The Island Goats

Part Four: Sunday 22nd June 2014 9.30 am  

In the end Pluto didn't come on the boat. Rupert, with his lifeboat team baseball hat on, said a flat no. And that was that. But of course, next to being with Rebecca, Pluto's favourite place is in the boot of her car, in amongst the soft muddle of old tartan blankets. So that's where he stayed for the duration of our swim, no doubt secretly in a state of blissful relief.

And I didn't cook breakfast over a driftwood fire on the island beach either. But I did, for the first time since swimming in the sea here in Ireland, put on a wetsuit; one of those short-sleeved, short-legged ones that make you like like an Edwardian gentleman swimmer but less elegant. If that's possible. Rebecca said I should wear one and she was right. We stood, in our wetsuits on the harbour side, looking over the wall at the sea and at the Island, waiting for Rupert to bring his boat to the harbour entrance. The sea wasn't flat or calm at all. There was a light North Easterly wind. We watched them both, the sea and the wind. They thought they would dance together for us.

I am not going to go into the detail of the swim itself except to say that the first half was strange and deeply unsettling and it was very good to have company. It turns out that Rebecca swam before she walked. If Rebecca swims like a seal, I swim like Charlie Chaplin. It was only after drinking a cup or so of seawater and after Rupert had called from the boat that we were half way there  that I really found myself understanding what being in this kind of water meant and how to not ever imagine you can do better than you are doing. Maybe that goes for most things in life. I am pretty sure that Rebecca could have swum to the Island, done a couple of circuits of it and be sitting on the steps of the jetty writing notes for next year's Ballymaloe Litfest before I had even arrived there if she had been less patient and supportive.

So a huge thanks to you, Rebecca. And to Rupert who, in a paradoxically reassuring way, scooted off to fish for mackerel at one point, his little blue boat bobbing carelessly some 100 metres away.

I would do it again. I am going to do it again. In the end it only took 45 minutes anyway. Nothing really.

So why did I do it, this Lighthouse Island swim which has so preoccupied me over the past couple of weeks? 

I think the reasons have changed. I think they always do when you set out to do something you have never done before. Of course it was about raising money. For SFF and for The RajKSoni Legacy Fund. And I'd like lots of it please. And if you want to sponsor me just go  to I was also doing it to support the marathon swims which happened at Lido on behalf of SFF and at Portishead on behalf of the RKSLF yesterday.  I salute all those swimmers and hope that their day was as wonderful and life-affirming as mine was on Friday.

So I think my real reason for swimming to the Island begins there too; with life itself. Well, three things; life, the soil & cooking.

There are two jetties on the island. The one we arrived at and the one we walked to, over the island, to be picked up again by Rupert. A little way up the steep pathway, we came across a mother goat who had just given birth to two kids. The bloody afterbirth was on the grass, glistening in the sun. I would say the birth had happened while Rebecca and I were in the sea. The mother goat was licking one of the kids which stood blinking and wobbly in the sun, against the grassy bank of the path, in this new world, knowing nothing, not yet even having suckled from its mother. The other kid lay on the pathway. Its neck was crooked sideways and although alive and trembling, its mother was paying it no attention. She knew it wasn't going to survive.

There are 6 or 7 wild goats on the island - well and now there are 8. But not 9. They survive because there is fresh water from a spring to drink and grass and flowers and seaweed to eat. A small community of wild goats getting on with the business of living.

I have put life (and death) bit out of the three things because that's the bit we all recognise. But really the soil comes first. The thing we humans, as the world's most powerful community, are destroying little by little every day. We are not thinking about the soil.

In my last posting I mentioned Craig Sams' talk at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. If you have got this far with me on this journey, then read about Bio-char and its place in sustainable farming systems. By which I mean organic. Because that's more important than Bio-char; Craig himself began his talk with a brief history of the organic movement in the UK, placing its principles at the heart of his case for Biochar.

We have spent the last ten years not talking about organics. It's gone out of fashion. Even the Soil Association is having to be circumspect about it. And for the rest of us? It's too difficult, to expensive, the arguments for it are dubious, it won't feed the world, it's a middle-class Waitrose, colour supplement thing. Most chefs don't give a damn about it. And that alone speaks volumes. And Bristol Green Capital isn't engaged with talking about it either. Not really. It remains on the margins. Now we talk vaguely about sustainability because it's less provocative.

A wilful blindness to the plight of the soil. Don't tell me all the reasons why organics is not the answer to anything or that GM crops just might have the solution, that poor people can't afford organic food and what a romantic middle-class joke the whole notion of small organic farms is. I just can't bear that anymore. What's wrong with romance anyway? We are not feeding the world anyway, we can't ever hope to. Let's talk about the science and real solutions yes, but lets talk about the science of soil itself to start with.

Well, not right now. I just want to tell you where the cooking bit fits in otherwise you will just go to the pub or to sleep with boredom.

So this is where cooking fits in and in particular the notion that we need a culture of food democracy, of good food for all.

I think if more people cook good food from scratch, the soil will become more important in the landscape of their own lives. Whether they live in a city like Bristol or in a village in the heart of Devon. And when you really think about the soil you are thinking about life itself.

And I think the movement towards real cooking, which is already happening, will lead food culture inexorably to the health of the soil and therefore to principles of organic agriculture. We will make the connection.

That's the direction of travel we are on at Square Food Foundation. While I have been away in Ireland, a garden at the back of the cookery school has been made. I imagine the courgettes are being eaten and the tomatoes almost ripe in this amazing weather. A tiny patch of soil, a gesture, you could say. But it makes the connection between what we put in our mouths and where it comes from. And that's a start.


Today's the day

Friday 20th 7.15am. Ballymaloe Cookery School Pluto has been very quiet over the last two days. Yesterday, while I was in the kitchen at the cookery school preparing food for dinner last night, he came and put his head through the doorway and stood looking at me. No words passed between us. I continued podding broad beans. And then, after a minute had passed, Pluto turned and slowly walked away. I almost felt sorry for him.

So he is going to go with Rupert on the boat. As I write this Rupert doesn't know. This last minute decision was taken very late last night between Rebecca and myself. Pluto absolutely has to come with us. On our swim to the middle island two days ago, he stood on the beach and howled without ceasing until we arrived back 40 minutes later. Pluto has abandonment issues. I feel I have been to hard on the little fellow now, a little lacking in sensitivity and compassion. So, he will go on the boat with the breakfast ingredients I will pack when I have finished this post.

We can put my slightly less than jolly tone to this final pre-swim post down to nerves. Infact it is a beautiful morning here; the sky is blue, the air still. We are ready. I will be packing a breakfast of eggs, bacon, tomatoes, bread and butter, everything, of course, from the farm and gardens of Ballymaloe. And a frying pan. When we get to the Island, we will find drift wood, make a fire and make breakfast. I guess making coffee is going to be too complicated

I was told last night that an Irish naval frigate has been notified of our swim and will be dropping anchor this morning East of the lighthouse island to keep a watchful eye on us. I didn't know Ireland had a navy.

Last night before the dinner, Craig Sams gave a talk on Biochar. if you don't know what this is, check it out. It was a brilliant talk, a call to arms about the soil. Soil is life and we are destroying it. Organic agriculture with help from Bioachar provide part of the solution to this. Conventional agriculture is doing the opposite. It's as simple as that. It made me realise that even in the world of green thinking, we have largely abandoned the notion of organic. It's time to re-engage with it.

See you later


To The lighthouse: Part three

12.55pm Wednesday 18th June Pluto's revenge. 

It's hard to describe how I am feeling right now. I am resigned  to taking the junior position on this mission.  I am happy that Pluto should receive an honorary professorship at Trinity College Dublin for contributing 'a unique body of knowledge to the study of marine science', or so I read this morning in the Cork Examiner. Some people might have raised an eyebrow or wondered how low a university would stoop to get funding even in these straightened times, but not me; I am all admiration and respect.

And, of course, I am happy to have spent hours into the morning of most nights designing the craft which will transport Pluto to the Island. Even though he has rejected outright my idea of strapping together two small surf boards with seaweed. And has insisted on hand-woven Persian silk for the mast when surely Indian would have done the job nicely and would certainly have been more colourful.

Up to this point and despite all these minor snubs and humiliations, I have managed to play my part with humour and good grace.

But the latest news is almost too much to bear.

Yesterday evening I received a text from Rebecca saying that she and Pluto have appointments in Schull on both Saturday and Sunday and so won't be able to do the swim on either of those days.

'An event I have to do,' said Rebecca vaguely, 'I had forgotten about it….important people to meet on Sunday….just have to do it….

Of course what Rebecca didn't tell me then was that Pluto is in charge of her diary.  And that, on a whim - or for darker reasons I am now realising  - he will change diary entries.

Over vodka at the The Blackbird and with Pluto distracted by the loving attentions of some small children, Rebecca confessed in a trembling whisper that it was indeed Pluto's doing and that she no longer felt her life was her own but could somehow do nothing about it. Such is Pluto's power over Rebecca. It was an emotional moment.

Same day 14.38. The strategic approach.

Napoleon, when faced with similar challenges, as before, say, The Battle Of Austerlitz, would retire to his tent and summon about him his wisest commanders (in this case among them was General Desaix).

Je pense, Napoleon would say brooding darkly, que nous avons un problème.

Mais…. mais -qu'est que c'est la vie sans problemes?

Well, as with Napoleon, we are not going to be defeated. We are now going on Friday morning. Rupert has put back his  friends' wedding till the afternoon. I will train at crack of dawn tomorrow instead of on Thursday evening. The tides won't be in our favour, but what the hell.

And Rebecca is going to stand firm.

We're in the Zeitgeist now, Pluto, old chap. Get used to it.

Before these dramas unfolded, I did another swim out from Paradise cove.The beach was empty of people, the tide midway and the sun shining in a deep blue sky. So beautiful.

I swam to the small orange buoy some 400 metres out to sea. I made myself do it. It was the furthest out I had been. Imagination is not a good companion for such a swim. You want to be thinking about kneading bread or even checking your bank balance, because imagining what's beneath, the 30 metres of water, the seaweed which drags gently against you feet (that's what the buoy is for; to warn boats about the seaweed) is not good. The thought that you might have heart attack or even just cramp and no one would be there. Or that you would find yourself swept out by strong currents you didn't feel at all even a minute ago, so that you are suddenly a mile, not 400 metres, out in the deep ocean, too tired to swim back.

Well here I am, so none of these things happened. Once round the buoy - which I touched briefly to prove I had got there - I swam a few metres inland and then lay on my back looking at the sky and listening to the sea rolling gently beneath me, feeling the ocean holding me . You will never get nearer to heaven than this.


It's me or the dog

For those wondering why Barny's in Ireland instead of Knowle West, he's on a bit of a sabbatical. Not one to miss out, he's supporting Lido's Midsummer Swim in his own special way - by swimming through the sea (and its wildlife) to Ballycotton Lighthouse. However, an unexpected swimming companion threatens to throw Barny's plans awry as he prepares for his challenge... 

Monday afternoon 4.30pm

Off the main Shanagarry beach this time. Low tide again.You have to walk for five minutes to get to the sea's edge and wade the same again to get out of your depth. I swam beyond the reef and into greener colder waters. Only one seagull flying low over the water for company. Someone - the daughter of a former lighthouse keeper - tells me it's going to take 1 hour 40 if i am lucky. She's got to be kidding. Why did I say I would do this thing

And the other problem is Pluto. Pluto is Rebecca's dog. His mission in life, his entire reason for living, is to look after Rebecca. And that means being with her every minute of the day. It's not that he minds other people's attention; at the Blackbird the other evening he wasn't above resting his nose briefly on my lap, but his heart is with Rebecca. Always and at all times. If, say, she picks up a glass of wine or laughs at someone joke, he sits up straight and though feigning a passable nonchalance, is worrying - about a possible accident befalling his beloved mistress. This means Pluto has to come with us. To protect her, he says,  from the shark, to guide her through the strong currents. Which would be fine except that in reality, as opposed to his dreams, Pluto isn't that keen on swimming in the sea. Chasing balls along the shallow sea's edge, yes, but when it comes to the deep dark green waters of the straights of Ballycotton, his loyalty to Rebecca will be reduced to sitting on the end of the harbour and imagining he is Afredo in La Traviata, howling the famous duet Gran Dio, morir si giovane (oh God, to die so young) except that Violetta is two thirds of the way to the Island and not so much at death's door as just moderately weary of both swim and singing dog.

So Rebecca's idea is to build a raft for Pluto and attach it by a rope to her waist. Certainly not my waist. He's not my dog. As much as I love dogs and as much as chivalry runs deep in my veins,  I'll have enough on my plate with the jelly fish. And I am not certain that this raft scheme is the best solution anyway. I have suggested a life jacket for him or at least a small outboard motor on the raft which Pluto can operate with his tail. And with both life jacket and outboard motor, I think Pluto could get into the part; like Russell Crowe in The Commander, pursuing the Frenchies against all the odds.

The thing about all this is that you start off with a simple idea. You see the lighthouse, gauge the distance with an experienced nautical eye, plan the route around the small island between the harbour and the lighthouse and make the decision. Simple. But nothing is simple. It's not the half mile you thought. There are cross currents. You need a boat with someone to skipper it. He needs to known what he is doing, know the waters. Tides, weather, sharks, jellyfish, sting rays, all these complications. And now Pluto.

Yesterday, on the way back along the coast path from my swim near Paradise Cove, I stopped and sat and watched a pair of mating kestrels. I have seen them almost every time I have been there. There they were, sitting on their ledge three quarters of the way up the cliff face. Occasionally the male bird would take off and glide over the cove, land briefly in the grass on the other side and then return, back over the cove to the ledge, to his mate. I wondered what he was doing, whether he was bored of just sitting with her, needed to be in his own space for while or was looking for rabbits. If anyone has any ideas about this, let me know.

Pluto/raft update: R's idea is now is a crate insulated with what she describes as 'the stuff they put in the walls of buildings'. Brilliant. I thought this swim was about me not a dog. Next thing, there will be a hero's welcome at the harbour for Pluto when we return, a flotilla of fishing boats, dogs lining the streets of Ballycotton and the mayor of Cork in attendance at The Blackbird for a reception of biscuits specially prepared by the students of Ballymaloe cookery school and water imported from some special stream high up in the Wicklow mountains.

For more information on Lido Midsummer Swim that takes place this Saturday 21st June  in support of Square Food Foundation, click here

To make a donation to Square Food Foundation, click here.

To find out more about Square Food Foundation, click here

Only basking sharks...


With Lido's Midsummer Swim fast approaching, Barny writes from his Ballymaloe hideaway with plans to undertake his own marine challenge that will (almost) mirror this Saturday's Swim, held in support of Square Food Foundation.         

'I thought I would update you all on my planned swim to Ballycotton Lighthouse. The island is about 1.5 miles from Ballycotton harbour. I have someone skippering a small boat to accompany me. He is on the Ballycotton Life Boat Team, knows the waters, and is confident I can do it safely.

The cross currents are manageable and there are only basking sharks* and no jellyfish. Rupert (the skipper) is going to have his harpoon at the ready just in case.

I may have someone called Rebecca swimming with me as well. She runs the literary festival at Ballymaloe and so I thought we could talk about poetry on the way. Shelley springs to mind for some reason. We may have to do it on Sunday 22nd not Saturday. But hopefully Saturday. I will let you know.

And if the weather is really rubbish we will have to cancel. And just to reassure you I am not being silly, I am training - off the rocks up the coast and other places. The water is incredibly warm. Well, not exactly warm but perfectly ok. Not freezing anyway.

The other thing is that as you will see this swim is for two causes; SFF & The RajKSoni Legacy Fund. I will split any sponsorship money 50/50.

Some people at Ballymaloe - including Darina and Tim are going to sponsor me. It would be good to see if I can raise some profile about it back in Bristol. I am going to tweet about it later today. Rebecca is my new twitter helper. If there's anything anyone else can do that would be great. I'll be in touch nearer the time and as things progress.


*Apparently there are sharks. I thought I was joking.