Old rubbish: in search of Tilbury’s 19th century landfill site

I’ve become quite obsessed with rubbish. I don’t know whether it’s doing this MSc, following the Everyday Plastic campaign, the fact that ‘plastic pollution’ was a term on Alamy’s image wish list or just the general media groundswell of awareness for waste. Nonetheless, I’ve somehow started a series of little rubbish photography projects, one of which led me to discover the nineteenth-century landfill site near East Tilbury on the Thames estuary in Essex.

Last autumn there was a programme on iPlayer about landfill sites and what happens to our waste.  It was a real eye-opener. They first went to a modern-day landfill site up in Scotland on the outskirts of Edinburgh and explained how these days pits are dug and lined with impenetrable rubber matting. They then proceeded to visit and dig up some historical landfill sites around the country. 

The one that struck me most was a site at Tilbury on the Thames estuary which is now being eroded by the tide. It looked like a cliff face strata comprising old clothes, bits of electrical equipment and general detritus. It’s not the only historical landfill site at risk from erosion. An Environment Agency-funded study at Queen Mary University has identified over 1000 sites around the country.

I wanted to see this for myself, so one sunny February morning I hopped on the train to East Tilbury to see what I could find. Given that I didn’t exactly know where I was going, I decided to head to the point where the Thames bends and therefore (theoretically) most likely to be vulnerable to erosion.

Just outside the town I passed a functioning landfill site between the main road and the coast. There were Keep Out signs at the mouth of the entry roads and several laden trucks passing. I figured I was in the right vicinity but began to wonder if access would be some where between tricky and impossible.

I carried on to the village of East Tilbury with the idea that if I hit the coast, I could double back and wander along the shoreline towards the landfill site. Just before the fort, I found a footpath towards the sea. It took me through the flat, scrubby floodplain cris-crossed with footpaths and protected by a sizeable sea wall. 

The sea wall

The sea wall

On the other side of the sea wall was a lip of concrete for walking along  with a short drop on the other side on to the saltmarsh and mudflats. I headed vaguely north along here with my eyes peeled for old rubbish.

Walking along the sea wall by the Thames estuary at East Tilbury

Walking along the sea wall by the Thames estuary at East Tilbury

I walked for a while and didn’t see anything of much interest. Thankfully it was a glorious day and I got carried away photographing the creeks and water channels in the mudflats.

The mudflats of the Thames estuary looking towards Cliffe Pools RSPB from East Tilbury

The mudflats of the Thames estuary looking towards Cliffe Pools RSPB from East Tilbury

When I got to the spot I had guessed would be prime erosion site I discovered it will all plugged with concrete. Of course, erosion won’t go unprotected! Dammit, this means I’d not chosen the right direction at all.

The concrete beaches protecting the land from erosion

The concrete beaches protecting the land from erosion

I sat down on the side of the sea wall for a snack break and a rest and to think about what to do next. I looked back along the wall, towards the sun. There was a small beach just a little way back. I hadn’t spotted it earlier amongst the endless saltmarsh from the route I’d come. It was just a small patch of sand and the wet rocks were glinting in the sunlight. But wait: wet rocks? The tide’s way out and it hasn’t been raining. Those aren’t wet rocks. What if it’s glass, ceramic? I had to take a closer look.

I scrambled down from the sea wall and onto the mud. It was deceptively soft. I nearly lost my boot stuck down a hole and nearly lost the camera while trying not to lose the boot down the hole. 

When I got to the beach I was not disappointed. What a treasure trove of broken bits of the past. It wasn’t quite the rubbish I thought I was looking for but it was far prettier.

There were fragments of ceramic tableware, shards of glass bottles of all hues and bits of those grey marmalade pots you often see sold for princely sums in vintage shops. Some of the glass had words moulded into it, cheaper and easier than labels? Another fragment looked like the TG Green mixing bowl I have at home and there were plates of so many patterns, shapes and designs.

I came away with so many questions: how long did it take to accumulate this amount of waste, what was the lifespan of these receptacles (were the owners of these items less clumsy than me when it comes to breakable items!)? Will scavengers in a hundred years time have the same feelings when they go through my rubbish? To that last question, I rather think not.

This discovery has certainly made me think even more about what I throw away – where it comes from and where it goes – and little by little my shopping decisions are changing and my waste is reducing.

Richard and Julie at Old Leigh Studios in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

 
Julie O’Sullivan and Richard Baxter, ceramicists at Old Leigh Studios

Julie O’Sullivan and Richard Baxter, ceramicists at Old Leigh Studios

You  never quite know what sort of reception you might get when you wander into an artist’s studio on a quiet Friday afternoon. Will they be hard at work? Will I be disturbing them? Will they be too lost in thought to chat to me?

No such worries here when I popped into Old Leigh Studios in Leigh-on-Sea last week. I was immediately warmly greeted by ceramicist Richard Baxter and he introduced me to fellow potter and studio-mate Julie O’Sullivan

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Their wares are elegantly displayed throughout the shop partition of the studio alongside paintings by two other studio residents Sheila Appleton and Ian E Smith.

It turns out Richard is a little bit of a local legend in art circles: he started the Leigh Art Trail in 1997 and it quickly became an annual fixture. It’s now a week-long celebration held every June and features local as well as not-so-local creative talent. As the name suggests, it consists of an exhibition trail that takes you all around Leigh-on-Sea with many local shops and spaces becoming pop-up galleries for the week.

Ceramics by Richard Baxter

Ceramics by Richard Baxter

His artwork is described on his website as “reminiscent of Scandinavian mid-century modern ceramics”, and they’re also fun, brightly coloured, bold and endlessly unique. I definitely wanted to take one home. 

Ceramics by Richard Baxter

Ceramics by Richard Baxter

I fell in love with Julie’s ceramics. She melts little pieces of beach glass into the clay which dictates a more nature-inspired colour palette. I told her about my trip to the nineteenth-century landfill site near Tilbury and she knew about it; she’d already been! Some of these pieces of glass were from that very site. I’m sure I don’t need another little ceramic dish in my house but, oh my word, these are on my wish list.

Ceramics by Julie O’Sullivan

Ceramics by Julie O’Sullivan

There was one collection Richard and Julie had worked on together and it was a commission for nearby restaurant Food by John Lawson. In the restauranteur’s quest to procure as much as he could from local sources, he sought out unique bespoke designs for the crockery. Together they created a nature inspired range of hand-thrown plates, cups and sauce pots. They, of course, made a surplus and you can buy them in their shop.

Part of the collection designed for nearby restaurant  Food by John Lawson

Part of the collection designed for nearby restaurant Food by John Lawson

Part of the collection designed for nearby restaurant  Food by John Lawson

Part of the collection designed for nearby restaurant Food by John Lawson

Visiting the Faroe Islands' most instagrammable spots

The Faroese village of Miðvagur

The Faroese village of Miðvagur

Miðvagur is a waterside village on the Faroese island of Vagár, just a mere hop and a skip from the airport. The houses are scattered on the slopes of the rolling green hills like a bunch of coloured blocks casually thrown at the hillside. I met Jana in the church car park at the allotted time. The sun was shining – which is no mean feat on the Faroe Islands – and I was hopeful it would follow us on our hike. Jana was taking me along Sorvagsvatn lake to the cliffs at Traelanipa. 

The Traelanipa hiking trail along lake Sorvagsvatn

The Traelanipa hiking trail along lake Sorvagsvatn

Although it was after 10am, the path was practically empty of other walkers. It wasn’t till our journey back later that we saw the hoards. Jana told me that we’re walking on private land and it’s the landowner’s responsibility to keep the path in good condition. They re-gravelled it last year but it’s already showing signs of erosion under the sheer amount of visitor footfall. If the path isn’t looked after, walkers are more tempted to meander from the requisite route and that can lead to erosion and trampling of the delicate ecosystem. There’s no car-parking fee but there’s a voluntary honesty box on the gate. No one puts anything in, she says.

My guide Jana standing at the requisite instagram spot overlooking lake Sorvagsvatn and the sea below

My guide Jana standing at the requisite instagram spot overlooking lake Sorvagsvatn and the sea below

I caught a couple of people getting their insta fix but it wasn’t till later that I looked on Instagram and found a whole lot more precarious selfies. As we walked back, I asked Jana about the sudden influx of tourists and if they, the locals, minded. She told me that tourism on the Faroe islands had really only taken off as recently as 2015 as a result of the solar eclipse. It had been heavily marketed because it was one of the few places in Europe you could see it in full and many did indeed come. Eleven thousand, apparently. It really had put the islands on the map and that, coupled with new and invigorated staff at the tourist office, has resulted in a lot more media attention throughout Europe.

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I’d googled for a few image ideas and had half an inkling these were impressive landscapes I was going to witness but I hadn’t realised they were so insta-famous already. The reason for the insta-celebrity is the spot at which you can see the lake above the cliffs and the crashing waves of the sea below. You can get it all in frame if you stand on the already worn-to-mud spot. With the squalls of wind chasing about me and my perilously balanced camera bag full of kit, I wasn’t too keen. 

Overtourism is something that has been on my mind a lot recently, partly as a result of following Greg Dickinson’s articles in the Telegraph but also because, in studying for the MSc, I’ve been pondering the question of how effective money from tourism is in making a genuinely positive impact in supporting environmental causes. To visit a destination at such an early stage in its tourism journey is quite a coup, but I wondered if there were other places on the islands that were just as stunning and photo-worthy. Yes, said Jana, resoundingly. There are plenty of eminently beautiful spots, but the locals don’t necessarily want to share them all. These are places in which birds, animals and occasionally people live closely with the seasons and the land. They’ve already seen reductions in bird populations along this hike since it became so inundated with walkers. She thinks there could be perhaps one or two more spots widely marketed to the world that could take the pressure of this one and the other famous spot overlooking Múlafossur waterfall at Gasadalur. 

Mulafossur waterfall in the village of Gasadalur, Faroe Islands

Mulafossur waterfall in the village of Gasadalur, Faroe Islands

Do they want more tourists, I asked. Absolutely, she says, but the right kind of tourist. The islands aren’t ready for the huge influx of mass tourism, there just isn’t the infrastructure in place yet. She then recounted a story of a Russian woman who flew in on the morning flight, embarked on the Traelanipa walk in a pencil skirt, white stilettos and a leather jacket and promptly flew home on an evening flight. We laughed. But this is a horrifying example unsustainable tourism. Where do people get these ideas from? Oh yeah….all the photos. All the instagrams. All the travel writing….

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Whitby Abbey


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I love Yorkshire. I was born in Yorkshire so it somehow (despite spending my entire growing-up years in boring Bedfordshire) feels like coming home. I’d been up in York, Harrogate and Nidderdale for a gloriously enjoyable client shoot and had been lucky with just enough interesting light to get the required shots, but I’d been itching to get to the seaside and was hoping the sky gods would bless me with a bit more of the same when I got to Sandsend. But, alas, no. It was flat and white and my seascapes were lifeless.

Not to be too despondent, I whiled away some more daylight hours by driving around to see what I could see. But after conceding that rush-hour traffic hold-ups weren’t the best of what the region could offer, I headed up the the Abbey car park to ponder. It hadn’t quite reached the magic hour of 6pm when free car parking commenced so I hovered near the car till I was certain there weren’t any payment enforcement types lurking to whack a ticket on my windscreen, and then set off to recce for the evening light. Perhaps I could do something with that there gothic ruin?

The faint sounds of walkers’ chatter on the nearby Cleveland Way receded and the late summer evening warmth had a hint of autumn bite to it. I wandered around waiting for the day to disappear into the night. The wind whistled eerily through the trees and the occasional bat darted overhead. Oh, wait. I think I imagined that bit.

I knew about the pool of water behind the Abbey and it was this that I wanted to capture. The only trouble is that there’s a 5ft stone wall around the perimeter of the Abbey grounds and it’s not the easiest of things to pop a tripod on or over. I left the tripod in the car and instead used the wall and a pair of gloves to prop the camera up and, broadly speaking, in the right position. (A little bit of wonkiness is nothing Lightroom can’t handle.) I took plenty of long exposures from different vantage points, all with me hanging off the wall (thank god I’d learned basic rock climbing techniques only a matter of weeks earlier) or putting the camera on live view to see what the composition looked like. During one exposure, a family of flying ducks noisily but deftly landed on the water. They didn’t really enhance that particular frame, I must say.  Next time, though, I shall endeavour to be less law abiding and maybe shimmy right over the wall for that optimal composition with the abbey reflected in the water.

Up Hay Bluff, Wales


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A trip across to Hay-on-Wye, ‘town of books’ on the England/Wales border for the annual literary festival is a Whitsun Bank Holiday excursion I’ve become used to over recent years. This year, however, I didn’t buy any tickets for literary talks, instead I immersed myself in the rolling hills and nature-rich countryside that surrounds the town. And I started with Hay Bluff.

The main road through Hay is often flanked with put-up stalls selling everything from recycled paper notebooks to used army boots, wood-carved creatures to sheep-skin rugs. There are usually plenty of crowds making their way between the diminutive market town and the festival site, so cars drive rather slowly through the town. This is in your favour because you won’t miss the small sign to ‘Capel-y-Ffin’, should you be suitably inspired follow on my journey.

The road out of Hay immediately narrows into a single track and before you’ve even registered the steep incline, your ears will pop to let you know you’re going up, up, up. The road twists and turns as it climbs. ‘Fresh eggs’ declares a sign at the gates of a farmhouse on one particularly curvy bend. And beware of the hens freely ranging at the next cluster of stone farm buildings.

By the time you judder over a cattle grid in a woody dell, you’re well on your way to sheep country. And they’ll probably welcome you in with some inopportune middle-of-the-road wandering just to ensure you’re paying attention to their landscape.

The terrain flattens out and you’ll emerge from the trees into the fabled rolling green hills of England (except that it’s officially Wales by this point). You can park up on the soft verges at various spots from here on in and admire the view. A little further on, however, the mighty bluff comes into view.

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I’d been racing over the motorways, A-roads and B-roads from the Essex/Herts borders on which I live so it was early evening when I arrived. The sun was still high in the sky and there was practically no one around. I didn’t expect to stop for long – just a quick post-drive leg stretch and a little wander sans camera. So I was a little surprised to find myself on the top of the bluff about 30mins later.

I blame the skylarks. I’d never seen them at such close proximity before. I could hear them and see them singing. They’d occasionally swoop into the air and with a few characteristic darts and, temptingly, rest just that little bit further away from me. At the base of the bluff there’s grassy heathland, with plenty of gorse and nascent ferns awaiting their grand unfurling.

There was evidence of streams wending their way down the hillside in wetter times, cutting through the heath and making it boggy in places. In one such spot I saw an unrecognisable bird. A stonechat, perhaps? It was making a curious sounds that, if you really tried hard, you could imagine it being construed as the sound of two stones being hit together.

Having not taken the camera out of the car, I was slightly beside myself with frustration and not least because I didn’t even have the wildlife lens in the boot of the car. Still, I was free to jump over the streams and boggy patches unimpeded by the weight of the bloody thing so I rejoiced in that and attempted to commit more of it to memory than I otherwise would.

I took a barely-there, almost-trodden path through the grass up on a slightly more sheer route up. There were horses in the distance that I was keen to avoid, not least because from where I was stood it looked like a gigantic mare was straddling a foal and doing unmentionable things with it. Ah, nature.


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William Graves at Canellún


William Graves, son of poet Robert Graves, at the family home of Canellún in the Majorcan village of Deià

William Graves, son of poet Robert Graves, at the family home of Canellún in the Majorcan village of Deià

When I mentioned to a PR friend that I had a commission in Deià, Mallorca he immediately offered to put me in touch with William Graves, son of writer Robert Graves and custodian of Canellún, La Casa de Robert Graves.

Apart from a vague notion that I’d seen Graves’ war poetry in anthologies or maybe even studied one once at school, I knew very little about him.

“Will you be mentioning Canellún?” I asked the author of the piece. “In passing. But it’s been done before, it’s all been said, you don’t need to shoot it” she told me. Having never even thought to visit Mallorca till the commission landed in my inbox, I was even more unaware of this little hill-top village and its illustrious past. Of course I was intrigued and said yes to the PR.

I picked up a copy of Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves, William’s biography of his father, and began to wrap myself up in the beautifully illuminating portrait of the village I had been dispatched to. It revealed details of how the villagers lived, farmed – and smuggled – during the civil war; introduced me to colourful characters whose actions shaped the modernisation of the region by bringing the first electricity to this mountain outpost; upgraded a rocky track into a paved road or provided the first bus service to the capital, and; there were countless anecdotes about visits to the craggy cove of a beach with its idyllic clear blue water and rocks from which to jump in.

William met me under the trellis at his childhood home and this is where I took his portrait. He’s a well-spoken, affable man in his mid-70s, a geologist by trade, which has taken him all over the world but, as he’ll happily confess, his heart has always remained in Deià.

He gave me a personally guided tour of the house for which I felt incredibly honoured. We saw the room in which his father wrote all his famous works; the bedroom in which Laura Riding – his fellow poet and lover – convalesced; the original letterpress with which he and Laura printed and published as the Seizin Press; unique batik artwork created by Len Lye; the garden and its culinary possibilities. The tour ended in the museum room in which I began to fully appreciate that there was a hell of a lot more to Graves’ repertoire than just war poetry.

To learn about the physical and emotional context in which any creative person lives and works is integral to understanding the creative process. What touched me about reading William’s chronicle, however, was that not only did I get an up-close glimpse of a great writer but I got to see a potted history of why this little craggy village had become such a draw for artists and, subsequently, the tourists who then followed them there.

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Walking from Deià to Sóller along the GR221

I’d only been given a list of seven things to photograph on my Mallorca trip. The author hadn’t finished writing her piece by the time I flew out so the Art Director had to agreed that the seven-item list was all I could cover while I was there.

While most of the requests centred around the artsy, bo-ho roots of the region, one item was to cover the walk between the steep hill-top village of Deià and the coastal port of Sóller.

I’d already seen a few of the wooden signs around the village so knew which direction I’d need to head in, plus people I’d spoken to said it was sign-posted all the way. The sign posts even said how long you had left till your destination. Two and a half hours from Deià to Sóller, apparently. Great, thought I. I can walk there AND back in a day.

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I’ve shot (or attempted to shoot) walking trails before and one of the main perils is picking the wrong time of day and not finding any people on the route to feature in the photos. Instead of heading out for around sunrise or sunset, as my landscape photographer sensibilities might have dictated, I set off at 10am – primetime for walkers, I hoped.

The first part of the path takes you down into a gully and eventually the rocky cove of Deià beach. No time to be lured in by the sparkling sea, I swiftly took heed of the onward path up, up into the hills and on my way.

The sky was overcast which, although not great for drop-dead gorgeous, 1k likes on instagram-type landscape photography, works well enough with capturing people – if I could just find the people – in the landscape. Very bright sun in the middle of the day will create stark shadows that are harder to improve on whereas, with a little bit of expert repro in Lightroom, it’s possible to even out the levels for an enticing double page spread.

Which I could of course paraphrase to say: I went off on a long hike on my own and had plenty of time to think about deep, geeky aspects of photography because there was no one around to yawn at me. Apart form the sheep, perhaps.

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The track loosely follows the coast from on high. When it veers from the seaview, you find yourself among olive groves, citrus farmland and wooded glades.

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In case I didn’t find many other walkers, I got up to my old tricks and decided – with the aid of a stone for a tripod – to put myself in the frame.

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Luckily, I did find other walkers on the trail. Some looked the part more than the others. I always feel slightly culpable when deciding what sorts of people to pursue. It’s all left to chance of course, no hired models here. But colourful hiking attire always looks better against the landscape. And, often it seems to be the slimmer, fitter people you find in the colourful precision gear. I always feel guilty thinking those kinds of thoughts because I’ve seen the This Girl Can campaign, I’ve read those stereotype-busting articles. I don’t want to be complicit in perpetuating visual themes.

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I did ask some middle-aged French ladies if they minded being in a picture but they didn’t really understand and probably thought I  was trying to sell them something so said no. I took a pic anyway, but can’t submit it.

In the middle of the hike..oooh, let’s say about three hours in to this two and a half hour hike, the wooden signs seemed to stop telling me how long it would take.

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Not that I was complaining, it was beautiful out there. The gnarly olive trees alone will keep me in instagram posts till Christmas.

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But maybe I hadn’t stolen quite enough cheese and bread from the hotel breakfast spread to keep me going all the way to the beach.

At long last, I emerged from a particularly beautiful wooded spot and scrambled up a slope to be rewarded with a view of Porto Sóller. A little further down and I though, yes this is the spot. I just needed the people now.

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I lingered for some time till I could hear voices rounding the valley below. It wouldn’t be long before they reached me. Thankfully they were a smiling French couple with excellent English and were more than understanding of my long lens and how they’d feature in this beautiful vista.

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From here it wasn’t far to the the beach and the end of the trail but, oh boy, it took a lot longer than the two and a half hours those early wooden signs had promised! Try five! But I wouldn’t have had it any other way, it was a glorious day’s work.

Givé the orange juice man


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I was enticed up the steep stone steps by a handwritten sign saying ‘Orange Juice café’.

“Hola,” I called.

“Hola!” came a voice from within the stone hut.

“Una zumo de naranja, por favor.” I asked, as he emerged from the hut.

“Yeah, sure”. I’d forgotten for a moment – despite the far removed landscape I’d been walking through – that Mallorca isn’t an untouched, far flung holiday destination. Of course he’s fluent in English.

I was walking the Deia to Puerto de Sòller leg of the GR221 route which runs along the mountainous north coast of the island. Oranges are plentiful in this part of Spain and so too are orange juice sellers. But, unwittingly, I certainly picked the most interesting one to tarry with while I sipped.

Givé has lived in his coastal farmstead for the last fifteen years. The tardis-like stone hut in which he does his juicing is a recent conversion and he showed me pictures of the one-walled ruin it had once been. He’s a man of many talents, and not least playing in the infamous local band Pa amb Olí.

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He asked me what brought me to the area. I explained that I was a photographer on commission. He rolled his eyes a little but when I told him which publication it was for, he realised I was serious.

“There are no travellers anymore, just tourists.” He said, as we ruminated on our experiences of tourism. Deia has been a draw for foreign artists and creatives for decades, at least since before World War II when Robert Graves first set up home here, probably longer. The picture Givé revealed, however, was less of a creative haven and more of an idyll with a darker side.

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Globalisation and tourism are killing local culture, he told me. Locals can no longer afford to live in the centre of Deia because out-of-towners are buying up properties as Airbnb rentals. The late-night sound restrictions imposed at the open-air, rooftop café Sa Fonda means that the parties aren’t as wild and the jamming isn’t as good. It’s the increasing complaints from holiday makers that has led to this.

I’ve heard this kind of story in other parts of the world, too. Tourism can, of course, create jobs and lift local populations from a life of poverty, let that not be forgotten.

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A German couple joined me on Givé’s terrace and while he busied himself making their juice I thought a bit more about what he was telling me. I was thankful for the last vestiges of ‘traditional culture’ that meant our paths had crossed, slurped the dregs of the delicious juice and ambled on my way.

Flower Festival, Sóller, Majorca

Out of the corner of my eye I spied a woman in a long bulbous skirt and lace headscarf hurriedly making her way along the road, dragging a small girl behind her. Where was she going in such anachronistic attire and with such haste, I wondered. I followed her down a narrow alleyway which led on to a broader pedestrianized street and I realised she wasn’t the only one dressed that way.

I watched as they made the finishing touches to their costumes before following them further down the street. They led me to a much larger congregation: people were milling about, some carrying instruments and many holding bunches of flowers. The queue of folk went on and on and stretched all the way around the block.

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In my very scant Spanish I asked a lady with a flute what was happening. “Est un fiesta,” she replied. “Would it be ok if I took some photos?” I asked. They were of course obliging.

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An air of excitement and anticipation gripped the assembled masses. I caught a couple of girls gossiping on a step and they were perfect photographic subjects, till they realised they were being watched.

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The instrumentalists began warming up and it wasn’t long till the procession began. Crowds had assembled to watch – both locals and tourists alike.  The musicians led the way and were followed by folk dressed up as kings, knights and queens. When I spotted a Madonna on a plinth being carried I knew something of a religious nature was going on. They paraded her through the streets towards the cathedral square.

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Once they had made their way to the main square and in front of the cathedral, the significance of the flowers suddenly became clear: they were to dress the bottom of the plinth on which the Madonna stood to create a gigantic floral skirt.

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I hadn’t initially realised quite how long it would take the townspeople to fill her skirt. I was on a schedule! I had to take the tram back to Porto Sòller. I never did manage to see the Madonna with her full skirt of flowers but I was touched by a pang of happiness nonetheless. You can plan photo trip to festivals years in advance but it’s such a treat to stumble upon one, unannounced and so unexpectedly.

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