The Old Man and the Sea

Reproduction of Norman Acroyd's by Alexander Gannet.
My study of Norman Ackroyd’s work. Mingulay Bay 2015

After a day, sheltering for the endless rain, we decide to explore the town a bit further and find ourselves a nice dinner. Dressed in our dark green rain ponchos we wander around Castlebay. We are desperate for a hot and spicy meal and walk into the Kisimul café, a small Indian restaurant with views over the castle. Unfortunately, all the empty tables are reserved for the night and we leave disappointed.

We ramble on, looking for an alternative restaurant. The choice is limited, in a tiny town like this. The desolate streets end quickly into the hills, so we return and climb the stairs to the Craigard Hotel. Hotels are not really our thing, especially after four weeks of peddling, a handful of showers in a cold creek, some crusty streaks of seaweed on the bottom of your trouser legs and wearing our most elegant rain gear. Indecisive, if we would like to eat there, we loiter around. Looking for a menu and some glimpses of the food being served.

“The food is good”, a smoky voice declares. We turn around and in a cloud of smoke we see an elderly chap wearing a shabby blue sweater and jeans, he is standing on his socks just inside the hotel door. With his friendly, but glassy blue eyes it’s hard to tell if the man is tired or just enjoyed a whiskey or two. We start chatting and learn that he rented the “Boy James”. For two weeks he makes boat trips around the Barra head isles with his family and friends. So we tell him that he must have passed us this morning while we were getting on the water near the deserted village on Vatersay with our kayaks.

This triggers his interest, he used to kayak himself when he was young. Now he is still fascinated by the outer edges of the British Isles formed by this chain of rocks, skerries and little islands. He has been close to a lot of them. For every remote island, we mention there appears a new twinkle in his eyes. The more we exchange about our sea journeys, the more exuberance and vitality inhabits the man. It’s funny how a love of remote little islands, the sea and an obsession for the ever-changing light, can turn a meeting into an instant connection. A connection based on shared experience of the solitude shared in the screaming of the seabirds, of this deep longing for this aesthetic enchantment in the architecture of the land and the isolation of being on the edge of everything. We enter the building together, and while we wait for a table we chat about our kayak trip. He is clearly impressed, telling his companions enthusiastically about what we talked about outside.

When the waitress comes, to tells us that our table is ready, we say goodbye. For starters, we choose the local cockles, harvested on the Barra beach that doubles as an airfield. We really enjoy the seafood. One of the fears of eating in hotels is that I’m still hungry after the last bite. Fortunately, this is definitely not the case today. By the time we are on our last few bits, the man and his entourage are seated by the waitress at a table close to ours. We recommend the cockles. When I spot a sort of sketchbook in the man’s hands. It showed signs ruffled pages like it is used for watercolours.

View on the cuillins, skye in magical hebridean atmosfeer refelected by a calm sea
Magical light in a mesmerizing Hebridean landscape

As the main course, we are served on a large and full plate and the salmon comes with a good dose of potatoes. A habitual smoker, as the man is, he walks to the hotel doorway again for a quick cigarette.
The conversation starts going back and forth again. I become more and more intrigued and curious by the big stack of paper he is carrying around. It looks like a home-made holy book, a precious volume that needs to be guarded. Being an enthusiastic watercolourist myself, I recognise that behaviour and bluntly ask if he is drawing and painting. He confirms my question, but the stack of drawings stays firmly by his side. I do not push on, understanding that it can be quite difficult to show someone else your fresh work. Only at the end of our dinner, when we leave and say goodbye I ask if I can find his work on the World Wide Web. One of the men in the group quickly respond and writes a name down followed by “.com”. I read slowly, “normanackroyd.com”, it does ring a bell, but I can not remember where I have seen it before.

Only a couple of days later, on the ferry back to Mallaig, I can use my phone to access the Wi-Fi and check out his website. I am very surprised, the watercolours are familiar. Half a dozen of his paintings are already on my phone. I had downloaded them a long time ago. I studied them, to learn from his incredible capacity to capture this beautiful Hebridean sea light in watercolour. And there I was thinking this man was a fisherman when we met at the doorway of a Castlebay hotel.

Later, at home, I learn that Norman Ackroyd is a very accomplished artist, his work in the collection of the Tate Gallery. I copied some of his watercolours to acquire a bit of his skill. If you would like to see some of his work check out the Eames Fine Art Gallery.

At the time of our meeting, he is 78 years old. But with this vitality, both in his work and life, the sea must be his elixir of life.

Alexander Gannet

Combat de la Rouge-Mare

Slow Traveling is exciting because it is not about the big and expected stories of visiting major landmarks or tourist traps, but rather the surprise of an unexpected small and beautiful story around a not well-known monument or place.

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Walking to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy

Last week we visited the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Quite an achievement for us, because of the many kilometres travelling by car. We had pushed it a bit because we were tired at the start of the holiday. It was nice but also very busy and not so surprising. Everywhere you see the postcards and images, and it is almost of you already saw the best bit before you got there. Going around, the beauty of the island has to compete with the tourist shops screaming “buy my stuff!!”.

Now we are on the way back and trying to find a place to park our mini camper, relax a bit and get a good night sleep. We drive through this string of small county roads reading the landscape. We like the mix of forest and agricultural landscapes because the edges give good opportunities for nice stealthy camping spots. Then we see this old tourist sign. It is probably of placed in the 50’s, based on the look of the lettering of the enamel sign. “Monument de la Rouge Mare” reads the text. We follow the little lane into the forest and end up at a huge monument. It’s a good place for the night and I start drawing.

Rougemare 04

The monument reads “Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants” and just the names of 4 men and Octavie Delacour, almost the name of a Harry Potter character. Another old tourist sign reads “Embuscade Allemande (16 Septembre 1914)”. My French is not too good but this sounds like an ambush of Germans. While drawing, I get more and more intrigued. We are far south of the Great War frontline, Germans here??

There is no info panel so the research starts at home. I won’t go over the full story, but in short, it is a German raid on the Seine. Three German vehicles with sappers were loaded with 500 kg of explosives and en-route to the bridges of the Seine near Rouen. They are able to drive through France just because people think they are English soldiers, although they are in there German uniforms and drive cars with German licence plates. As one of the vehicles breaks down, the farmers in the area offer their help to the “English”, who answer them in English and bad French. After the repair, and after shaking hands with the French farmers they drive on.

This, I find the first funny fact. It would be impossible nowadays, with the internet, television and travelling. You would recognise a Brit or German just by their posture and accent alone. But in those days they never did hear a foreign language or saw a foreigner.
Then the Germans halt in a forest, hiding for the day. This is where the 56-year-old lady, Octavie Delacour comes in the picture. She walks through the same forest and is temporarily halted by the Germans. The let her go probably convinced that the pass as Brits again. However, she recognises the Prussians from the 1870 war who had occupied the area, when she was just 12 years old.

Walking to the nearest village, she informs the brigade commander of the Gendarmerie in Gournay-en-Bray. He, however, is not taking her completely seriously. In the end, he sends some men but they go ill prepared. The spot the German sentinel but three gendarmes are killed instantly and the local guide is fatally wounded. Is this what happens if you take half your population not serious in matters of war?

Pencil drawing on brown paper by Alexander of the Monument of Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants. In France

Drawing the Monument of Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants.

In the end, the commando is arrested, the bridges are saved and Octavie becomes a hero. Honoured with a monument somewhere hidden in a French forest. And for me, it might be a story that leaves a bigger imprint in my memory than the grandeur of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Alexander.

 

 

Story on wiki (in French)

LA COURTE EPOPEE DU COMMANDO TILING ET LE COMBAT DE LA ROUGEMARE