Notes from an ambler – the urban rambler: Stars in Portugal


I cannot see the sky on this murky December morning. I am in it. And as I look up and try to imagine the blue beyond the grey, I close my eyes and take myself back to a summer’s night when It felt I was in the sky too. Black, star-scattered and silent.

We were all quite relaxed by that time. Having spent a week in Lagos relaxing, we went up to the mountains for even more relaxing and booked ourselves in to the Spa at Caldas de Monchique to relax some more.

Driving up from the parched August coast, past stork’s nests on chimneys the landscape became greener and the air fresher. We turned left down into a hidden wooded ravine to the village – a cluster of gorgeous 19th century buildings set around a cobbled, tree-shaded main square. It was a riot of colour – the yellow and blue buildings as vibrant as the reds, pinks, whites, violets and oranges of the plants, a cool blue pool in the centre, surrounded by lush green grass and wooden beds protected by cream umbrellas.

We spent the evening sitting in the square under the trees as the sky turned from blue, to pink, to purple to perfect black, eating and drinking and chatting surrounded by a low buzz of conversation from the other tables, watching families playing cards, feeding a visiting cat, staring into the distance.

As the clock chimed twelve we made our way to our rooms at the bottom of the tiny valley along a dark secluded path and stopped.

“Look!” said one of us.

We looked up to the sky, framed by the hills on either side of the valley, a canopy of thousands and thousands of luminous stars, glittering so close I felt I could put my hand up and touch them. I stood, drinking it in, committing it to memory, the light, the sounds, the jasmine in the air, the beauty of it, so on days where the sky disappeared I could bring it back to life.

Then a distant laugh, the thrum of a car engine. The spell broken. We continued down the path, and left it behind for someone else to wonder at.





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Notes from an ambler (the urban rambler) Ambling Down Gower to Three Cliffs Bay


Sometimes ambling can take place in the outdoors away from shops and bars and can be identified as ambling rather than rambling by the wearing of inappropriate clothing and the speed at which you walk.

There is a mathematical formulae to work this out and if the answer is less than 1 and a half, then you are definitely an ambler.

One of my favourite ambles in the great outdoors away from shops and bars is to Three Cliffs Bay on the Gower Peninsular in South Wales, which is where I’m from. Now there is more than one way to get there – from Pennard and Southgate round the Golf Course, for example, which is very nice and affords you rather marvellous views of Oxwich Bay and further west.

I once drove for over an hour on a very stressful day just to get a ten minute glimpse of the bay from there. I needed to see the sweep of the cliffs towards Oxwich and smell the clear salty air.

But that’s not my favourite.

My favourite encompasses a wood, a valley, a stream, a castle, and sometimes wild ponies and is begun in the car park outside Shepherds in Parkmill (where you need to buy sausage rolls and pop for sustenance) and the best way to do it is to lie to someone who has never been there before, tell them it will take ten minutes (that’s the lie – they will never guess as you may well be wearing flip flops which is completely rubbish footwear for such a walk, but perfectly normal for an ambler), and not explain what to expect at all. Because, apart from the moaning about the lie about the distance, you can see the beauty of the bay being revealed to them bit by bit through their increasingly captivated eyes.

I like to think of the wood as the wardrobe in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe; open the door and walk into another world – or step out of the green shade of the dark trees into the bright, sandy light of the bay. And you can’t even see the sea yet.

Follow the tiny stream as it meanders and grows through the valley, sand slowly appearing through the grass, mud and clay. Glance up to the left and there’s the remains of the 12th century Pennard Castle guarding the coast against ancient marauders.

 As the stream widens towards the sea it opens up to the vast expanse of sand and the cliffs, where you cross it on a tiny bridge and there you are. My favourite days are when the tide is out and the beach is almost empty, a bare foot in the clear water a reward for the journey, the view before me the sea and nothing else.

A very long time ago on a hot summers day I was sunbathing, eyes closed, relaxed, until I heard something that made me sit up straight. It was a herd of wild ponies trotting past me. It’s their beach after all, and I think I was in the way.

I don’t go there very often these days as I live a long way away, but I have a painting, bought a long, long time ago of Three Cliffs Bay. I see it every day.



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Notes from an Urban Rambler (Ambler): Incorporating Food Stops into Ambling


As a committed ambler I have learned over the years to pace myself properly in order to fully enjoy my surroundings. You can’t amble along a promenade, to a beach or around a town quickly or to a set time:  that would be called walking somewhere and it’s different. The amble by its very definition does not have to have an actual firm destination, usually fizzling out in a café or bar en-route. Although it isn’t really en-route as you are not actually going anywhere. You are ambling.

Food and drink stops are very important, not only to eat and drink, but also to take photos of what you are eating and drinking. It’s the same as ramblers taking photos of panoramic views from the tops of mountains and such.

Lagos in Portugal’s Algarve has many pit-stops to keep my energy up that I have spent a lot of time researching over many years (eating and drinking.  Someone had to do it.) One of my favourites is Bahia Beach Bar on Meia Praia where I indulge in the tapas for two: the lovely thing about this particular tapas for two is that it’s a surprise. You don’t know what’s going to be in it until it arrives piled high on the plate, and as you enjoy maybe Crab, Lobster, chorizo, King Prawns or meat balls you uncover another delicious delight hidden underneath. Oh, just sitting there grazing, listening to the sea and smiling at the sun is one of life’s great simple pleasures and squeaking “I have found squid under these carrots. Fabulous!” I am quite easily pleased, has to be said.

Then when you’ve finally and reluctantly finished difficult decisions have to be made. Do you

  1. Have another drink
  2. Move from the table to the bean bags and have another drink
  3. Walk onto the beach and sit down
  4. Slowly amble back towards Lagos and sit down and have drink somewhere else. Or an ice cream.

I never know. An ambler lives in the moment.







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Notes from an ambler (the urban rambler)

I am an avid ambler. That is an urban rambler. I wear flip flops or little canvas shoes with stripes rather than walking boots, and pause in cafes and little shops rather than on a clifftop or a high crag.

One amble can take in as little as one street if there are sales of earrings on, for example, or a tea shop that sells cake with parma violet topping.

My very favourite amble is in Lagos in Portugal’s Algarve, and my favourite hour to undertake it is after eating an evening meal at one of favourite beachfront cafes on Meia Praia. Although the journey there is nice, it’s the journey back that makes it special.

And you have to get the timing right.

As the sky fades from blue to pink to starlit black over the ocean, and the beach empties, Linda’s Bar turns the lights down to mellow as you gaze at the sun setting slowly over the cliffs and rooftops of the town, its lights glittering in the distance.

Stepping out into the warm night air to walk past the harbour back towards civilisation, it is silent and calm, punctured only by the comforting screech of the cicadas as you pass. It’s like opening a door into another world, then gradually opening another one as the noisy, vibrant marina draws you in, with its restaurants and bars spilling out people, live music everywhere, the tunes mingling into one on the promenade.

Then you turn a corner and suddenly there is only the soft clatter of sails, the boats bobbing quietly in the breeze, the welcoming glow of the two cafes beyond, the low buzz of conversation growing louder as you walk towards them.

Leaving the hiss of coffee machines and the clink of glasses, up you go towards the apartments at the back, people sitting on their balconies chatting and laughing, to the apartment at the top in the middle. Onto the terrace you go, to gaze silently at the olive trees illuminated in the garden and the cars driving along the Avenida in the distance.

Oh I forgot the wine. You’ve got to have the wine for the last bit. The view goes nicely with a drop of Joao Pires.


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“Don’t!” shouted Ian, “Don’t. Please.”

Jessica turned slowly towards him, tightly clutching the brick, arm still poised ready to launch it towards the window.

“But I want to,” she shouted back. “It’s the only thing I want to do. It’s the only thing that will hurt him. Bricks and mortar. Things. Stuff. That’s the only thing he cares about. The only things he loves.”

Ian touched her arm gently.

“There are more constructive ways of getting your point across. Ways that won’t involve him calling the police.”

“He may not know it’s me”

“After what’s just happened. Really?”

Jessica sighed and looked at the floor. “What’s her name again?”

“No idea. Just allocate her a number. Like in the Prisoner. Number 8.”

 “What number am I then?” she said quietly, then with a sudden surge of anger, “I hate him. I hate him..”

Ian stepped closer.

“What are you doing here, Ian? You’re his friend, not mine.”

“I’m your knight in shining armour,” he said, trying to take the brick.

“There’s no such thing,” said Jessica turning away from him.

“I can help you upset him more” he said softly.

“How  – like breaking in with me and cutting all the ends of his trousers and shirts…”

“Come for a drink with me. He’d hate that.”

Jessica studied the house.

“Yes he would,”

Ian held out his hand. “Come,” he said.

“Run,” shouted Jessica, throwing the brick through the window. “Run. I’d like a gin and tonic please.”


Copyright Chris Penhall 2013

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Grace leaned against the wall, listlessly scanning the traffic, wearily waiting for the bus to arrive.
She sighed, turning her attention to the cars and vans speeding by, a constant stream of noise and fumes, only subsiding for the beep beep beep of the pedestrian crossing. A woman pushing a pram rushed by, head down, mouth set hard, shutting out the world around her.
For the hundredth time Grace wondered why she’d bothered. It always seemed such a good idea when she set off, but it always ended with this.
A man stood next to her and fiddled with his i-pod, the volume so high Grace could hear the pump pump pump of the beat. But no tune, no melody, just white noise.
Raising her gaze to the sky, she saw a patch of blue emerge from the grey heavy clouds and smiled.
She had always managed to find beauty in small things. Her children were always laughing at her. Far too easily pleased as far as they were concerned.
Shifting her weight to her other leg, she fidgeted and watched the man put the volume of his music up even higher.
There was no bang, bang, bang, this time though. Curious, Grace listened harder.
The rhythm of a piano, then a voice singing “When you’re alone….”
She felt her stomach somersault. Her song. Their song. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or do both.
Closing her eyes, she felt time shift. There was no bus stop, no traffic, no hustle and bustle; just a country lane winding through golden fields of wheat.
Grace was running, laughing, her long dark hair blowing behind her in the breeze, knee-high socks half way down her ankles, pink sundress stained with the juice of the wild blackberries they’d been picking.
Tom was ahead standing on a wall, waving his arms above his head. “Look out world, here I come,” he was shouting, “Look out, look out!”
Then she tripped and fell, grazing her knee, watching the blood seep down onto her white plimpsoles.
“I will rescue you,” shouted Tom as he jumped onto the grass.
“Here,” he said, holding his out his hand to help her up.
“My hero,” she’d laughed.
Pulling her towards him, he started to sing, “Downtown…” and they’d danced, giggling, to the music in their head, accompanied by birdsong and illuminated by a bright yellow sun hanging heavy over the distant hills.
He would sneak up behind Grace and sing it into her ear when she was sad, and ambush her in the kitchen when she was cooking dinner, sweeping them both around the lino floor as he sang, laughing.
And as she remembered, she was happy again. Young , hopeful, secure.
Then she opened her eyes and he wasn’t there anymore.
This bus stop had replaced Tom’s wall long ago. The road had buried their country lane.
Grace had walked here every day since he’d died. And today, fleetingly, she’d found him.

Copyright Chris Penhall 2013

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In Which I Put My Demons To Rest and Upholster a Queen Ann Footstool


The last time my “crafty” gene reared its head was in my tile painting phase. The spoils of this prolific era can be seen throughout my house and hidden away in drawers: two tables, a teapot, a random actual tile painting, plates, a tray and many, many, many, many coasters. They can be seen in other people’s houses, too, as you really can have too many coasters. However, I occasionally rummage around in hidden cupboards and find even more than I thought I’d started with. I can only assume they are mating.

Despite this, I have never been particularly good at making things.  I used to pity my poor daughters when things had to be made for school occasions: the Easter bonnet parade and the debacle with the Welsh cakes stand out. Although, if I may say so, I thought I excelled myself with the cat outfit. I was obviously “in the zone” the day I created that.

Whilst living abroad I volunteered to help out at the international school my daughters attended,  “but don’t give me cooking,” I remember saying.

So what they did was they ignored that, and put me in a classroom with 8 children under 6 with a variety of first languages, none of them English. Then they gave me chocolate to melt, chocolate sprinkles and flour.

What fun we had. By the time we’d finished, we had quite a lot of chocolate “mice”, with chocolate and sprinkles on the actual “mice”, but also chocolate and sprinkles smeared over the tables, the floor, the children, and, oh yes, the wall. And me.

I was never given cooking again..

When I was about 11 I made a lovely waistcoat in a sewing lesson at school. But I didn’t. All I can remember was looking so hopeless that my friend took it away from me to help; she then passed it onto someone else who passed it onto someone else and so on and so forth, in a sort of mini-production line. By the time it got back to me it was finished. It was a nice waistcoat, but nothing to do with me.

All these years later I felt I had something to prove in the sewing area.. So I decided to go on a workshop to learn how to upholster a foot stool. I had some vague idea of re-upholstering all the chairs in my dining room. I don’t think I’ll actually be doing that now, given what I learned on Saturday, but I have now got a lovely Queen Ann Footstool.

I booked myself onto a workshop at Make Do and Mend in Chelmsford with a little trepidation, frankly, due to my history.

But I can honestly say that as soon as I’d finished I wanted to make another one! There were six of us in the group, bonding over bourbons, tea, and power tools. For there was absolutely no sewing involved. Not at all. Just glue, staple guns, hammers and drills.

Oh, the fun of getting glue on your hands and waiting for it to dry and peel it off in little balls like you did when you were a child, sticking your material to your footstool with an air-powered staple gun that made a loud  noise when you did it, hammering the staples in and wanting to sing Whistle While you Work, and finally, and most fun, drilling the legs on.

I swept out of there, filled with a massive sense of achievement, ready to fill my house with little knick knacks made with my very own hands – and if I get carried away again, other people’s houses – with a list of possible workshops I could go on.  There was a pottery mug making class going on next to us, where they got to throw clay and stuff, and a row of tantalising sewing machines by the wall, where I could indulge my need for more scatter cushions.

As I write I am admiring my Queen Ann Footstool and have a tremendous sense of well-being. But it’s woken up my “crafty” gene again, and I’m worried where it will end this time.



Copyright Chris Penhall 2013




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