The early morning mist hovered just above the wet mossy ground and I was grateful that I had insisted John carry me in my basket. I did not want cold mud all over my soft silky paws! We were heading towards Patrick’s Barn on a private estate in Chiddinglye village near Ardingly in West Sussex. 400 year old Californian Redwoods lined the long winding drive as we headed towards the barn accompanied by the owner Becky and 3 of her loyal canine pals who were far too enthusiastic about trekking along this damp stony trail. I enjoyed sitting on my favourite blanket peering through the thick woodland for signs of deer or some interesting species of bird. But the imposing presence of the giant Californian Redwood trees along with the ghoulish gothic paraphernalia contained in our bags was giving me the eeby-geebies!
We finally reached the 17th century Patrick’s Barn as the gentle sunrise burned off the last of the foggy haze and began setting up the equipment. Our lovely model Kaylie got herself into that black lace and embellished bodice wedding dress while John and I figured out how we would use the lighting to create the atmosphere we were aiming for. We had two stunningly spooky bouquets of mysterious dark blossoms supplied to us by Steph Willoughby of Chirpee Flowers which finished off the look perfectly. The black mesh veil shimmered in front of our model’s smoky eyes and we were all happy with the creepy but elegant look of the shoot. John wanted to add a new style to the Shadow Photography wedding portfolio and this alternative to a white wedding is ideal for those who like to embrace the darker side of life.
As the plane came in to land at Santorini Thira international airport, I was struck by the dry monochromatic landscape. A mountainous rock stood proud and bleak while fields in shades of brown separated by tawny privet hedges sloped gradually down to the shoreline of rocky ridges and black sandy beaches. The airport is small and serves both as civil and military and John told me that if a military crisis occurred, the armed forces would take priority and we could be stuck on the island. As I think half the time we’re on the verge on World War 3, it freaked me out a little! It’s a great island and it produces delicious products like tomatoes, olives, fava beans and of course fish, but its resources are limited and it relies heavily on imports for its infrastructure and business. The volcanic explosion of 1600BC left behind a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone and pieces of solidified lava and sand and given the lack of rain and cold night-time temperatures, cultivating the land is a challenge. Hence the vines of Santorini are woven into continuous circles to form a basket of protection against harsh winds and the hot sun.
Anyway, we took this trip with a couple of friends and stayed for a week in a self-catering family-run villa in Perissa village. Typical of the style, it was white painted concrete with columns and arches and a bright green tiled roof. Many of the items there such as beds, chairs and outdoor decorative ornaments were recycled from pieces of rock and other raw materials that lie around the beaches. The family were warm and welcoming and owned two dogs that were both rescued. Bubis is a cheerful boy who was dumped in the field opposite where he lived for a few months before they gave him a home and Sissy is a very grumpy girl who can only be approached by the family but considering what she’s been through, I don’t blame her. There was also a rather handsome ginger cat with all areas in tact if you get my drift. One of our friends is on a mission to neuter as many strays as possible as a humane way to control street populations and when she saw this boy, it was on! A few days later he returned from the vets a little lighter and looking much better, having received treatment for his snotty nose and wheezy chest in the bargain. She named him Mr Olympos and although I liked him, I felt he was showing me up, sitting on peoples’ laps and being all lovable!
Santorini consists of a semi-circular chain of volcanic islands in the Southern Aegean Sea with a lagoon of water at its centre which is the only sunken caldera in the world. I didn’t know what a caldera was either until this trip but it’s a volcanic crater formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano. Indeed the island is subject to volcanic activity, another piece of news that freaked me out a little. But people still live their lives here, running their businesses and having families, many relying on the tourist trade for their income. Like Hara’s pet shop in Mesaria village who deserve a special mention for going above and beyond the call of duty to help the animals. The owner regularly has animals dumped on her doorstep or finds them in or around the bins across the street, often whole litters of puppies and kittens. She told us she finds it emotionally disheartening and a financial burden but instead of turning a blind eye, she cares for them and finds them homes, often working with the local charities Santorini Animal Welfare Association and Sterila cats but occasionally keeping one or two for herself. Like the scruffy old white Persians in the picture who now spend their days greeting customers, getting chin tickles or poking around in the fish tank when she isn’t looking. Don’t worry, the fish are safe! If you’re wondering about the quad bikes in the picture, these are what we used to bomb around the island and they are great fun. The locals use quads or scooters to travel and we often saw the inhabitants driving down the road with a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I know, don’t ask!
John likes sports and much as I’d like to monopolise our photography projects with endless pictures of cats, it’s only fair that we mix things up a little by varying the shoots we do. It’s true that shooting different subjects requires a diverse set of skills and a photographer has to think deliberately about what looks good in a frame and why. There are many things that affect the composition of a shot such as lighting, patterns, shape and colour. Attention to detail is a must for any photographer and when John and I take pictures of wildlife, we have to be very patient and sit still for a long time while we wait for the animal to be in the right position. Taking photos of the basketball players required heaps of concentration and a quick trigger finger. Exposure control is also a challenge with these fast moving subjects and it’s easy to end up with blurry shots. Of course John and I didn’t take a single fuzzy frame!
It was rather sweaty in the basketball arena due to the vast amounts of running around that the players are required to do and the squeaking of trainers against the wooden floor was an aspect of the game that I did not relish. But even though I’m not a sporty kind of cat, I enjoyed watching the game and even got swept up in the moment a couple of times when the ball went through the hoop or was cleverly stolen from another player’s clutches. (I’m sure any basketball aficionados reading this will be cringing from my poor use of sporting terminology). At the end of the day, regardless of artistic value or balance of form, John and I know from running a photography business that the success of a photograph often comes down to individual taste.
We sat on rickety chairs at a creaky table made of wooden pallets in a room decorated with ancient tools used to grind and mill the crops that would have grown around this Croatian tavern. A vintage sharpening wheel stone stood at the centre of the room with rusty axes and timber implements adorning the stone walls of the restaurant that used to be a stone mill. John and I finished our main courses and John stayed to listen to the band playing traditional music while I took a stroll outside. The music was getting too loud and I needed to distract myself from the thought that those heavy pieces equipment hanging on the walls might come crashing down. I inhaled a deep breath of late evening air and looked around for somewhere comfy to take a nap. As I hopped on to the low bench just outside the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of a dirty black and white kitten with hunger in its eyes. I made up my mind that this little guy was going to have some scraps and John asked the owner for some leftover meat. A few minutes later John appeared with a plate piled high and the leapt eagerly on to John’s knee. John dropped the food along the bottom of a dark wall and cats and kittens gradually emerged from the dark to enjoy the best dinner of their lives.
The restaurant was located in Cilipi, a village on the outskirts of the city of Dubrovnik in Southern Croatia where we stayed in a countryside villa not far from the airport. We soon got to know the local strays and we were grateful to people like the restaurant owner who do what they can to help. But overall there was a feeling of indifference towards the animals and people were surprised that we would walk down the long winding road away from the villa twice a day to feed the cats that we’d seen rummaging for leftovers in the rubbish bins. We applied ointment to their wounds and drops in their eyes to help heal their infections although sadly one or two were too afraid to let us near them and never got the treatment they needed. But not all stray cats have such difficult lives as we found out when we visited the riverside Konoba Vinica restaurant in the village of Monkovic. While we enjoyed lunch by the river Ljuta, a chunky ginger and white boy luxuriated in the sunny patches scattered throughout the vibrant green foliage, gratefully accepting titbits from patrons and words of kindness from the staff.
The old town of Dubrovnik was like a labyrinth of ancient stone walls leading us through a maze of narrow cobbled streets. The city was surrounded by a medieval stone rampart, fortifications that protected the settlement in times gone by and now acted as a roof-top walkway around the city’s core. John and I climbed the steps to the top of the wall where the parapets and bulwarks provided barricades and safe places from which to defend the fort. My chest puffed out as I strode purposefully along the brick path before stopping to admire the magnificent views across the Adriatic Sea. My daydreaming came to an end as the sun began to dip low into the skyline and John scooped me up into his arms. Dubrovnik was filled with the most beautiful landscapes I have seen and the people were generous and welcoming. My thoughts go out to the strays in the hope that as time goes by the authorities will embrace animal welfare as part of a civilised society and the kindness of strangers will continue to foster a culture of compassion towards all animals – human and non-human.
Everyone in the world has the potential to be a little quirky. Goodness knows John has his peculiar ways and he would no doubt describe my quizzical expressions and episodes of gambolling about the living room like a frisky spring lamb as somewhat perplexing. But the guys and gals at the Steampunk event John and I attended the other week elevated quirky to a whole new level. We travelled beyond unconventional into the Victorian era and entered a realm of surprising and enigmatic characters who could have just stepped off the set of Doctor Who or the 1954 movie 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. The Subaquatic Steampunk Weekend at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport was my first experience of the eccentric world of Victorian science fiction but hopefully not my last.
I was like a child in a sweetshop all wide-eyed and with a gormless grin on my face. Not the usual unflappable and sophisticated style I normally portray. But there was a lady there who looked like an emerald green dragon with bright orange hair and a boy who looked like a cyborg from the 1950’s in a tarnished metal face mask embellished with cog wheels and rusted springs. I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the gadgets and gizmos, boutique fashion shows and dynamic performances of the singers and musicians that entertained us. Ichabod Steam and his Animatronic Band were especially fascinating and became the source of a lengthy quizzical expression on my face while I tried to work out if he was a pirate, one of the Three Musketeers or the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Eventually I realised that it didn’t matter if he was a romantic goth or a post-apocalyptic soldier. The occasion was full of fun and the people warm and welcoming – a fitting tribute to the Victorian era, the American Wild West and the innovation of the mechanical and digital world all rolled into one. Nowhere else would you see parasols and ray guns paired up with bowler hats and corsets. I might ask Father Christmas for a pair of aviator goggles this year!
These are the times that restore my faith in humanity and remind me that empathy and kindness are the cornerstones of a truly civilised society. When someone is willing to endure hardship on behalf of another person it’s a reminder of the goodness that drives many people to do crazy things like walking 28 miles along a concrete promenade in the searing heat to raise money for a good cause. The sun feels scorching as it reflects off the shimmering water that’s looks perfectly still, ideal conditions for the paddle-boarders and jet skiers enjoying their workouts on the tranquil water of the Sussex coastline. There are no trees or hills to cast a cool shadow, just a few beach huts and Victorian shelters dotted along the esplanade. A light sea breeze and a chilled bottle of water are the only things to provide relief from the heat on their glistening brows and red faces.
Scott, Dean and Kayleigh worked unbelievably hard to honour the commitment they had made to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and raise as much money as they could to support people who live with cystic fibrosis. It was 24ºC on the sea front and even the most well-worn pair of trainers is going to rub like billio when you march 60,000 steps and you’re sweating buckets! Talking of buckets, the whacky walkers carried their collecting buckets all the way along their planned route which started at Bognor Regis pier and took them along the A259. The guys working on the improvements to the A259 deserve a special thank you for encouraging our intrepid trio and digging deep into their pockets. The footpath along that road leads to a bridge that crosses the River Arun and took our team to a pretty part of the coastline characterised by shingle beaches and sandy dunes spotted with spiky tufts of Marram grass. Sounds like an ideal napping spot for a cat who likes to roll around in sand and hide in long grass.
Lots of yachts and small boats were moored at Littlehampton Marina, bobbing up and down gently in the sheltered bay waiting for their owners to take them out to sea for a taste of freedom. Our charity walkers mostly tasted the salty air and it was time for a rest and a top up of fluids. The next landmark was a picturesque portion of coastline called Goring Gap which consists of hedgerows and dry grassland but has a hidden secret, a concealed World War II bunker tucked behind a dense patch of trees. As our walkers continued their challenge, the dehydration and burning blisters began to take its toll. Shoreham RNLI lifeboat station was a welcome sight as it marked a major milestone and meant they were only 7 miles from their final destination. As the summer sun started to dip lower in the sky, the Shoreham Lighthouse became a symbol of inspiration to guide them on the final leg of their long journey. And wearily but with determination, our plucky gang finally hit the finish line exhausted but happy. They should be very proud of themselves and despite the aching limbs and bandaged feet, John says they are planning to do something similar next year for another charity. Well done guys and thank you to everyone who supported them financially or emotionally for their trek along the entire promenade from Bognor to Brighton.
Despite our differences, horses and cats live together in harmony as though there is a special connection between us. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re a little peculiar given that they have one toe on each foot and can sleep standing up. But I celebrate our differences and enjoy their soft fuzzy muzzles and small gentle eyes. So I’m always a bit nervous about supporting events that involve the use of my hoofed friends. Nevertheless I joined John at the Ashfields Carriage and Polo Club in Essex to experience the thrills that humans find so entertaining at the races.
The horses were mighty fine specimens, tall and strong and beautifully groomed and all the riders were dressed to impress in their jodhpurs and breeches. The sport entails One, two or four horses running like the clappers around a course pulling a carriage that carries two or three people each of whom have a particular role. The person at the front tends to drive the horses forward shouting commands and tapping them with a whip if they go in the wrong direction. The horses know what is coming when they line up at the start of the race and are chomping at the bit to get going when the starter drops their flag. Meanwhile the person at the rear appears to throw themselves across the back of the cart, shifting their weight around presumably to balance the vehicle and stop it careering off the track on the tight turns. I’m sure this is a simplistic view and professional carriage racers would explain the rules much more eloquently.
It is a real test of endurance for all participants which is why I was pleased to see that the horses are taken for a drink, some food and a good scrub-down as soon as the race is over. John got some great action shots and also got splashed with mud at one of the driving obstacles so I suggested he could join the horses in the showers but he wasn’t amused! Instead he dried off by taking a walk around the paddocks and admiring the Essex countryside while I admired the impeccably manicured lawns. John would have to mow our garden at home for a week to achieve the kind of short lush grass that surrounded us at the equestrian centre. I would help but my paws are not designed to push a lawnmower!