Category: Retirement

The warmth returns

We like to remind ourselves, regularly, of where we might have been living and what we would have been doing had we not decided to spend the winter months here in Italy, the big ‘What if…..’ question.

On the TV set in our apartment we receive a limited selection of news broadcasts and despite being in Italy our satellite dish captures UK news, that is news targeted at people living on the British mainland. So we have been subjected to the bad weather, the snow, the frost and the ice all in a vicarious sort of way through the medium of the TV set. As a result we know something of what we would have been going through weather-wise if we had chosen to stay in the UK. We can see clearly that we would have had to suffer extremes of cold but we also recognise that we would have had the advantage so far as coping with the snow because we could have chosen when to go out, when to travel and when to stay in hibernation. Retirement does, after all, have its compensations.

The UK news media (or those we have access to) are finally, after weeks of single-track weather reporting, looking outside the UK for headlines. As it happens these are not difficult to find – when a large city in an impoverished country gets demolished by an earthquake the headlines tend to make themselves – but even without this tragic event, I doubt that news of the substantial thaw would have generated enough weather-related interest to get into the headlines.

In the village of Torri the focus seems different. Since just before Christmas the temperature has hovered just above or slightly below freezing point and the humidity rising from the river has imparted a bone-deep chill to anything exposed to it. The villagers who normally gather in the piazza had scuttled away into their homes, hiding away from the weather as much as they could – there is no pleasure in talking about cold weather. Now, just as in the UK, there is a sudden change and as the sun peeps over the mountains earlier each day we are reminded of where our warmth comes from. There is a sense of excitement in the air as the days lengthen. Leaning on the wall to gaze at the river once again becomes popular and even working up on mountain terraces among the olives now becomes pleasurable. Walking about we observe how the well-watered grass has covered any bare ground with a long green carpet. Soon, other signs of spring will be with us and just as we watched nature prepare for autumn and then winter we now look forward to the experience of a blooming re-birth. Winter is a short season here.

Some hardy specimens here never gave up at all, their battered flower heads evidence of their battle with the worst that nature could throw at them. Quite why they choose to expend so much precious energy in a winter-long display I cannot say but more than one species has stayed boldly in bloom all through December and now into January. Rosemary, the commonest of the wild-growing shrubs here, retains a battered flower array but there are others too, like a bright pink one, which Kate calls the ‘rubber glove plant’ as the petals resemble tiny surgical gloves.

There are berries too, which come in a variety of colours. The black ones here are produced by one of the least endearing plants we have found here. An invasive creeper, it is tough and well armed, both the stem and the leaf edges being lined with tiny sharp hooks which grab and tear at clothing and which will seize passing legs in an instant.

Then there are ‘fluff’ plants which have bunches of seeds each equipped with a strand of a white whispery material just waiting for a passing animal or a gust of wind to carry it away.

Very soon now we will be treated to a fantastic visual spectacle when the Mimosa flowers open. Today we caught the first glimpse of what is to come on a roadside tree in Torri. These trees are grown commercially here and the flowers sold for use in decorating festival floats and floral displays. There are orchards full of them, whole valleys covered with their fine green leaves and yellow flower sprays just about to burst into vibrant bloom for January is their month. They can wait no longer than this.

One final natural oddity is shown in this picture.
Our mountain vegetation is usually thorny or spiky and there is one shrub, a sort of broom, that grows long, sharp, spears with needle-like points.
This one grows beneath an olive tree and a ripe olive has fallen and skewered itself on one of the spikes.
Of course I could have set up this shot myself just for fun…. but I didn’t.

Destination retirement

Quickly, before the events of the last few days slips into memory, I must make a record so that they are not forgotten. Never again will we pass this way and just as starting one’s first job is an event that sticks in the mind, so equally is the end of that job, the end of all paid work. But for those who have yet to come this way let me warn you that it may not be what you expect, it may feel more like a beginning than an end. You just have to decide what it is that is beginning.

But first we have to thank so many who have wished us on our way, for all the wonderful greetings and comments we have been pouring over on cards and messages we received and for the retirement gifts given to send us on our way. Thank you, thank you, thank you, we’ll miss you all.

And thank you to those of you who wished us on our way out of Central London, especially to Alison and Nathalie, our neighbours on Loch Invar for the colder months of this last winter and who were our official ‘waver-offers’ on the day Cirrus Cat left fresh water and emerged from the marina lock out into the salty brown waters of the Thames. The general sentiment from you all seems to be envy but you may have felt differently had you been on board as we motored down river later in light rain, fully clothed in our warmest hats and gloves with darkness closing in and miles yet to go.

The passage was not without its excitement, however. Woolwich Reach on the Thames is perhaps best known for its free car ferry crossing the river many times each day rather than its wildlife. But nobody told the two small porpoises we saw frolicking in the water just by the ferry…. yes, porpoises in the Thames! No pictures, I’m afraid (a porpoise doesn’t exactly hang around with a smile on its face waiting for the camera flash), so you’ll just have to believe they were there, but they certainly put a smile on Kate’s face that lasted for miles.

By 9pm we were turning into the Swale, the thread of water that separates the Isle of Sheppey residents from the rest of Britain, the rising tide sucking us in till the water shoaled and the anchor plopped to the sea bed. With the engine off, finally, the quietness surrounded us and took us into its shell so we could sleep at last, almost alone in peace with just the birds for company.

So today we awoke for the first day of our new life. The air was completely still and so was the water when it paused between the tide rushing out and returning again, Cirrus floating effortlessly between the two. The sky was cloudy and the light had an unreal silvery sheen to it, obscuring the air/water divide in the distance. We emerged slowly from the cabin, savouring the silence, keeping our own movements quiet in response.

Later we were boarded by noisy pirates in the guise of friends larking about and joining us out on the water. Here are just two of them caught in the act of boarding.

We plan to spend the Bank Holiday weekend here just drifting about at anchor or maybe sailing a little further west towards Queenborough in a few days time when we run out of food on board. The weather has been kind all day, just the lightest of winds with the sun warming the boat nicely and giving us a chance to take stock and make the mental adjustment from our life on a stationary boat to our new life of travel.

The last holiday, ever

We don’t do cars very well any more. When we sit inside one now the stress levels immediately start to rise. Kate is nervous of my driving and I am the same with hers. Add to this the difficulties of navigating unfamiliar roads, whilst trying to read an inadequate map (1994 vintage) and translate this into road signs and landmarks, all the while checking to see where the next lorry is coming from and worrying about what the idiot driver is behind us trying to do – getting close enough so he can reach out and touch the boot of our car, I think – and very quickly the human has been frazzled out of us and the horns have come out. We reach a compromise of sorts by agreeing not to impinge on the other’s domain – I try not to lean over and map read and Kate has to ignore my driving – and thus we get ourselves along the road to our destination. But for me I was wanting to be elsewhere, anywhere but on the road.
This was a meticulously planned week starting with a train journey north then a day visiting Ursula, Kate’s nun of an aunt, then taking to the road in a tiny hired car so we could drop in on Kate’s niece Jeannie, her brother Andrew, then finally our son Tony in Newcastle. We had special deals booked at motels dotted here and there and to break the tragic monotony of this had arranged two nights in a Youth Hostel at Robin Hoods Bay in Yorkshire where we knew we would be able to walk our legs off no matter what the weather. The plan meant many miles driving through the conurbations of Sheffield and then Manchester, picking our way through countless motorway junctions and sets of traffic lights.
Tuesday and it was Ashton under Lyne (shortened to ‘AUL’ on road lane markings for obvious reasons) where Kate was given a trim by her niece before we dropped in for a cup of tea with her oldest brother who lives nearby. Next day we were driving north again and, arriving too early to meet with Tony, we took to the cold, windswept beach at Tynemouth where we watched long legged curlew sandpipers scuttling across the surfline to our great amusement. They always seem to be playing with the incoming waves, daringly leaving it to the last moment to run away across the sand. I seem to remember doing this as a child, sometimes failing to avoid a rogue wave and ending up with wet shoes.
Somewhere along the way we paid an emotional visit to the very house where Kate spent much of her childhood, a schoolhouse then, now a privately owned property but still stuck out in remote Yorkshire farmland. Snow earlier in the week had melted on most roads but the tiny lane here was almost untouched and a skating rink for our hire car to get to grips with. Fortunately the steep descent from the main road was not matched by a similar ascent otherwise I’m sure we would still be there now. Externally the only change here is that the trees are bigger, so Kate tells me. But then they would be, wouldn’t they. To get to her school she had to travel first to Otley, the nearest substantial town, which boasts an imposing statue of Thomas Chippendale (the cabinet maker, not the exotic dancer) and a cafĂ© which can produce, without effort, what must have been the longest potato chip in the world. Maybe there is a connection of some sort here.

Wednesday found us navigating tiny lanes around Robin Hoods Bay on the North Yorkshire coast, trying to find the Boggle Hole Youth Hostel where we had two nights booked. Lacking basic common sense we were using insight and a rather suspicious looking wooden signpost which very nearly took us up to our wheel arches in a muddy brown river, jokingly referred to as a ford, until a helpful local man pointed us on our way. The hostel was almost deserted, few being crazy enough to brave the cold and snow of recent days to stay there, but we were made welcome and soon had the lie of the land. Eating out in the evening involved a trek up the steep cliff path, a mile walk along the crumbling cliff edge then a hair-raisingly steep descent down wooden steps to the village pub and later, full of good food and ale, a similar passage in total darkness. By the second evening we had this pretty well sorted, however, so even the driving snow failed to deter us.

The curving slabs of rock at the cliff base (this is still referred to as a beach) are a classic feature of the area, and the Jurassic fossils within these sediments attract many hopefuls in search of new discoveries or simply bigger and better examples of what others have discovered already. But venture too near the cliffs and you’ll soon realise how fast the sea is making inroads here. Falls from the tops are happening continuously as more and more soil slips quietly away, Britain disappearing from view to be carried away by the sea. The beach is actually a mixture of bed rock and sand with sea-rounded pebbles in a variety of colours, suggesting great efforts of transportation from far and wide. Lumps of boulder clay, some round shaped by the action of the sea and looking like dinosaur eggs, litter the beach. The clay is topsoil from the cliffs and falls are both regular and frequent so it is wise not to venture too close.

But the bay can also be stunningly beautiful, particularly with the winter sun catching snow on the cliff tops and the wind waterfall whisking to produce a fine mist, like steam on the water.

By one definition, ‘taking a holiday’ presupposes being at work in the first place. Thus on ceasing to work it must no longer be possible to take a ‘holiday’ at all. In a little over six weeks time we will have retired and will need new words to describe what we have just done. Paid work as we now understand it will cease for us both so this week away from home will not be forgotten quickly. Soon our home will move along with us and as we pass the Yorkshire coast again our viewpoint will be different, from seawards to a distant shore.

In 12 months time my working life, and that of my wife Kate, will come to an end. For me this will be just 43 years after it all began, although to be honest there were a few gaps during which various people tried to squeeze some rudimentary education into me. My preparation for this unique event ought perhaps to be some deep reflection, either on what I have achieved or on what is to come. Or again maybe there really is no point in looking back, no point in trying to fathom out what if this or that had happened. It simply won’t make any difference. The fact will still remain that I am here now and in March 2009 I begin a new life.

I shall be the same person, of course, that I have always been; bearded for as long as I can remember, ears slightly smaller than standard for a human and a long, straight, nose that has never been broken despite all it has been through. The thin legs that have carried me up mountains too numerous to mention and the sun or wind burnt skin that fades to pale every Winter. Little of what is external to me will change as I move from being a working man to a retired one, from a contributor of effort to one who benefits from the efforts of others. No, it is the radical shift in outlook that I must adapt to, acclimatise and learn to live with as I join the league of retirees, this is what concerns me. And there is no gradual run-in towards this, no gentle slope into relaxation and freedom from cares. I can expect no mercy as I am plunged from my world of target driven mayhem to enforced idleness, with only memories lingering on.

OK, that’s the scary bit. Now for reality.

Retirement does not come as a surprise and nor should it be unplanned for. In fact if it does come along with no forethought, no imagining and no preparation then I really can’t see why I should want it at all. If I were just to let the day arrive and awaken (despite the absence of the usual alarm clock) then roll over in bed and suddenly begin to think about the ‘what next?’ then what a waste this would be. All those years spent tipping the pension pennies into the jar just for a longer lie-in. No, I don’t think so.


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