Friday, 20 October 2017

Brexit threatens turbulence for Europe's regional airlines


The timing of Flybe's second profit warning in a year was rather unfortunate, coming as it did on the opening day of Europe's regional airlines' annual get-together.

The Flybe news was of an altogether lesser magnitude than the failure a few days previously of Monarch – after all, Britain's largest regional airline still expects to make a profit, albeit a somewhat smaller one than twice forecast.

But with the company's share price tumbling, Chief Executive Christine Ourmières-Widener was a notable absentee from the platform at the European Regions Airline Association's General Assembly, in Athens, where she had been expected to take part in an open forum involving senior female figures from the industry.

Flybe blames higher than expected maintenance costs, following on from earlier IT failings, which had led to the first profits warning. But the situation also needs to be seen in the context of increasing nervousness over Brexit, which is damping down demand in the UK domestic scheduled market and causing increasing concern right across the continent.

Indeed, in the session from which Ms Ourmières-Widener was missing, it was revealed that 84 per cent of delegates from across Europe and the wider world expected Brexit to impact on the industry negatively. Brexit also polled joint second among the biggest issues facing European aviation, with only air traffic control congestion ranking higher.

Another conference session recalled Donald Rumsfeld's famous 2002 assertion: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know."

We know – or at least think we know – that Brexit will happen. But then we don't actually know what Brexit will look like. While our European colleagues look on in dismay at a government seemingly relishing hari-kari as a preferred alternative to resolving once and for all its own internal divides, the actions of the UK cabinet remind me of one of those company away days we used to enjoy before the financial malaise put paid to such luxuries around 2008.

The away-day moderator asks everyone round the Cabinet table: "If Brexit was a vegetable, what would it be?" 

"A cucumber!" pipes up one Minister. And then the rest of the day is lost as they all argue over whether a cucumber is a vegetable at all, or if it's actually a fruit.

While the airline industry in the UK is afflicted by the low pound and the stasis at the heart of government, our colleagues in the rest of Europe have actually been doing not too badly – notwithstanding the caveat voiced by outgoing President Boet Kreiken, who said: “Brexit so far is a nightmare for all of us in Europe.”

Passenger numbers are generally up across the continent, said Kreiken. And the new deal between Airbus and Canada’s regional aircraft manufacturer, Bombardier (which will see the latter’s C Series jets assembled in the USA), seems to have wrong-footed Boeing and its “dumping” claim, which had led to a promise of punitive import tariffs.

And if diversity is a sign of good health, then the industry in Europe is way more healthy than that in the States. Commentator John Strickland told the conference that Europe’s so-called legacy carriers (traditional, mostly former state airlines) and the three largest low-cost operators (Ryanair, easyJet and Wizz) together accounted for 50 per cent of the continent’s available seat-kilometres (ASKs). In the USA, land of entrepreneurial ambition, the total is 90 per cent. Put another way, this means that half of Europe’s airline passengers are flying with smaller regional carriers.

And, he said, setting to one side the ongoing woes of some of the remaining government-controlled carriers and of some of the smaller operators (and perhaps also of Norwegian, whose rapid expansion on many fronts may have overstretched it), demand has generally risen and has recovered well in the wake of, for example, terrorism incidents in Turkey and elsewhere.

Regional airlines, he said, were well placed to take advantage of new opportunities in niche markets, or where legacy carriers had abandoned thinner routes.
The challenges they face going forward includes prohibitive pricing regimes at some airports, aimed at squeezing out smaller aircraft; pilot shortages; and a lack of development of smaller aircraft by manufacturers .

The general upward drift in the size of regional aircraft may bring lower seat costs, but such “trading up” is not appropriate in some markets and may even be impossible. A case in point is Norway, where innovative regional carrier Widerøe’s aging fleet of Bombardier Dash 8 short-field aircraft can’t go on flying indefinitely.

At the very lower end of the market, the change in UK regulations that now permits the use of single-engine aircraft, with consequently lower operating costs, may yet open up new opportunities for services to, for example, the remoter Scottish islands. But we are talking here about aircraft like the Cessna Caravan utility aircraft, or the very much more luxurious Swiss Pilatus PC-12, both of which seat fewer than 20 in any configuration.
Cessna Caravan
Pilatus PC-12
Those seeking real innovation may have been encouraged by a press conference with Brazilian manufacturer, Embraer. Also in attendance was Embraer customer and Widerøe boss Stein Nilsen, who described a future in which dramatic new electric and hybrid propulsion technologies might make it unnecessary to extend Norway’s numerous short runways to accommodate larger aircraft.
Embraer jet in Widerøe colours, but could electric aircraft follow?
“We have to look at alternative ways of propulsion,” said Martyn Holmes, Embraer Vice-President Europe and Middle East. “Embraer sees itself as a very innovative company – we are specifically looking at disruptive technologies that could provide power in the future.” He concluded enigmatically: “Watch this space!”

Given such potential innovation, I was more han a little disappointed at the Airline of the Year Bronze Award going to SAS. SAS is not a regional airline – it's a legacy carrier and a large one at that. OK, so the award was in recognition of SAS's use of a number of smaller regional carriers to provide its feeder services, but to me that is not in any way in the spirit of the award. Furthermore, SAS is currently engaged in a predatory war with my own client, Atlantic Airways, in the Faroe Islands. In future, let's reward the lion, not the lion-tamer!

This year's Gold went to TAP Express – the regional arm of Portugese legacy carrier, TAP. The Sliver, however, was earned by Blue Air – the largest airline in Romania, one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. The company was bought from its previous owners by four Romanian investors a few years ago. For me, this reflects better the ethos of the regional airline.



Sunday, 10 September 2017

Whistle-stop around Bangkok


Rather curiously, our trip to Bangkok had begun with a plan to visit Corsica and Sardinia.

However, after initial research, it emerged that we each had different ideas about the kind of holiday we wanted and the kind of place we’d like to stay. Nothing much happened after this revelation – until an unsolicited email arrived from Kuoni, featuring what looked like a great value holiday comprising three nights in Bangkok and seven on the island of Koh Samui.

Of course, by the time we’d added three nights and a beach-front room on Koh Samui, it wasn’t quite such a great bargain, but hey, a holiday is for indulgence and the Brexit-bashed pound can still buy a reasonable amount of holiday fun in Thailand.

A “package holiday” – albeit an upmarket one – is a bit of novelty for us, as people who work in travel and are well versed in the art of the self-assembly vacation.

But, as I sit today outside said beach-side apartment at the appropriately-named Rocky's Resort, and reflect on two days and three nights in Bangkok, the experience thus far has been a thoroughly positive one.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that people were predicting the death of the high street travel agent and, by implication, the specialist operators too.

This has not happened – the industry may have been shaken down – but there remains a place for those who add value to the holiday experience or who simply take the pain and frustration that can overtake our own valiant efforts. And Kuoni very much did that for us, starting with a telephone sales team who clearly knew their destinations first-hand, and continued right down to the pre-departure phone call to check we had all our documentation.

With personal service on arrival at Bangkok, it seemed only natural to extend the philosophy by buying two ground tours from Kuoni’s agent in Thailand. OK, so we paid around £60 to visit three temples, a royal palace (replete with mourners as the anniversary of the king’s death nears) and a jewellery factory (in the reasonable knowledge that our guide, “Victor”, might be enjoying a bit of an “arrangement” on that one).

But economics is about more than the mere price of goods and services: there’s the opportunity cost attached to overcoming your jetlag to navigate your way through a strange and frenetic city; getting lost on the overground, perhaps; arguing with a taxi driver over an unset meter; joining the wrong queue. For once, a pair of self-assemblers could relax and let someone else do all the thinking, sharing his personal knowledge with us as we went.

So, we did see a lot of Buddhas and very fine ones at that: the huge seated Golden Buddha; the somewhat smaller but perfectly formed Emerald Buddha, fashioned from jade; and the quite enormous Reclining Buddha – all 46 metres of him – representing the Buddha towards the end of his life.
Gold Buddha, above, and Reclingin Buddha, below
Mara, the Buddhist devil, in a detail from an ancient frieze at the Grand Place, Bangkok
And now, here’s where opportunity cost (or benefit) comes in: still time to spend the afternoon at the pool at the Rembrandt Hotel, a pleasant four-star.

The following day saw us drive out of town after an early start, through near continuous ribbon development for more than an hour to Maeklong Market. I’d seen this on TV when Rick Stein did his Far Eastern TV odyssey, and it’s famous for the fact that it does, indeed, take place on a railway track. It was quite something to watch the market stalls miraculously retracted into buildings at either side of the line, just seconds ahead of the train.

Once the train has noisily tooted its path through the merchandise, the market quickly resumes in all its chaotic tumult: a chaos undoubtedly worsened by tourists (like us) who gawp much but buy little. The traders must be thankful that the train doesn’t run too often.

It’s a quarter-mile or so of market that has pretty much everything you might think of eating and much that you might prefer not to: alongside the chickens (raw or pre-cooked) you’ll find cooked frogs on sticks, buckets of edible grubs and fish so fresh from the river that they still thrash about in an inch or two of water.

Frogs on sticks…
After a short and quite educational stop at a coconut farm, we made the last bit of the trip to Damnoen Suduak floating market by fast boat. These are shallow-draught gondola-like craft, powered by throaty V6 or V8 car engines with a propeller on a very long shaft attached directly to the prop shaft. They are designed this way to help the driver steer the boat round right-angle corners of the canal system. The “straights”, however, are a real speed treat that becomes petty choppy when another of these water beasts passes the other way. Talking of beasts, you may spot a huge monitor lizard on the canal banks too, if you’re lucky!

V8 engine with direct drive to prop… Vrooom!
That evening we returned to self-navigation mode, and made for our cheap and immensely cheerful local P-Thai restaurant, before taking a stroll along Soi Cowboy, one of the city’s red light streets. Probably the worst part of our trip thus far, with many of the girls (and maybe ladyboys) seemingly barely in their teens and the usual clusters of middle-aged Brits who seem to think it a show of virility to casually quaff lager outside a brothel.

In a city whose love of the skyscraper seemingly matches that of 20th century Manhattan, it seemed only right to research the best rooftop bars, and so we took a short and cheap taxi ride to the Banyan Tree, where we ascended by rocket-fuelled lift to the 59th floor, before climbing another two flights to the VertigoBar. For someone who does struggle these days with the vertigo affliction, it felt like a precarious perch, the whole city spread out around us in a quite sensational vista. Of course, you do pay for the view when you buy your drinks (here, or in the standing-room-only Moon Bar, a few metres away) but our service was so gracious and friendly that we did indeed feel special right up to the moment when we made for the lift, ahead of an advancing thunderstorm!

Losing bearings in Vertigo bar…
The plus side of Bangkok’s reach for the skies is that many of its tall buildings are immensely graceful and its newest and tallest – MahaNakhon, or “great metropolis”– will boast its own rooftop facilities, 77 storeys and more than 1,000ft up, from next year. It’s a visually highly original structure designed around the idea of pixels, as the architects would have it, or like a Jenga tower, as you or I would more likely observe.

MahaNakhon – or Jenga Building, if you prefer…
High-rise Bangkok does have its downsides, however. One is the fact that the city is said to be sinking into the soft alluvial ground at an alarming two or three centimetres a year, thanks to the extraction of groundwater and the sheer weight of all those towers. Another is the manner in which more traditional low-rise building are being overwhelmed. Similarly overwhelmed are the now dingy streetscapes beneath the cheap and efficient Skytrain network.

Ahead of visiting Bangkok, everyone tells you about the traffic, which is indeed, frenetic. But there is a remarkable sense of order to a chaos in which every traffic signal has big display counting down the time until the lights will change. Sometimes, though, this seems to be counted in hours, rather than minutes and seconds. You’d have time aplenty to grow a beard – man or woman!

And what they don’t tell you is just how clean the streets are – the cleanest I can recall seeing in a city of this size. A shame then about the wirescape that lines every street at first floor level. The advent of fibre-optic cabling has added a new dimension to this, with great coils of wire suspended from every pole, like abandoned knitting. Apparently the art of splicing a fibre-optic cable hasn’t yet caught up with the art of installation, and so surplus lengths are just coiled up and left in situ.
Fibre-optic delusion
Of course, no-one can really do justice to a city like Bangkok in a couple of days and, after this carefully orchestrated sample, I look forward to returning to discover its neighbourhoods, museums and galleries. I shall also once again enjoy a Thai foot massage at one of the many little parlours near P-Thai: nothing better after a long flight!
Immaculate streetscape, above, and artistic Thai litter bin, below


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A walk across the sands to Briain's newest island


Getting to Britain's "newest island” demands no more than driving about 25 miles beyond Hull and then, tides permitting, walking two and a half miles in either direction to reach the lighthouse.

Spurn Head has been an occasional island ever since the tidal surge of 2013 severed the isthmus connecting the tadpole shaped-peninsula to Holderness. The sea took away the grassy dunes and the road they bore, leaving Spurn Head definitively connected to the rest of East Yorkshire only at lower tides. Access to the lighthouse, lifeboat station and Humber pilots' watch is possible only on foot or by Landrover when the waters don’t cover the sandspit. There was further damage during a storm surge earlier this year and the official policy is now to “let nature take its course”.

In reality, the Spurn peninsula has always been a less than permanent coastal feature: it is the product of huge quantities of silt – from coastal erosion further north – washing down the Yorkshire coast with every tide. At Spurn that silt settles rather precariously on the remains of a moraine that once stood at the edge of a huge glacier. But the process appears to have a 250-year cycle, during which Spurn Head has always been, at intervals, an island.

Base camp for Project Spurn Head was a very pleasant Airbnb, called East Lodge, near the tiny village of Winestead, close to Sunk Island – an area of land reclaimed from the Humber some time ago and itself a reminder of the ephemeral qualities of “dry land” in these parts.

The world here has the air of passing at a slower pace and, driving through the village of Easington towards the car park for Spurn Head, there are signs that some natives are restless, amid clear suggestions that the onslaught of the sea is not the only issue disturbing the tranquillity.

Large posters declare opposition to plans for a new visitor centre. Given that the current Yorkshire Wildlife Trust visitor centre is no more than converted shipping container and that the site of the new centre is some distance inland, the suggestion that the development would compromise the area’s wilderness qualities seemed rather tenuous.

Walking through the dunes, we emerged onto the shingly spit that joins “Spurn Island” to the mainland. I was expecting a relatively narrow breach, but in reality a good half mile of duneland has vanished, leaving nothing to bind the land-bridge firmly together. You can see the remains of sea defences erected during the First World War, but these are now well to the east of the high point of the spit, whose natural tendency is creep westwards.
Approaching the new isladn from the remnants of the causeway
The walk across the shingle proved quite hard going, though sticking quite close to the water line on the western side offered probably the firmest footing.
Old tank ditch – just one of many military remnants on the island
Clambering up onto the intact section of the peninsula, a tidal shelter for walkers offered a stark reminder of the precarious nature of the link. The area of dunes widened progressively, offering shelter from what was just the gentlest of breezes as we walked south beneath a warm early summer sun. Knots of birdwatchers trekked back and forth and – as a kestrel patrolled up and down the length of the peninsula – swallows and skylarks were among smaller birds filling the sky beneath it. A rich carpet of colourful flowers and grasses belied the flimsy nature of the land, while a collapsed stretch of road predating the recent damage, and stretches of railway disappearing at intervals into thin air were reminders of that very flimsiness.

Looking back to the sanspit that joins the island to the mainland at lower tides
It seemed a long two and half miles to the lighthouse and, as temperatures rose into the 20s, so to did concern that we had set off minus refreshments of any sort. What relief then to find Wildlife Trust volunteers on duty at the lighthouse – restored and opened to the pubic with help from Heritage Lottery funds – and selling a range of crisps, chocolate and pop! I needed them even more after climbing 130ft of steps to the observation room.

Two gallery spaces punctuated the climb, while an informative video gave rise to a rather surreal feel, thanks to being projected onto the curved internal wall of the lighthouse tower.

Climbing the last few steps up the final “ladder” earned the right to enjoy a superb panorama, looking back up the Humber towards Immingham Docks, and the port and city of Hull, with the towers of the Humber Bridge just visible in the distance. To the south, huge vessels plied what seemed like a surprisingly narrow channel separating Spurn Head from Grimsby.

View across the Humber towards Grimsby
The view served only to emphasise that the lighthouse remains some distance from the point itself, which lies beyond the pilot station and the former homes of the lifeboat crew’s families (all now live on the mainland). Indeed, I was reminded by the artist whose work was on display that this end of the peninsula continues to grow, with elements of the military defences now stranded well inland. He suggested that even the flimsy sandspit might be getting wider and taller again, although another tidal surge might yet change all that.

After the long hike back to the car park, we felt a reward was in order and what better place to seek that reward than at the Crown and Anchor, in Easington – a pub enjoying unsurpassed sunset views across the marshes and up the Humber. In the immortal words of that son of Yorkshire, Wallace, it had been a “a grand day out”.

Friday, 5 May 2017

A voyage to the very edge of Great Britain


It looked like someone had scrawled Tippex in splodgy lines along the mountain ridges to either side of Loch Ness, as the last remnants of snow shimmered in the Spring sunshine.

For once, the weather was precisely as forecast – and this was vital to the success of Project Kilda.

On landing at Stornoway, the windsock hung forlornly beneath a warm and windless sky, like a forgotten kipper in a smokehouse. Prospects were looking better and better!

Project Kilda was a product of my having – somewhat prematurely, I hope – given a bit of thought to the idea of a bucket list. But it wasn’t so much the number of entries on this list that was causing me concern, as the seemingly relentless acceleration in the passage of time.

Some of the entries – safari in Botswana, a flight in a Dragon Rapide or dining at Noma – could be ticked off reasonably easily, simply by creating time and finding the money.

Getting to the archipelago of St Kilda, however, posed an additional challenge: the voyage to this British outpost in the North Atlantic is always at the whim of the weather. And the weather in these parts is indeed whimsical, being capable of delivering high seas and hurricane force winds in equal measure.

I had secured my passage courtesy of Seumas Morrison, whose Sea Harris company runs seasonal day trips to St Kilda from the little port of Leverburgh. Seumas had given me a list of dates on which I might ride beside him on the navigator’s seat aboard his high-speed Redbay Stormforce 1650, Enchanted Isle. The boat was specially designed and built in County Antrim and Seumas took delivery at the end of 2014 – Sea Harris now offers, he says, “the fastest, greenest and most economical day trip boat operating from Harris”. Cruising at 22 knots, it makes the 45-mile crossing to St Kilda in two and half hours.

Having previously kept no more than half an eye on the Hebridean weather charts, I began watching more assiduously at the end of Easter and felt my spirits buoyed as high pressure began to build across the north-west of Scotland in early May. It looked unusually settled, and so it was on Tuesday May 2 that I flew via Aberdeen to Stornoway, where I bought provisions and drove a little over an hour to West Harris – minus a booked bed, but plus my two-man tent, unused for about 20 years.

The campsite at Horgabost most be among the most scenic on the planet and I found myself a pitch immediately overlooking the wide, white expanse of the beach.
Bed for the night: perhaps the loveliest campsite in these isles
On previous visits to the beautiful Isle of Harris I’ve stayed at Hotel Hebrides, by the ferry landing at Tarbert, and at Blue Reef Cottages, not far from here on the magnificent west coast. It was while staying at the latter that co-owner Neil Campbell told me about a development of affordable homes for local people by the West Harris Trust, which manages a big chunk of land in West Harris for the benefit of the community.

Besides affordable homes and studios for artists, the development includes a restaurant with quite stunning sunset views, the Machair Kitchen. And here’s the happy coincidence: it is run by Hotel Hebrides as a satellite of its own rather good restaurant in Tarbert. And it was just a mile’s walk from my tent!

Having enjoyed a meal way beyond what might have been reasonable expectations for such a remote spot (and including a bowl of the finest local mussels) I watched the sun go down over the broad Atlantic, my ultimate destination somewhere beyond the horizon.
Sunset over Taransay
The call of a cuckoo fills the air as, just after eight, a flotilla of three boats edges out of the harbour at Leverburgh, through the sound of Harris and into the open ocean. The conditions, says Seumas, are as good as they possibly can be for visiting St Kilda: there is no more than perhaps a two-metre swell as we head west, pausing only to admire a small school of porpoise at play.

“The boys on the other boats will be telling us they’ve seen 50 porpoise, maybe orcas,” jokes Seumas. “It gets very competitive!”

It’s a full two hours before the St Kilda archipelago shimmers into view and we sail past Boreray and into the horseshoe haven of Village Bay, on the main island of Hirta, from where, in 1930, the last 36 residents were evacuated to the Scottish mainland. The departure of the people marked an end to at least two millennia of human occupation – a fact astonishing enough in its own right, given the nature of the elements that afflict the four islands of St Kilda where land flat enough to cultivate is at a premium.
St Kildans outside their homes in Village Bay prior to the evacuation
It is thanks to this remarkable story of defiant human habitation that St Kilda has, since 2005, been one of only a handful of double Unesco World Heritage Sites, recognised for both its cultural legacy and a rich natural heritage, including some of the largest seabird colonies in the world.

Today, a couple of early-season yachts lie at anchor as we edge towards the little pier at the centre of Village Bay and prepare to disembark aboard a RIB. It is forbidden to moor at the pier itself, lest pests like rats should make it ashore and threaten the native fieldmouse and wren (both are rather special insular species, double the size of their mainland cousins), or indeed the eggs of seabirds.

Clambering ashore, I can’t help but be immediately struck by the enormity of the power station plonked by the military right in the middle of the World Heritage Site. An archaeologist with the Scottish National Trust informs us that the military installations – personnel are stationed here to track rockets test-fired from the Isle of Benbecula – are about to undergo a complete rebuild. By the end of Summer 2018, the rows of green huts and the power station monolith will have been replaced by much less intrusive structures, designed to be sympathetic to their surroundings.

The base was built back in 50s and 60s, when Cold War preoccupations trumped natural beauty and heritage every time. Today military personnel and scientists (of whom more later) are the only souls to brave the St Kilda winter, the National Trust presence being confined to the (relatively) benign summer months. The motley collection of day visitors is told we can wander where we like, except within the loosely defined military area.

What has drawn us all here? Well, there has surely been more written per head of population about St Kilda than just about any other location in the world. And indeed, probably more metres of film exposed too. There is enduring fascination with the extraordinary lifestyle of the islanders, who survived by climbing down cliffs to catch seabirds – they even evolved a different bones structure in their feet, with wide spaces between the toes, helping them to climb ropes. And there is immense sadness at the slow decline of a community and its ultimate demise in the space of only about a hundred years.
The causes for the decline were various but Victorian age tourism undoubtedly played a big part, introducing islanders to money in place of the tradition of paying at least part of their rent to their landlord, the MacLeod of MacLeod, in down and feathers.
Given that it was estimated that each person on St Kilda ate 115 fulmars every year and that the annual puffin harvest in the mid-19th century was close to 90,000 birds, that’s a lot of feathers!

Contact with the outside world saw the islanders becoming more reliant on imported goods, while also being lured away by the prospects of an easier life. However, the rot probably began to set in with the arrival of the first priests, who extinguished the rich cultural traditions of music and dance, and smothered the villagers beneath a blanket of fundamentalist zealotry that permitted the singing only of psalms.

Disease also took its toll and when the remaining islanders finally asked the British Government to organise their evacuation, it was only the very young and very old who remained. 
After their departure, the neat arc of houses in Village Bay fell into disrepair though, more recently, some houses have been neatly renovated and now house the occasional civilian population. The last survivor of the evacuation, Rachel Johnson, died as recently as last year at the age of 93, having been eight when she left the islands.

A procession of day-trippers snakes up the steep slope of the natural amphitheatre, behind Village Bay. We are aiming for a nick in the horizon, from where, we were promised, we would get a good view of the Isle of Boreray and of the cliffs on the island’s east side, home to what was the world’s largest colony of gannets until recently overtaken by Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth.
Boreray from the cliffs of Hirta
Bonxie spreads his wings
As I near the crest of the ridge, however, I am aware of another avian presence: a bonxie, or great skua. Anyone who has ever roamed the moorlands of the northern or western isles will know to be wary of this aggressive aerial thug. Unlike many other birds that will dive-bomb you but pull out before impact, the bonxie just keeps going and hits you as hard as he can. I’ve been thus attacked in Shetland and the Faroe Islands, but this bonxie lets me approach reasonably close, probably because he is yet to mate and has no nest to protect. Indeed, he is soon on his way, conducting an impressive aerobatic display with a female.

At the skyline the land plunges sheer to the sea, amid a huge company of gannets, squawking and squirling, their yellow heads glinting in the sunshine.
From here, you can stick close to the cliff edge and head for the summits of Connachair and Mullach Mor, each graced by white radomes, connected to the military base by a steep road.

I gaze down on the panorama of Village Bay, at the heart of the remains of the volcanic caldera that loosely enclosed its glinting turquoise lagoon. Beneath such a sun it might just be Santorini – though minus the overpriced hotels.


Village Bay from the ridge: it could almost be Santorini!
I choose a more direct route towards the mountains, taking me past several lines of cleits, the stone storage huts found only on St Kilda. I have been aware of these structures, which were to the St Kildans as wooden slatted meat-drying sheds are to the people of the Faroe Islands. But I have never expected to see so many: they run in lines from Village Bay in every direction, right to the very mountain tops, more than 1,000 feet above the village. More than 1,200 of them have been counted. It adds a whole new meaning to the idea of popping to get food from the larder: it could have been an all-day expedition.

I stumble across the remains of a Soay sheep, the ancient breed unique to the islands, and make a note of his ear tag number. Arriving back in the village I chance to meet a woman who seems weighed down by camera, lenses and binoculars. It transpires I am in the company of no less than Jill Pilkington MBE, head of the Soay Sheep Project, which is a long-term study of the little wild sheep, in part to gain a better understanding of their modern domesticised descendants.
Soay sheep and cleits
Jill is a parasologist, who is not, as she quickly corrects me, someone who studies umbrellas, but rather someone who studies parasites. In her case, sheep parasites. I share with her the number and location of the corpse I found and, indeed, a second one closer to Village Bay, and wonder why they might have died.
Jill Pilkington MBE: what she doesn't know about these sheep isn't worth knowing
“He was one of the frisky young bucks,” she tells me, explaining how these ambitious opportunists would seize their moment to “seduce” yews behind the backs of the herd’s four dominant males. But passing on his genes has come at a price as he was too exhausted to survive the harsh Spring, waiting for the new grass to come. “He would have died happy, though!” she adds.

Jill is the nearest St Kilda has to a permanent resident and has been studying her flock for 27 years. Her “second home” is in Hexham, Northumberland, where she has, she says, a husband. I reflect that hers must be an unusual kind of marriage.

“Yes,” she muses. “If I’ve been on home leave for six weeks, my husband starts to ask ‘When are you going back to that island of yours?’.”

I wander back along the empty street of broken crofts and admire the neatly renovated half dozen that are home to Jill and her colleagues. I buy and post home sepia postcards of the villagers to remind myself that I have, indeed, made this voyage to the very edge of Britain.

www.kilda.org.uk      

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Fragments of France

A naïve American tourist reviewing the place on TripAdvisor might put it something like this: "The building is completely unsuitable to house a restaurant – we ate with two feet of water covering the floor, the tables and benches sloped in all directions, there was graffiti all over the walls, and – worst of all –  no rest rooms."

Well, it is curious how the uutterly prosaic can be repackaged as super-romantic. We'd taken a boat trip in the huge marine nature park of the Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin, in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe. "Vous allez manger, les pieds dans l'eau," said Barbara, who sold us the trip. "Les pieds dans l'eau" is a bit of sales cliché when you are looking for a suitable apartment to rent in this archipelago, which is politically, if hardly geographically, part of France. It is not supposed to be a literal truth.

Déjeuner sur l'eau!


But in this ramshackle cabin, clinging to a sand bank just below the water's surface, you really do have your feet in the water as you eat. And it is great fun! Our captain, Arnaud, originally from Marseille, had already demonstrated just how fast it is possible to drive a 12-seater twin-engine boat through choppy seas, and now he was proving he was equally adept at barbecuing chicken and fish for a party that included, beside ourselves, eight Club Med guests from Nice and couple from the Champagne region.

Yes, Guadeloupe, being "part of France", inevitably attracts most of its sun-seeking guests from the Metropole. But anyone who has tried to holiday in France "out of season" (be it after August almost anywhere outside Paris, or during the appealing shoulder months in the Alps after the skiers have gone home) will testify that the French are very much creatures of habit when it comes to les vacances.

With an office these days comprising little more than a good Internet connection, we decided to take the rare opportunity to live in the sun for a month and, having recently visited Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, chose to sample the French version of the Caribbean, in the weeks running up to la grande arrivée of the hordes from France in mid-December.

 Guadeloupe is big enough to offer deserted beaches for those who look!


Besides the obvious allure of swapping single-figure temperatures for 28C every day, I have a particular fascination with these fragments of France scattered across all the world's oceans, bar the Arctic. It is a given that places like Guadeloupe enjoy both visible and less visible subsidy from the state. French citizens in the archipelago enjoy among the best living standards in the Caribbean, including all the attributes of the motherland's welfare system.

But this is the 21st century and most other major powers divested themselves of most of the remnants of their colonial past decades ago. France clings tenaciously to hers and there is little sign of that changing any time soon. Indeed, the Republic's answer to territorial claims by the Comoros islands, off Madagascar, over the French islands of Mayotte, was to integrate the latter wholly into France and the EU, of which it is now an "outermost region". It's as though France enjoys watching the irritation caused by these far-off fragments, which are like annoying splinters lodged in the flesh of their larger neighbours. France recently reopened a territorial dispute with Canada over the waters around St Pierre et Miquelon, tiny islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence, which may contain reserves of oil and gas.

But back to Guadeloupe: we were chatting with Ève, another Niçoise, who had moved to Guadeloupe quite recently to join a friend in expanding his business servicing holiday apartments and villas. She loves Guadeloupe and speaks of buying a plot and building a house. Her brother (curiously, also called Arnaud) is with her on holiday and senses that something is about to take off in Guadeloupe. He compares the archipelago (home to more than 400,000 people) favourably with nearby Martinique,which he finds still stuck in a bit of a colonial rut and far less cosmopolitan than Guadeloupe. Of Ivorian and French parentage, he felt uncomfortable in the more polarised community of Martinique.
 
Market in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe

And while he feels the time is not yet right to transfer his photographic business from France, that day might yet come. Driving change, he says, is the extension of the traditional holiday peaks driven by French custom and habit into a longer season. This is thanks not just to more charter flights from across the EU, but also to the arrival of low-cost carrier, Norwegian, which not only links Guadeloupe several times a week to major east coast US cities but, by virtue of its new transatlantic services, to Europe, including the UK.

Indeed, during our time here thus far, Americans have been the most frequently encountered non-French visitors, followed at a distance by Germans.

I'd like to think that Arnaud could be right about good times being just around the corner: Guadeloupe may be better off than its Caribbean neighbours, but the look and feel of the place suggest that wealth is less equitably distributed than in the Metropole. And while Guadeloupean produce enjoys tariff-free access to the EU, the converse is also true and evidenced by the availability of everything from butter from Brittany to Swedish matches in the shops. Government policy is aimed at encouraging local entrepreneurship, but it is a slow process and people like Ève and her business partner suggest it is not necessarily islanders who will seize the openings that may arise from a growing economy.

For me the big question is whether a prosperous Guadeloupe can act as a catalyst for improvement across the wider Caribbean region, or if being tied to the apron strings in this way merely stifles initiative and ultimately creates greater dependence.

We get chatting a lady serving in one of Guadeloupe's wonderful beach bars one evening: her daughter is studying tourism and languages at university in Bristol – in a pre-Brexit world (and, just for the record, I increasingly doubt that the insanity of Brexit will ever come to pass) she has the same right to study and live in the UK as someone from Paris or Nice. it is also worth remembering that the converse applies to young people in the UK seeking a bit of life experience in the sun. My advice would be to make the most of the opportunity now.

Of course no blog about Guadeloupe would be complete without reference to Meutres au Paradis, or Death in Paradise as it appears, undubbed, in the UK. Indeed it was the lady in the bar who got talking about it, when we mentioned we would be spending a week in Deshaies, the prime shooting location for the popular who-dunnit. The show airs for a sixth series next year after filming again in 2016 and is major driver of new tourism. I bought  a local newspaper on arrival here. The headline was about an 83-year-old man found tied and garroted in his flat a few miles from our own. Perhaps not the most welcome example of life imitating fiction…