Tag Archives: Great Outdoors

D-Day 70

Last night I returned home from a  few days in Normandy to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, or in other words, D-Day. I just want to write about it here so that I can get it all down, to remember it later.

I had wanted to go for years to see all of the places that I’ve read about for so long, and to pay tribute to the people who performed such extraordinary actions. It took quite a bit of planning (organising what started as 12 and ended in 9 people) and there were so many issues right up until the last moment that at one point it seemed as though I wouldn’t be able to join my friends there, after all that planning, but in the end everything came together.

I have serious withdrawal symptoms now. Everything seems….smaller. In comparison to the things we heard about or saw or felt over there. It felt like an incredibly privilege to be there, seventy years on. Somehow, I managed to pick us an absolute corker of a campsite,  beautiful, friendly and full of lovely chatty people who were all there for the same reason.


I can’t put into words how I felt to walk the peaceful, windy Utah beach as the sun came up on the 6th of June, or stand the night before in a field above our beautiful campsite with 30 strangers suddenly become friends, and watch fireworks illuminate the 80 km stretch of landing beaches on the coast laid out before us. 70 years ago to the minute, the paratroopers and gliders were landing, scattered in that dark stretch of countryside, attempting to take key causeways, bridges and roads that were vital to opening up the Normandy countryside and get the troops off the beaches as soon as possible after the landings began that next morning.

Utah beach was a beautiful, peaceful place on the morning of the D-Day anniversary, and it felt surreal to walk there and think about the chaos of the landings (even though Utah beach would have already have been taken by the time we arrived, about 8.30am). There were still quite a few bunkers and fortifications that we got to look at, with out resident military history student Nick to give us a guided tour.


Walking further up the beach we came across a number of re-enactors (all French), and headed towards the museum at Utah where a ceremony was just finishing. As the few veterans came out and were applauded by the crowd I was very glad that I was wearing sunglasses because I was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to cry.

After Utah we headed to Sainte Mère Église, which was the key objective for the US Airborne in the early morning of D-Day. It’s also famous for the paratrooper John Steele who became caught on the church spire – a dummy paratrooper still hangs there to this day (don’t worry, he survived).



This was a big deal for me, being a bit of an Airborne fangirl. The paratroopers were the elite and the job they did was a heroic one (imagine parachuting into battle, which incidentally, had never been done before, carrying everything you need with you, often landing right on top of the enemy). There was a great US Airborne reenactment camp at Sainte Mère Église which was brilliant to walk around.

1959313_547598648614_3441081316262783053_nHere is the frenchman dressed as a US 101st Airborne trooper who saw my Camp Toccoa  paratroop training camp t-shirt and said it “fit very well”.

10447076_547583179614_597051926459968413_nHere’s my reaction:

10403421_547583249474_6902248154812243127_nThe Airborne Museum was a busy but brilliant place (containing lots of artefacts and displays, including an original horsa glider) and I’m so glad I got a chance to visit it.

10402855_547598938034_5886257508318494606_nEverywhere you went there were people dressed in period clothing, 1940s music floating out across the countryside, the low throttle of distant engines that rumbled into C-47s and C-130s roaring low over your heads, jeeps and trucks and motorbikes everywhere.

10411775_547608129614_8608924875523143795_nAfter this we stopped off at Grandcamp Maisy, a German trench and bunker system that is still being uncovered and cleared. It was great to talk to the “owner” (if that’s the correct term), a passionate amateur who has dedicated his life to uncovering this little-known (and from what he explained to us, quite a contentious amongst military historians) position.

Also, here I bumped into an actual American dressed as a 101st Airborne paratrooper. He and his buddies saw my t-shirt and clicked their toy cricket (a little metal clicker that was given to the Airborne to identify each other in the dark) and I clicked back, which opened up the conversation. And I didn’t mind at all when he asked to have his picture taken with me…


After this we returned home hot, exhausted and sunburnt for a great group meal in the barn with the rest of the campers and the owners of the site. There were a couple of birthdays so cake was passed around, and my lovely friend Marie started up a little whip-round for the kids that had been serving us food and wine all night.


That night there was an awesome lightning storm at about 3am which was, frankly, terrifying. The ground literally shook and it felt like being in the midst of an artillery bombardment, the rumble of thunder and the flash of light was continuous for about an hour. Terrifying, but oddly fitting.

The second day we headed to Pointe du Hoc and Omaha beach, which was another vast sandy beach, though this time with rocky bluffs rather than the dunes of Utah (one of the reasons why it was such a bloody and long battle)


From there we walked miles down the sand towards the path up to the American Cemetery. Though packed with visitors it was still an incredible place, moving despite the people and the noise and the hot, sunny day. We found the graves of the unknown soldiers particularly moving, and I got especially choked up when I stumbled upon a grave marked with the name of my little brother. It struck me suddenly that he, being twenty years old, would have undoubtedly have been called up to fight somewhere. It was staggering to see the white crosses and stars stretching on into the distance, and despite seeing it in photos and on tv and film nothing could accurately depict the place itself.


There was so much I would have loved to have seen and didn’t get a chance to, but even this little taster was an incredible experience. Despite being fascinated with all the places that we saw, and the odd experience of being surrounded by re-enactors, it was still a very moving and emotional few days. The hot, sunny days on peaceful beaches and crowded villages both seemed to walk the line between commemoration of the lives lost and the unimaginable heroism of the men and women who took part, and the celebration of a country and people liberated. There were a few things that I felt could have been done better, despite how friendly and helpful the locals and the gendarmerie were – for instance there was so much that we would have loved to have seen but had no idea was taking place as there seemed to be no official website listing all the ceremonies, reenactments and events. But I can’t really complain. I’m in seriously withdrawal now. As my friend Tom mentioned earlier this morning, the things we saw and learned in Normandy for the 70th anniversary puts the details and drama of everyday life into startling perspective.













Cosmic rebates

Everybody goes through those times I suppose, when not much of anything can give the day-to-day of your life a sort of trudging backing-track of misery, or loneliness. You can hide it quite well of course, because it’s nowhere near the surface. It squats at the back of your mind like something dark and heavy, and taints the edges of your day, worries the edges, frays the ends. There’s nothing to put your finger on, nothing to blame, which adds a nice bagpipe-drone of guilt to the the whole affair.

It’s not depression – not quite that. It’s just….hard to breathe deep.

But then, sometimes, if you’re lucky, the universe can thrown something so bloody fantastic at you. And it’s small and insignificant and won’t change your life. You might not even remember it tomorrow, but it might help you through the right now.

I’m trying to make a real effort to see these things. It’s easy to be blinkered enough, especially in the city, that you don’t notice them passing you like little lay-bys on the hard shoulder. And it can be anything. The other night I was feeling pretty crappy, when, walking along Carnaby Street in the evening rain, I noticed the blue neon lights reflecting in the puddles at the exact moment that ‘Sound and Vision’ started playing in my headphones. “Blue blue, electric blue!” sang Bowie. Bloody brilliant, I thought.

My first summer of university my friends came to stay with me, back in Wales. We hiked up Cadair Idris, swam in the lake that was carved ages ago by a glacier like a bowl beneath the summit, then drove home for a barbeque in the front garden. We ate fresh fish and drank cider and watched the sun set out to sea, over the dark blue smudge of Ireland (the conditions are clear enough, once in every fifty years or so, said my Grandfather). That night we stuck our heads out of tent flaps into the night to watch a meteor shower above. An utterly perfect day.

There’s a 1930s bath-house in Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island. I spent three evenings there, nine years ago. I floated on my back in their open-air pool heated by the natural hot-water vents of that volcanic area, my two best friends beside me, Glen Miller piped out on the speakers, watching the steam spiral up into the starry sky.

Once I was walking to work along Regent Street when a coach full of six-year old schoolkids pulled up at the lights. Their sheer bloody joy when I waved back at them carried me along for an entire day. Imagine, being that genuinely giddy, just because someone waved at you, I thought. I can just about remember when life was that small and simple and days came one at a time, with no worrisome future to pull you back down.

That’s what it’s about, I think. Finding the little things, stand-alone moments with no past or future. That’s what being a child is, living your days with no notion of consequence or understanding of how cruel or stupid or unfathomable life can sometimes be. But it can still throws these little gems your way, every now and then. The trouble is keeping your eyes open wide enough to catch them.

Home Sweet Home

(Click image for larger view)

Above is the picture I drew for my parents and my older brother as a Christmas present -a map of my parents house and our childhood home, on a blustery isolated hilltop 6 miles off the Mid-Wales coast.

In fact, it’s so blustery and isolated that a renewable energy company decided it’d be a good idea to harness all that bluster and isolation and put a windfarm up there. This is only a small part of the farm, and there are a few turbines on our land, but the picture is a stylised version, with a few of the places we used to play as kids (including the huge trawler net strung up between the trees in the pine forest like a giant trampoline. Which was accessed by a zip-line. My dad’s idea.)

I managed to get it printed nicely (if anyone’s interested www.agnieszkamiles.co.uk are very reasonable) and it looked lovely in a plain black frame, and went straight on the kitchen wall on Christmas morning. But not before it made my dad cry. So, succesful homemade Christmas gift, I’d say!

I really wanted to draw this for my parents – I’ve been so lucky to have the upbringing that I’ve had, in this incredible place. One day I hope that I might be able to bring up my kids there, just as I, my brothers and my cousins, my father and my uncles were. It’s a lovely place, but there’s been hard work – and hard times – to make it, not least because when my Grandparents bought it so long ago there were only two ruined cottages and a cow shed there. There’s been over 40 years of DIY building plumbing and electricals, digging wells, fixing leaking walls and roofs, watching the garden shed get blown across the yard and being snowed-in at least once a year.

But it’s in our blood and bones, this place – my Great-Grandfather was local (when he wasn’t off teaching in Cairo or Istanbul) and his family had roots in the area too. And it’s something less tangible than that too. It’s only in being away from this place that I’ve realised how much a apart of me it is.

It’s funny that – being so intrinsically linked to a couple of dots on a map. And some of it’s because that’s where my family is, but so much more of it is deeper, like it’s seeped into you after all those years – years of running around, falling out of trees and eating bilberries and bog-apples from the hillside, careening down slopes on sledges and bikes, wellies rubbing against bare-legs and clothes covered in pine-sap and sheep poo.

Yeah. That’ll be it.

Winter warmers

At this time of year I always find myself longing for autumn, my favourite season. I get homesick for the countryside – cosy nights by the fire hearing the rain and wind on the window panes, smelling woodsmoke and wet leaves on walks outside. I love the shorter days, the autumn colours and (when we’re lucky) the crisp bright mornings. But I also really love the autumn clothing – lovely knit scarves, jumpers, gloves and hats (of course, hats, this is me we’re talking about). I’ve never been much of a knitter but I just love making things – and I especially love it when you can take something like a ball of wool and turn it from a long thin bit of nothing to a piece of clothing – something that can be worn, something practical, something with a purpose. It’s the same kind of amazement I get from turning a felt cone into a blocked hat, that alchemic moment when it becomes something other than the separate parts, and as if by magic it’s transformed into one single object.

So I’ve picked up my knitting needles once more and tried to progress from something other than a scarf in the most basic knit stitch, which is all I’ve ever managed in the past, and began a couple of projects – one of which I’ve finished (but is top secret at this stage as it’s a gift for someone). This is what I’m going to start work on for myself soon – working with circular fixed needles, so a bit of a leap!

The pattern is by Rowan, and I’ve bought two balls of the most beautifully soft green Rowan wool for it, so I can’t wait to get started.

I’ve also always really loved knitting patterns – not the actual pattern itself as until very recently they seemed to be written in a complex code that made no sense to me at all. No, I really really love the styling and photography in these patterns, like the one below from Rowan:

Here’s one I’d love to try, by Sublime, complex as it looks, but I’d perhaps make it a bit longer and wear belted around the waist:

They remind me of Mori girls – a really lovely Japanese style genre. Normally Japanese styles are a bit too full-on for me, plus I’d find it difficult to commit completely to only one style, day in and day out – I prefer to be a jumble-sale of a girl.  But Mori girl style is really beautiful and wearable in an everyday sense, and probably the one I’d choose if I had to stick to one style for the rest of my life. It apparently means “girl of the forest” and they tend to dress in lots of vintage-y style knits, checks, soft natural fabrics and antique lace.


Spoon magazine



And this one, because it’s just beautiful and theatrical and brilliant:


Here’re those pictures and many more knitting patterns. The first lot are Rowan patterns and can be found here, and the white background ones are by Sublime available to buy here. Mori girl pictures linked above.

Small islands – big skies – long memories

I’m writing this on our last evening in Orkney – tomorrow morning we catch the Hamnavoe ferry from Stromness back to Caithness (I can’t call it “mainland” since Mainland is what they call the largest island here on Orkney). I’m trying to get my thoughts into enough of a linear form to fit them into things like words and sentences, while I’m still here, so that time and the city and the resuming of life doesn’t dull the experience of this last week. This seems the sort of place that will drift away, somewhere past the cliffs of Hoy, pulled back to the islands and the sea, not something you can take with you. That’s why people come here once and keep coming back. Or never leave at all.

And everywhere there’s the marks made by people long ago – Skara Brae is the one everyone’s heard of, but Maeshowe stole our hearts. You crawl though a 10 meter long passageway, lined with single 20 tonne blocks, and emerge in the main high-ceilinged chamber, three tombs like box-beds set into the walls. The blocks of the main room are covered with carefully etched graffiti – but no lazy tags or scrawled nicknames – these were made with axes and stones – by Vikings, 1000 years ago. The tomb was already old when they entered, sheltering from a wild snowstorm for three nights. Legends says there were 100 of them in the small space (a bit of Viking exaggeration?) – but they alleviated the boredom by writing messages on the walls: “Ingigerth is the most beautiful”….”The man who is most skilled in runes west of the ocean carved these with the axe of Gauk Trandilsson”….and up high, written by a man surely sitting on the shoulders of another -“Eyjolf Kolbeinsson carved these runes high”. On the winter solstice the setting sun hits the Barnhouse standing stone, aligned perfectly with the entrance to the tomb, shines down the passage and illuminates the back wall of the Maeshowe. Oh, and you can watch it live via webcam every year – 21st of December (about 3.30, when the sun sets on the shortest day in Orkney).

The Ring of Brodgar is a huge stone circle amongst the heather, just across the water from Maeshowe. 104 meters in diameter, with a 130 meter diameter encircling ditch dug into the bedrock. The stones are huge – phenomenally big – and all from different places around the islands. The ditch was dug and the stones erected at the same time, but by different people – 4,500 years ago.

The Ness of Brodgar dig a little way down the road is uncovering a series of buildings of some kind – though they’ve no idea yet what they could be. We walked around, wondering if the people who made them had any possible notion that, 4-5ooo years from then people would be there – that people would even care? Perhaps they thought their society and culture would survive for ever, no mystery to their buildings because they would still be in use.

At the Tomb of the Eagles we handled Neolithic pottery shards. One was decorated with little fingernail crescent grooves. I put my nail in these marks – the same marks made by someone else’s fingernails, 5000 years ago. A sense of vertigo, of incredulity. 5000 years ago.

But this is everywhere here – on every island – practically in every backyard. There are something like 300-odd Neolithic dwellings here, just rough circular marks in a farmer’s field of a garden. Only a handful have been excavated, or ever will. Not much treasure here – the bronze-age hardly even made it to Orkney, most of the people here too poor (and too practical) to ever bother with the expensive, soft bronze.

I’ve spent most of my childhood in the remote hills of Mid-Wales. I know the bees on the brilliant purple heather and the scrubby moorland hills, rocky beaches and constant gales. I know the evening sunlight on the water and the geese skidding in to land. It shouldn’t be new to me, or have this effect on me, but it does somehow.

The sky is just so big here. It’s an odd feeling: being this open, amongst this much space, yet feeling as though you’re right in the clouds, shielded from the mainland and the rest of the world behind a curtain of sky. And there’s so much weather here too – it comes and goes at incredible speeds. It rains (though not as much as the rest of the UK), but the rain doesn’t stay for long. Every evening here has been gloriously sunny. The wind never stops – you don’t want it to, because a gap in the gales brings the midges out like demons. Our faces are red and happy with sun and wind-burn.

All we need now is a glimpse of orca during the ferry trip. Crossing all fingers and other crossable body-parts….