London Midlands apologises for cancellation of this train owing to driver unavailability”. They’ll snap you up.

Good luck!

Paul Costello © November 2012

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8

Postcard from Shrewsbury

Dear Auntie Paula

I could tell they were a sporty lot the moment I arrived.

The exits at Shrewsbury station had been turned into starting stalls like at a racecourse, and passengers were queuing to watch. With all exits showing red crosses, I saw five staff – ticket collectors, litter pickers and a Pumpkin person – champing at the paddles, as the barriers are called. A sixth person, acting as judge, switched the red crosses simultaneously to green ticks, freeing the contestants to gallop fifty yards to the plate glass doors and back, with the judge declaring the winner.

No wonder it gripped the assembled crowd – such an innovative use of Arriva facilities, and a great way for employees to pass an idle moment, I thought.

I spent much of my afternoon by the River Severn which, unlike the picture, is in full flood. Leaning on the railings by Welsh Bridge (an inappropriate name I’ve often thought since it’s clearly not Welsh and the authorities shouldn’t encourage them to lay claim to it), I was fascinated by the wood and weed flotsam bobbing downstream in the swirling current, probably from miles away. The debris was piling up against the arches, leaving ever tighter spaces for water to funnel through.

Large items stood little chance, so when I saw a cow approaching I feared the worst. It wasn’t what you might think, Auntie Paula, a corpse, but a very much alive and aware cow, floating majestically on her back, legs pointing neatly skywards and head turning from side to side to get her bearings. Using the trailing tail as a rudder, and stabilised by a full udder spread evenly down her flanks, she steered carefully towards the highest arch and just squeezed through.

Intrigued, I followed her downstream into The Quarry, Shrewsbury’s beautifully landscaped park, where she made for the slower current on my side of the meandering river.

‘That doesn’t look much fun,’ I called out, as she came alongside.

‘It’s always the same,’ the cow said. ‘They know-oo it’s going to happen, but leave us on the flood plain at Welshpool until it’s too-oo late.’

‘What will you do now?’ I said.

‘I’ll eventually run aground and someone will pho-oo-ne the number on my udder.’

‘Oh-oo,’ I said, slipping into her parlance.’ At least you’ll be safe.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but last time, five of us were washed up together in Frankwell car park, and the lo-oo-cals used us as bicycle racks for three days before the farmer came.’

I left her to it, and wandered up to The Dingle Garden, where in summer you’re guaranteed a dazzling display of bedding plants around the lake. The solitary heron was standing, peering, as if it hadn’t moved since I was last there five years ago. Leaves were blowing about, and the empty beds were being planted with bulbs by a workforce of twenty.

There was something unusual about the bulbs; they were chunky and long, a bit artificial looking. The man in charge told me that with cutbacks Shrewsbury Town Council had reappraised their planting, and this was a one-off exercise to make huge savings over fifteen years.

The bulbs were plastic and each contained a microchip. At the touch of a button on his remote control a newly-planted bed came to life with green sprouts like young daffodil leaves. Another touch and they grew a further inch. It was amazing! When he held the button down the daffodils shot up to their full ten inches and yellow petals opened up to expose bright orange interiors. Each bed had different bulbs, and they’d ordered ‘bedding plants’ for the summer to make further savings. No more annual planting or clearing out; no watering or dead-heading; just a little weeding from time to time. He reckoned it would save two hundred pounds a year.

You’d have loved them, Auntie Paula; and having symmetrical plants is surely a small price to pay in these hard times. I do admire the imagination of local Councils, always coming up with enterprising ideas.

On my way back through the town centre, I was struck by how quiet it was. Pride Hill Arcade felt eerily empty as I browsed for Christmas presents and sat alone in a small cafe for tea and an Eccles cake. But Mcdonald’s was busy, as was Greggs where I queued a long time for a Fatty Melt, my treat on the return journey to Hereford. The reason for the hold-up became clear. As with so many retailers, the customer assistants were more intent on asking if you wanted ‘anything else’ than serving what you wanted. It must be so you spend more, but I find it irritating. Greggs are past masters; as I approached the counter I thought,

‘No, no, please don’t say it!’

But too late. Before I could speak, the assistant called out,

‘Anything else?’

‘No, please not that,’ I said. ‘Please may I have a Fatty Melt?’

‘Anything else?’ she asked.

‘No, really – just a Fatty Melt.’

‘Anything else?’ she said, staring blankly over my shoulder.

‘Okay, can I have one Anything Else please?’ I said, thinking this might fox her into giving me a Fatty Melt. Instead it got worse, as an assistant at the ovens spotted the bull’s-eye on my forehead and joined in.

‘Anything else?’ she called. ‘Anything else?’

‘Anything else?’ said the first assistant.

‘Anything else?’ called a third lady from behind the cake counter.

To this intimidating echo I left the shop, foodless, wondering how Greggs did so well. But escape wasn’t simple. As I made off towards the station I turned to see a gaggle of hair-netted assistants exiting the shop in my direction, the original three in the vanguard, then another trio who’d presumably been buttering bread out the back, followed by a fresh hatching of fully fifteen, intonating their mantra in the same menacing voice as the gas-masked schoolchildren in Doctor Who chanting : ‘Where’s my mummy? I want my mummy.’

‘Anything else? Anything else? Anything else? …’

I ran as fast as I could, and I tell you, Auntie, I was glad the train left on time because I could just see hairnets appearing on the stairs up to platform 7b. Even now on the train, I’m looking over my shoulder.

Anyway, see you soon, and say hello to Prince Benjamin of Beijing. I do like Pekinese.

Love Paul

Paul Costello © October 2012

w: www.paulcostello.me/

t: @PaulCostello8

 

We Three Swans

 

 

For my birthday in February, Tess treated me to an overnight stay at Aberdovey, a small seaside village within Snowdonia National Park on the north side of the Dovey (Dyfi) estuary. We stayed at the Sea Breeze Bed and Breakfast and Restaurant, in a bright, spacious room looking straight across the river, though a heavy sea fret meant we’d have to wait until morning to enjoy the view.

In summer Aberdovey is a haven for watersport enthusiasts and for families enjoying the fine sand and thriving little harbour, perfect for crabbing. In winter it is quiet.

The driving rain we’d struggled through from the train station early afternoon had reduced to a drizzle as we headed for a drink at the Penhelig Arms. The few seafront shops that opened out of season had just finished for the day and we had the underlit streets to ourselves. Tiny waves, pushed on by a brisk South-Westerly breeze, slapped onto the shell-strewn beach below, reminding us how much we had missed the sea. Embracing the emptiness and wrapped in damp, salt air we were easily lost in the misty romance of it all.

‘Wow!’ said Tess, suddenly. ‘Look at that! Are they what I think?’

Feeding voraciously in the muddy shallows were three swans, their white plumage fluorescent in the gloom. Not only was it strange seeing them active after dark, and in salt water, but fascinating how they plucked nutrients from the water’s edge with such intensity, as if stocking up for a long vigil. They hardly noticed as I crept close enough to chance a photo.

Feeding in the shallows

Spirits raised by this unusual sight, we sat before the pub’s log fire supping Brains Bitter and French Merlot and dreaming up scenarios about where the swans had come from and what would happen to them next. When we came back an hour later they were still busying themselves, in deeper water round the wooden stanchions of the pier. Surely there was a plan to all this?

Back at Sea Breeze, we were taken by the happy ambience of the busy bistro on such a chilly winter night. We realised it was local people, well aware of the superb cuisine, and that we’d hit lucky. Barely were we seated, soaking up the warmth of the busy room after our trek through the mist, when a basket of homemade soda bread with olives and oils arrived.This could not have primed us better for the Dyfi fish stew with aioli, and crab with pistachio mayo, leaving just enough room for a shared apple and elderflower fool.

Afterwards we took the night air to round off a wonderful day. At the pierhead, leaning tentatively on the flimsy metal railing, we were entranced by the desolation. The sea churned below us on a turning tide, and a thicker fog had fallen across the estuary, so we could see no further than a few yards out into the water. It was hard to believe we were close to civilisation yet in complete ownership of this mysterious and romantic setting. I couldn’t have asked for more; it was the perfect birthday present.

‘They’re probably hunkered down somewhere,’ I said, harking back to the swans.

‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Tess. ‘Look – here they come now!’

My amazing day was not over yet! Right on cue we watched the surreal sight of our proud creatures appearing through the murk from further along the pier. It was as if they’d been waiting for us to return for a final, late-night performance.

‘Aah, there are only two,’ I said. The image we’d formed earlier was somehow spoilt by the trio splitting up.

‘No, here comes the other one,’ said Tess. ‘It’s lagging behind the others.’

The three swans picked up speed as they hit the ebbing current. With time against us and no real chance of a photo we huddled together for precious moments, transfixed as the solitary yellow lamp picked out the swans’ upright necks and dazzling feathers before they were plunged back into swirling darkness – a final sail-past before heading out to open sea on a vital night mission.

 

Paul Costello © May 2012

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8