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A detail from the magnificent mosaic was discovered in a field in the village and dates from the 4th century AD.

A detail from the magnificent mosaic was discovered in a field in the village and dates from the 4th century AD.

YESTERDAY was my birthday, an occasion for me to trot out that old cliché “I’m too old for birthdays” – and at the same time get as excited as the child in me as I opened each card and thoughtful present.

A cheque from my mother offered up the annual opportunity for a little self-indulgence. This year I decided it should be a year’s membership of The Art Fund, a cause close to my heart and a passport to exhibitions that will excite and enthral me, as long as I can get to them from all the way down here in Dorset. Most are, of course, in London, but an occasional awayday is not impossible.

I applied online for my membership and ticked the box to receive email news bulletins. How exciting, and what a lovely present I’d chosen for myself.

An hour or two later I headed for Hinton St Mary, about nine miles away, to meet my sister for an evening talk and demonstration on The Horse Boy method of helping children with autism. The ticket for the event was one of the cache of birthday gifts chosen for me by my sister, since both of us are suckers for anything to do with horses. It was, of course, as wonderful and inspiring as we knew it would be.

Our surroundings were sublime. Dorset’s glorious landscape provided the backdrop as we sat on straw bales in the evening sunlight to watch the method explained by its founder, Rupert Isaacson, and demonstrated by the world-class event rider William Fox-Pitt. Later, we moved into the ancient Tithe Barn for a talk and questions, rounding off an exceptional evening.

Today, I received my first email newsletter from The Art Fund. Well, they didn’t hang around, I thought. Twenty-four hours a member and I’m already made to feel one of the gang.

The first item I chose to click on was headed ‘Incredible places to see mosaics’. I don’t know why I chose that over all the other enticing items, but for some reason I did.

This is what I read, with the hairs gradually standing up on my neck:

British Museum, London

Free to all

The British Museum is a trove of rare and beautiful mosaics, including examples from across England, Italy and North Africa. Perhaps the most famous is one discovered in Hinton St Mary, Dorset, in 1963, depicting a clean-shaven man – possibly the earliest known image of Christ. The picture is accompanied by the Greek letters chi [X] and rho [P] – the first two letters of Christ’s name – and when placed together as a monogram they form the symbol for Christianity at this time. If it is Christ, then this is the only such portrait on a mosaic floor from anywhere in the Roman Empire.

As I researched and read about it, I realised it was familiar to me and I had even listened to the BBC Radio Four broadcast of A History of the World in 100 Objects when the mosaic chosen by the British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor.

bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/VfupdXVjTM6crACGDU-6uA

This link reveals much more about this mosaic and even includes a comment by a man who remembers his father unearthing it Hinton St Mary in 1963.

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The minute I learnt that Maya Angelou had died I texted my daughter to break the news. “She was our best, our Phenomenal Woman, wasn’t she?”

“Oh, how sad,” my daughter texted back. “Do you remember we used to invite her to our tea parties?”

We did indeed. Through my daughter’s teenage years we would make mental lists of who we’d like to invite to tea. Our guests had to be bookish and interesting, but if they could muster neither of those qualities, they could qualify by being handsome so we would have the pleasure of just looking at them.

Thus it was that the fabulous, irrepressible and utterly brilliant Maya Angelou was a permanent fixture on our list. We would ask her to recite ‘And Still I Rise’ before giving her a generous slice of luscious lemon cake or possibly a piece of Dorset apple cake.

We’d also give her a second cup of tea if she would give us ‘Phenomenal Woman’ in return. A poor exchange, a cuppa for those incredible lines, but we were the hosts so she might oblige.

We were well prepared for our great guest’s acceptance of our invitation: we avidly read her books and could quote chunks of her poetry, so we would never be found wanting should she suddenly appear on our doorstep.

Below her, way below her in our virtual list of guess who’s coming to tea, was a ridiculously good-looking man we encountered selling scarves on a stall in Camden Market. Not so much eye candy as tea candy.

Dear Maya Angelou, we owe you a great debt for the legacy of all your wonderful words. We loved how your beautifully expressed emotions so deeply touched ours, and we know how privileged we were to have you, a beacon of wisdom, at our virtual tea parties.

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Pitton 01

A sunny September afternoon walking with my sister was the purest pleasure – mixed with a tiny amount of pain from that most annoying occupational hazard, a zingy blister.

Nothing, though, could spoil the joy of hours immersed in sun-drenched countryside in one of the prettiest parts of south Wiltshire.

The terrain was interesting and varied, with a few hills, cool woodland, baking-hot, open fields, narrow paths, village lanes, all of it the very stuff of rural England in the full heat of late summer.

We saw two other people in the whole time we were out: a rider conducting a loud mobile-phone conversation while his horse flicked its ears in contempt, and a man walking towards us through a copse close to our finishing point.

We started at Pitton and followed a map and written directions on a circular route that would take us to Farley and Clarendon Palace before bringing us back on weary legs to where we’d begun five hours earlier.

It was meant to be a six-mile walk. We walked nine miles with several stops, including picnic lunch and a visit to a church, a little blackberrying and a fair amount of “oh, whoops, we’ve gone wrong” doubling-back. We are not good map-readers and we talk so much we rarely stop to read directions.

“I’d planned to go for a run this evening, but I won’t now,” my ultra-fit sister conceded as we trudged up the final hill. “And I won’t be going for my bike ride, either,” I said.

Even we had managed to exhaust ourselves, and that’s saying something.

A lovely rustic stile - the first of many we crossed

A lovely rustic stile – the first of many we crossed

The terrain was very varied

The terrain was very varied

We enjoyed a wander around Farley's All Saints Church, still decorated after a weekend wedding

We enjoyed a wander around Farley’s All Saints Church, still decorated after a weekend wedding

A stray dog preceded us into the churchyard

A stray dog preceded us into the churchyard

Bishop of Llandaff dahlias ablaze in this pretty cottage garden

Bishop of Llandaff dahlias ablaze in this pretty cottage garden

Open fields . . .

Open fields . . .

. . .  and shady woods

. . . and shady woods

A footpath as straight as the nearby Roman road

A footpath as straight as the nearby Roman road

Llamas inspect us at Clarendon Palace

Llamas inspect us at Clarendon Palace

Only minimal evidence of a medieval ruin remains of the original Clarendon Palace, a royal residence throughout the Middle Ages.

Only minimal evidence of a medieval ruin remains of the original Clarendon Palace, a royal residence throughout the Middle Ages.

Resting after a vigorous dust bath

Resting after a vigorous dust bath

Late afternoon sunlight on a majestic beech tree

Late afternoon sunlight on a majestic beech tree

Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

OVER the few weeks that we have been in Italy the landscape has changed from a healthy green patterned with huge swathes of golden-yellow sunflowers to a brown that smacks of struggle and despair. Water, give me water! Turn that heat down! It has been so hot and dry that the earth is baked rock-hard and the once-cheerful sunflowers hang their heads dolefully, fearing their own demise.

The farmers potter about hotly on their tractors, not all of them with the luxury of air-conditioned cabs. They are engaged in all the usual high-summer activity, much of it at night when they and the earth can breathe. Vines take priority. Here, it’s all about the vines. Come the vendemmia, the whole area’s focus will turn to picking the grapes and getting them off to the cantina for turning into wine. 

In our vineyard, as in our olive grove, it’s always a poor harvest – or so our contadino (tenant farmer) tells us, shaking his head and looking as unhappy as one of the drooping sunflowers. Farmers are the same here, then, as they are in the UK. This ritual attack of the glooms is our farmer’s transparent ruse for excusing his diminishing annual rental payment.

We have always had an agreement that in return for farming our land, harvesting our grapes and olives, and no doubt accruing some tasty EU subsidies and grants each year, he will pay us in lakes of wine, vats of oil, with occasional extras of fruit, vegetables, eggs and strange, stringy chickens thrown in for good measure. 

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

Nowadays, we are lucky to get a fraction of that. But we don’t mind. We’re happy with the slightly one-sided barter system and, although others advise us to get tough, we have no intention of coming over all landlord-ish with them. Besides, we like our farmer and all his family and wouldn’t ever want to fall out with them.

They work incredibly hard, papa and his two sons, tending scores of acres of land for a number of different landowners, toiling up and down hills that are like the sides of mountains. Once, a tractor toppled over and fell on Filippo, crushing his legs. Now, 12 years on and aged 78, he struggles to walk as arthritis takes its toll. His sons are the contadini now, lovely men with wives and children who always hail us like old friends. 

As well as wanting to remain on good terms with Filippo and the boys, I am aware that making a fuss about the paucity of gifts could mean a resumption in the supply of chickens. These have been a problem to me in the past. As a vegetarian, I am not sure how many of those strange things I can cope with handling any more. The last one was presented to us already roasted, incinerated to a rich brown-black colour, with its fully beaked head twisted round to give it a view straight up its empty insides.

A few pounds of tomatoes? Now you’re talking.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes - melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes – melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

The big one. A very welcome 'payment' in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

The big one. A very welcome ‘payment’ in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

The procession sets off

The procession sets off

ITALIAN communities need little excuse to stage a celebration. They turn on the party mood for anything from saints to squid, from sausages to shrimps.

Our village has been having a high old time paying homage in various ways to the saints associated with its five churches – yes, five, in a village of 1,000 souls. There has been food, lots of it, enjoyed at trestle tables under the stars in the piazza, music, dancing, a volleyball tournament and a solemn procession up and down the hills around the village stopping at each church, accompanied by the oompah band, a tolling bell and an occasional exploding firework.

The village's youthful drum corps, led by Ernestino

The village’s youthful drum corps, led by Ernestino

Prominent in the parade was a huge gold-framed portrait of the Madonna, topped with a crown and carried shoulder-high on a red velvet bier by a team of strong men. Along the route, gold-trimmed red cloths hung from windows as a mark of respect.

After more fireworks and the release into the velvet sky of scores of coloured lanterns there was a big shared meal in the piazza, by which time it was about 11pm and not one child was tucked up in bed. All were happy participants in a timeless, deeply affecting event that drew the little community together to confirm its faith and say a God-fearing thank-you to the saints.

Lanterns float into the sky as a finale to the solemn procession

Lanterns float into the sky as a finale to the solemn procession

The previous week the mood had been very different when a palio was held in the medieval centre of the village to decide the champion contrada, or neighbourhood. Unlike the famous palio in Siena, our men wore not dazzling racing silks but coloured tights. And there were no horses.

Before the palio, the trio representing each contrada makes a royal progress through the village to be admired

Before the palio, the trio representing each contrada makes a royal progress through the village to be admired

It was late, we’d all been eating for hours, the atmosphere was benign, the night was warm – but this was serious, there was a contest to win and glory to be had. HD and I joined the crowds lining the cobbled street and waited to cheer our contrada, whose main man, Luigi, was in white tights and a velvet Renaissance-dude tunic instead of his usual farmer’s overalls. As he is our very own contadino, we felt inordinately proud and proprietorial.

Each of the seven teams took it in turns to pull a racing sulky at speed along the cobbles. Bouncing unsteadily aboard the sulky was a man – Luigi was ours – holding a long lance with which to hit a thing like a giant saucepan suspended 15ft up in the air as he passed underneath. A flag, white or red, held by a disembodied hand then appeared from an upstairs window to indicate if the hit had been fair or foul.

It was not gripping stuff, as HD’s weary expression made clear. The only real excitement came when one of the lances whacked the saucepan so hard it whizzed off-centre and had to be re-positioned. For this, a gang of volunteers in yellow, pink and turquoise tights held a ladder vertically while another in white tights clambered up and down to make adjustments. The operation, no doubt contravening every health and safety rule that bureaucracy could ever dream up, took us beyond midnight.

It was all very odd, very Italian and therefore completely unfathomable. But Luigi and our contrada won, so we can hold our head high as proud champions, of a sort.

They didn't need their umbrellas.

They didn’t need their umbrellas.

Some of our friends are in this contrada team

Some of our friends are in this contrada team

Our very own contrada royalty - the winners! -  with Luigi, our hero contadino, on the left

Our very own contrada royalty – the winners! – with Luigi, our hero contadino, on the left

Some of the strong guys, the cart-pullers, join the parade

Some of the strong guys, the cart-pullers, join the parade

No doubting the contrada loyalties of this baby

No doubting the contrada loyalties of this baby

Waiting for the palio to start

Waiting for the palio to start

11. The mayhem of the palio is underway

LM-12-July-012 Rosita karaoke

One night this week was spent in the company of another couple of impoverished expats with a house in the locality, about five miles from ours. They are from southern England and they bought their place at around the same time as we did, in 2001.

Unlike our modest little two-bed farmhouse – a straightforward, if major, rebuild – they fell for a huge wreck that might at the time have seemed an equally huge bargain. Its many rooms and outbuildings, its acres of land tempting them with the prospects of a pool, a tennis court perhaps, guest quarters, you name it, presented all sorts of possibilities for restoration – but every single one of them was massively expensive. So far, not even the main house has been completed.

Nothing has gone right for these poor people and they are lumbered with a nightmare of a house, riddled with insuperable problems, of which the main ones could probably be said to be its unremarkable location, calamitous drainage defects, no phone signal, no broadband, and unpleasantly close proximity to a hideous modern house that has recently been bought by a large family of Romanians with five constantly barking dogs. It is very difficult to draw any positives at all from their dreadful experience, other than the fact that at least they themselves have been responsible for squandering hundreds of thousands of their pounds and not Bob Diamond or any other banker.

Our friends have not a word of Italian between them – after all these years of home ownership and encounters with builders – and they still don’t have either a working kitchen or a sitting room where they can relax in comfort. As a consequence, when they’re over here to supervise yet more building work, they eat out every night.

Thus it was that we encountered them in the village where HD and I had gone for an evening drink. We shared a bottle of Prosecco with them at the bar (€6, complete with snacks) and then walked along the road to the restaurant. Here, much to HD’s horror, a children’s birthday party was in full swing, complete with hysterical, over-dressed brats rushing about the place in packs. HD was all for throwing them over the balcony, one by one, or at least tripping them up as they ran past, but I begged him not to and in the end they settled at their table outside like a swarm of fizzing wasps, feasting on a vast ice-cream cake.

After our deliciously simple, entirely locally sourced meal, lubricated with the usual litres of wine and shots of mistra, the local aniseedy digestivo, we returned to the bar in the piazza where a night of merriment was underway.

The event was billed as a Piano Bar, but the Italians often use expressions like that without really knowing what they mean. I guess they thought it sounded a bit glam, which it wasn’t, and anyway there was no piano anywhere to be seen.

It was actually a karaoke night . . . shudder . . . but since it was under the stars, with everyone of all ages in the greatest good humour and with not the slightest sign of inebriation, it had a charm of its own. This was enhanced by the fact not one person sang a number from a British musical – an enormous plus.

Sorry for the quality of the pictured but they were snapped with my iPhone in the half-light.

Sorry for the quality of the pictures but they were snapped with my iPhone in the half-light.

We sat with our friends and with an Italian couple with whom we’ve made limping conversation in the past. This time, because of the noise of the singing and the distraction of a whole piazza-full of people jumping around and dancing, it wasn’t possible to do more than smile and mouth a few banal greetings, which must have been as great a relief for them as it was for us.

LM-12-July-010 Rosita karaoke LM-12-July-011 Rosita karaoke

HD and I loved being part of this night of moonlit mayhem, one of those events, as so often happens in our Italian experience, tinged with an affecting innocence. Here were a hundred or more people, many of them ’young’, letting their hair down and having a night to remember. Yet the dominant soundtrack was of music, fun, enjoyment, laughter, bursts of hilarity, applause – and not of the crush of feet on plastic beer mugs and polystyrene kebab containers, as in Anytown, UK.

LM-12-July-018 Rosita karaoke

We finally got home after 1pm and for the umpteenth night running I flopped into bed just in time for happy oblivion to overwhelm me.

I'm sure someone came back for their sandals next morning.

I’m sure someone came back for their sandals next morning.

Odd things happen in Italy, sometimes so odd that I have to pinch myself.

Take my run last evening, for instance. Tripping merrily along, brain in neutral, soul in harmony with the singing birds, I couldn’t help noticing that the surface of the quiet strada bianca was liberally dotted with sheep poo. Now I normally have this remote rural road all to myself, at any time of the day or evening, so the fact this wasn’t, after all, my own private running track, was all too obvious.

I made a mental note to be more careful than usual, not wanting to end my run by having to attend to mucky shoes as well as the usual heap of clothing.

Suddenly, a battered white Fiat Panda came towards me round a corner. It was moving slowly and I was astonished to see that running alongside it was a sheep. It was one of those catwalk-model type of sheep that litter Italian hillsides, its laughably long, flamingo-thin legs appearing quite inadequate to support a normal sheep-sized body.

My senses were having to take in not just the spindly sheep, looking extremely bewildered and lolloping along beside the slow-moving car, but a loud baa-ing and bleating that was coming from the car.

As the car and the sheep went noisily past me I tried to compose my features into a look that said “Please just carry on. I am aware I’m in Italy where weird things happen and so I am trying to appear unconcerned.”

My calmness lasted only a few seconds until I couldn’t resist turning round to observe the mobile charade from a different angle.

This was when I worked out what was happening. I think a flock of sheep had been down the road earlier, but one of them, my flamingo-legged acquaintance, had got left behind. (Probably draining its caffe corretto in the bar and hadn’t noticed its mates had gone.) The shepherd – i.e. the Panda driver – reached the destination with the flock, found he was one short and drove back to get him.

Now heading once more for the fold, the driver made sure the spindly one kept up by leaning out of the window making very convincing bleating and baa-ing noises.

All was obviously going to plan until they encountered me, aka Blunderbug. When I stopped and turned round to stare in disbelief, so too did the sheep. The bleating shepherd drove on, unaware.

sheep pic

Sheepy and I maintained our stand-off, dismayed and amazed in equal measure by the sight of each other, until the Panda hove back into view, this time in reverse, at high speed. The driver, no longer bleating or baa-ing, jumped out, scooped the surprised sheep up in his arms and bundled it into the boot.

And so ended the evening’s entertainment. If I hadn’t witnessed it I would never have believed it, but of course this is Italy, where anything can happen – and usually does.