Community homestay in Panauti, Nepal

One of the things we most wanted to do during our travels in India and Nepal was to meet and spend time with local people. So when we came across the Community Homestay initiative in Panauti – a small rural town a two-hour bus ride east of Kathmandu – this sounded like an ideal opportunity to stay with a family. We took the local bus which in itself was an experience – I quickly lost count of how many people could squeeze into the small bus, and as we made our way out of the pollution of the city the conductor leant out of the open door to shout out the destinations.

Our Community Homestay hosts were Biju and her two daughters Aayusha and Nirusha. Upon our arrival they made us most welcome with masala tea and a delicious lunch of dal bhat, the staple Nepali meal.

In the late afternoon Aayusha showed us some of the village monuments – Panauti is a historic town with some beautiful temples. She then took us up a nearby hill to look at the Buddhist temple and enjoy the views over the town and the valley where the fields were green with the potato crop.

In the evening Biju showed us how to make potato curry and chapatis, and we looked through photo albums of the daughters’ weddings and of all the guests who had stayed with them.

On our second morning we walked along the path running north through the nearby hills towards Dhulikel. We climbed up to the Shree Sharada Devi Temple, the highest point of the path, where a local man put flower petals in our hair and took us to a viewpoint from where we could see Dhulikel, Banepa, Panauti and Namobuddha.

In the late afternoon Nirusha took us to a local café where they had found a guitar, and asked me to sing a few songs. When we returned home, Nirusha dressed Isabelle in a Nepali sari. We ended the day with a fabulous Newari dinner with 9 different dishes and a glass of home-made rice wine.

Our stay in Panauti with Biju and her daughters, not to mention Grandma and adorable 14-month old Neepun, was very special. There is a world of difference between their home and ours in Cambridge – Biju’s home is very basic with no glass in the windows, a very wet bathroom with cold water, and steep ladder-like stairs. But the welcome they gave us was beyond compare – human warmth and kindness know no boundaries and we were made to feel very much at home. It was a privilege to meet them and our stay was most memorable.

On our last day in Nepal we met Bikal, one of the Community Homestay organisers – he had very kindly brought some glasses we had left in Panauti and asked us for feedback on our stay there. We asked for more detail about how the financial side works – the central office takes 15% of a booking and 20% of the rest goes to the local community. The host receives the rest – around two thirds of the booking fee. Given that our stay there was rather more expensive than the other places we stayed, it was good to know that the hosts would receive a reasonable proportion of this.

Bikal also explained that he had considered going to the US as apparently many educated Nepalis do, but decided he could be more helpful by staying in the country. He spoke inspirationally about Community Homestay, about how it has given a purpose to his life, how it aims to empower the women who act as hosts, and how it can support local communities in more remote areas of Nepal by bringing income from tourists.

India And Nepal

We are just back from spending three and a half weeks in India and Nepal and it has been good to experience once more the highs and lows of travelling. In their different ways – and they have been very different – India and Nepal have been exciting, eye opening, challenging and rewarding. We experienced a fair degree of culture shock, though overall much less than I had expected and more than counterbalanced by the many positive experiences.

The warmth and friendliness of the people we met has been outstanding. Apart from our time with our son and his partner – which was of course was a real treat and the initial motivation for our trip – we spent very little time with westerners and a lot with local people who welcomed us into their lives. All our hosts made us feel at home, and in particular Vinita and Pradesh in Delhi and Biju, Aayusha and Nirusha in Panauti, who have become friends. Then there were the friends of friends – Antara and Saurabh in India and Julia in Nepal who gave up their valuable time to show us round, respectively, the dargah of Nizamuddin, the Taj Mahal and the courtyards of Patan.

On top of that we met many very special people, often quite unexpectedly – Baiku and Bai who invited two total strangers to their home in Kathmandu; Julia’s brother who shared his profound knowledge and enthusiasm for Newari culture; Bikal who went out of his way to bring us a pair of glasses we had left in Panauti and who spoke eloquently about the Community Homestay project; the principal of the government school in Bhital who shared his inspirational hopes for education; the poet Pushkar, the sarod player Suresh and the tuk-tuk driver in Agra who commented that if you show people respect you are likely to gain respect in turn. It was a privilege to meet them all.

The architectural and natural beauty of the two countries was breathtaking. The Taj Mahal really was as good as we had hoped – a quite staggering achievement. But then so were the Qutub Minar, the carvings in the royal palace of Patan, the gorgeous gardens of Humuyum’s tomb, and the local treasures of Green Park in Delhi and Panauti.

Then all this fell sharply into perspective when we woke one morning to watch the first rays of the sun fall on the Annapurna mountains. And some of the birdlife has been every bit as
beautiful – the sparkling blue of the verditer flycatcher, the vibrant purple of the delightful sunbirds or the brilliant red of the long-tailed minavets.

The food was excellent, and we have never been anywhere before that was as easy for vegetarians. All our hosts provided local breakfasts – the aloo parathas in Delhi were particularly special – and several offered delicious home cooking in the evening as well – Biju went as far as to teach us how to cook potato curry and chapatis. When that was not available good restaurants were not far away, notably in New Delhi and Pokhara.

Musically our trip was rewarding also. On our first evening Antara took us to hear Sufi music in the dargah (shrine) of Nizamuddin. The music was magical. A couple of days later in the Sikh temple Sis Ganj in Old Delhi, we sat again enthralled by sacred music. I was asked to sing as well, firstly by our hosts in Delhi, and Panauti. And in Patan we joined sarod player Suresh Raj Bajracharya, who was practising the Sarod in Julia’s gallery, with his student, a former living goddess. They played ragas and I sang Rainbow – I have never sung to a divinity before!

I could go on – about the colours, the sounds, the packed streets, the contrasts and the surprises – but I’ll spare you all that, for now at least. Our travels seem to have had a positive impact on my creativity – I am at long last emerging from a long period of songwriting drought and a new song is working its way into the light. Thankyou, India and Nepal.

Here is Suresh playing the Sarod:

John le français

I officially received French nationality on the morning of February 6th 2019 when we attended the ceremony at the consulate in London. We were given a a glass of champagne and a folder containing a copy of the Declaration of human rights, and we sang the Marseillaise.

I first met Isabelle 37 years ago and, while we have never formally lived in France in that time, across those years we must have spent some 7 or 8 years in a country I have come to love and where I now have many close friends. It has also given me the time to get to know francophone culture, and especially music, which has increasingly influenced my own songwriting, especially in Side by side (below), La Fayette, Rue Mouffetard, Bordeaux, The centre of the world, The children of the sea and Rocks and stones.

Nevertheless, until the 2016 referendum it had never seemed remotely important for either of us to apply for a second nationality – we were citizens of Europe. However in the uncertainty that has ensued it became apparent that we needed our own backstop, just in case the vicissitudes of politics threatened to separate us.

And while I am above all delighted to retain my identity as a European, I am also happy to join a republic, to celebrate liberté, égalité et fraternité, and to share the culture of Balzac and Bashung. The Consul gave a speech of welcome in which he underlined the values of the French republic, and here are a couple of examples from the documents in my folder: ‘Les êtres humains naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits’ and ‘L’homme et la femme ont dans tous les domaines les mêmes droits’. All good by me.

As 2018 draws to a close…

My new album ‘Never enough’ is now well and truly launched and has been getting some radio play. I’ve had some nice comments from reviewers: ‘Really thought-provoking and interesting songs’ (Genevieve Tudor, BBC Radio Shropshire).‘There is some beautiful writing on Never enough (Greg Russell, BBC Radio Sheffield). Never enough is possibly John Meed’s finest work, finding him totally in control of his palette of words and ideas’ (Les Ray, Unicorn). ‘John Meed has created something that is at once highly engaging and equally thought-provoking’ (Allan Wilkinson, Northern Sky). ‘The rewards are worth the reaping’ (Mike Davies, FATEA).

I’m grateful to everyone who came to the launch at CB2 earlier in November – you created a lovely atmosphere. If you missed it, or would like to repeat the experience, we will be doing much the same set at the Cambridge Folk Club on January 25th. The club meets in the The Golden Hind, 355 Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 1SP – the evening starts at 8pm and we shall be on at around 10pm. I’ll be joined by Rhys on guitars, Andy on bass, Matt on violin and Lucinda on viola. Tickets here.

You can listen to or download the songs, or order the CD, here:

There is a live video of the title track (with Matt and Lucinda) in the lovely Suffolk church of Felsham here:

There is also a live version of Blackbirds here:

As it’s getting to the end of the year, here is some of the other music I have been enjoying this year. My album of the year has been Low’s ‘Double negative’ though you need to be able to cope with doses of distortion – all apparently a reaction to living in Trump’s America. It’s worth persisting, though.
It’s also well worth trying:
– Nenah Cherry’s ‘Broken Politics’ and its standout track ‘Kong
– Ed Harcourt’s piano pieces on ‘Beyond the end’ including the lovely ‘Duet for ghosts
– Phoebe Bridgers’ ’Stranger in the Alps’ – try ‘Motion sickness
And if you feel like venturing away from the English language, try Catalan singer Joanjo Bosk’s Albera.
My favourite new film of the year – by some way – was ‘Shoplifters’ by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Finally, can I take the chance to thank you all for your support, and to wish you all the best for the year to come.

‘Never enough’ now available

We launched my new album, ‘Never enough’, on November 10th at CB2. You can listen to or download the songs, or order the CD, here:

There are some fabulous contributions from other lovely musicians – Rhys Wilson, who co-produced the album, played many of the instruments. Matt Kelly and Lucinda Fudge from Thursday’s Band played the delightful strings on ‘Never enough’ and ‘Blackbirds’. Myke Clifford added breathtaking sax to ‘Strange thing’, while Dawn Loombe’s wonderful accordion takes us to Paris in ‘La Fayette’ and Brian Harvey adds bass to ‘Never enough’ and ‘Bordeaux’. I’m grateful to them all.

And the artwork for the cover is from our good friend and wonderful artist, Gail de Cordova.

Nine Wells

Note: there is now a page devoted to Nine Wells which you will find here. I will keep this updated more regularly.

I continue my ecological survey of the fields south of Addenbrookes Hospital around the Nine Wells nature reserve.The field on the hospital side of the cycle path is wonderfully wild at the moment – this morning I heard 3 there (right) and saw 2 (possibly 3) pairs of A yellowhammer was also singing and several skylarks.


The field on the other side of the cycle path had been earmarked by South Cambridgeshire District Council for further development. However, the conservatives suffered a shock defeat in the recent local elections. The liberal democrats, who now have overall control of the council, had campaigned vigorously against the proposed development. Let’s hope they now throw it out – I am trying to clarify the position. In case they need reminding, you can write to local councillors.

My 2017 survey of the area – which you can download below – showed that the area remains extremely valuable for farmland birds of high conservation concern, with exceptional numbers of grey partridge in the autumn, as well as good numbers of skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and corn bunting.3P

‘The square km south of Addenbrookes has this year supported a grey partridge population of at least 11 spring pairs/km2 and 85 birds/km2 in autumn. The arable farms typical of Cambridgeshire support between 0 and 5 pairs/km2 and 0–20 birds/km2 in the autumn.’

Corn buntings also did particularly well last year, with 8 pairs. This is an important population – there are just 11,000 birds in the UK and its recent extinction in Ireland risks being repeated in large parts of Britain if its breeding sites are not protected. The RSPB’s nearby Hope Farm had 2 pairs in 2016 in 1.8km2.

In addition, the site supports a thriving population of water voles, both in the start of Hobsons Brook, and in the ditch that runs alongside the cycle path.

You can download a copy of my report for 2017 here.

Nine_wells_Survey_report_2017

My reports for 2016 are here:

Nine_wells_Survey_report_2016

Grey_partridge_2016

My reports for 2015 are here:

Survey_report_for_TL4654_2015

Grey_partridge_of_Nine_Wells

Educated by Tara Westover

‘I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World’.

There are many things I love about being a singer-songwriter – notably the rush of creativity when a new song comes, or the buzz after a concert that goes particularly well. But it also means that you meet some fascinating people.

I first met Tara Westover at our local music club in CB2, Cambridge, some five years ago, when she was completing her PhD at the university – shortly after, I now realise, one of the most difficult periods of her life. She rather unwisely offered to sing harmonies on some of my songs, an offer I could hardly refuse as she has one of the finest voices I have had the privilege to work with. We have since played many gigs together, and she has collaborated on my last two albums.

In quiet times during rehearsals, or on the way to or from concerts, she would tell me many tales from her astonishing and highly unusual childhood – growing up in a Mormon community in Idaho, in a survivalist family dominated by a charismatic but flawed father who spent his time – when not placing the family in mortal danger in his scrapyard – preparing for the end of the world.

But this could hardly prepare me for reading her remarkable memoir, Educated, published on February 20th by Hutchinson (in the UK – Random House in the US). The first part of the book describes Tara’s childhood and adolescence in the family home nestled under the mountain they called the Princess. To describe the family as ‘survivalist’ is somewhat misleading, as how Tara and her siblings survived their childhood is itself a miracle , confronted as they were by a succession of car crashes and workplace accidents, a refusal to counter any healthcare or medication beyond mother’s herbal remedies, a violent brother and non-existent ‘home schooling’.

There is one particularly stark moment when Tara finds her brother lying on the road side following a motorbike crash. He has suffered his third major head wound (the first two have left him a changed person), but when she phones her father he tells her to bring him home so that their mother can administer a few herbs. It’s an odd world where teenage rebellion takes the form of driving your brother to hospital.

It would be easy to conclude that Tara paints a bleak picture of her family. In fact she remains remarkably honest throughout. She is still able to talk of her love for her parents, to capture the wild beauty of her childhood home, and to paint a portrait of her father that is tremendously human, where his humour, his enthusiasm and his pride in Tara’s singing shine through his probably bi-polar delusions and paranoia. In the end she likens him to Don Quixote, a ‘zealous knight’ tilting at windmills, to whose warnings of doom ‘no one listened. They went about their lives in the summer sun.’

The second and third parts of the book describe the process through which Tara found her way into education, sought to come to terms with the wider world, and eventually gained a doctorate from Cambridge University. It’s a journey of both remarkable achievement but also some personal cost. At each step along the way she has faced a regular ‘twitch upon the thread’, as Waugh put it, from her home and family.

We all bear the scars of growing up, and spend much of our adult lives coming to terms with them. Educated is often a tough read, and it was painful to hear a good friend describe with such honesty how she responded to her brother’s abuse, her parents’ rejection, or the resulting family schism. It is also very moving indeed.

But above all, it’s a tremendous read and Tara has a real talent as a story teller – I found it very hard to put down. Here is a link to Tara’s website. You can order Educated from Heffers/Blackwells or, if you must, from Amazon.

Here are Tara and I performing Thessalonika at Cambridge Folk Club:

The photo of Tara was taken by Paul Stuart.

Side by side

Side by side

The first single – Side by side – from my forthcoming album is now available. It describes a journey from Paris to London and is my small contribution to the debate about Europe, and a plea for tolerance and diversity. Rhys Wilson arranged and produced the song, and delightfully so. Here’s the video of the song:

It was  filmed in >and around St Pancras station, Gare du nord, Gare de l’est and Gare de Lyon. I’m grateful to the SNCF and St Pancras for the publicly available pianos – the grand at the Gare de Lyon is especially wonderful. And I’m even more grateful to the people of Paris and London for going around their daily travels and inadvertently (and in one lovely moment a the end of Verse 1, advertently) participating in the film, and for proving that what makes us different makes us shine. If you like and approve of it, and are into social media, please do share it. I still hope it’s not too late to change people’s minds.

If you’d like to download the song, it’s available here:

And as it’s that time of year, here are my musical highlights from the last twelve months:

  • My favourite album of the year, by some distance, has been Planetarium, a collaboration from Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister. It’s somewhere out there and takes a few listens but we love it. You can hear some samples on their website. I also rather like the album ‘Conflats’ by Outlines. I’m still trying to get the hang of The National’s ‘Sleep well beast’ and Benjamin Clementine’s ‘I tell a fly’ but I think both will be worth the effort.
  • My favourite concert of the year was some ‘flamenco experimental’ from Rosalia and Raul Refree in Girona. Their album, Los Angeles, is remarkable. You can watch them playing ‘Catalina’ in front of Guernica.

I’d like to wish you a very happy Christmas, and all the best for 2018. Thankyou all for your continued support.

The story of Heroes of the floes

It was a friend who worked for the British Antarctic Survey who first told me the story of John Rae, the Orcadian doctor and explorer.

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir in 1813. He qualified as a surgeon in Edinburgh and in 1833 left Scotland to work in Canada, first as a ship’s surgeon on board the Prince of Wales, and then in Moose Factory for the Hudson Bay Company, where he was to stay for 10 years.

Rae, in contrast to most of his white contemporaries, respected the First Nation people, learned vital skills from them and dressed like them to face the winter cold. From the Cree he learned how to make snowshoes and hunt caribou, and from the Inuit how to build snow shelters.

Rae was asked by the Hudson Bay Company to complete the mapping of the Arctic coast. He was a remarkable athlete – in one two-month period he covered 1200 miles on foot – and he spent whole winters in the far north. His expeditions filled many gaps and confirmed the existence of the North West Passage.

In 1848 Rae was asked to help search for the men of Lord Franklin’s expedition. He learnt from the Inuit that 40 white men had starved to death and had resorted to cannibalism in their final days. However when his report reached London, it led to an outcry. As my friend says, ‘Royal Navy chaps don’t eat each other’. Or as Charles Dickens put it, no white man should believe the Inuit who were ‘savages and liars’.

Later expeditions proved Rae and the Inuit right. However by then Rae was thoroughly discredited and his own discovery of the North West Passage was attributed to Franklin. His achievements were written out of history. My friend suggested that, as Franklin already had songs to his name, I might like to write a tribute to a true hero of the floes. I hope the song does him justice.

Haystacks – in the footsteps of Wainwright

Haystacks – in the footsteps of Wainwright

At first sight, at some 600 metres and surrounded by some of the highest Lakeland peaks, Haystacks looks, in the words of the great writer of Lakeland walks Alfred Wainwright, ‘like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds’.

However the mountain was one of Wainwright’s absolute favourites: ‘Not one of this distinguished groups of mountains can show a greater variety or or more fascinating arrangement of interesting features.’ We had wanted to climb it for many years, and last week at last got the opportunity to do so.

We had stayed the night before in Carlisle and didn’t start the walk until just before noon, which was just as well because the weather had been temperamental. The first shower hit after 20 minutes and others followed, though fortunately the wind was behind us. We managed to picnic in the lee of a large rock before a lull in the rain gave us the courage to attack the final climb.

After a relatively simple approach, the climb to the top was surprisingly challenging, with several pleasant scrambles up rock faces. However the views just got better and better, and by now the rain had more or less relented and the clouds were starting to lift from the surrounding peaks. Here is the view towards Buttermere and Crummock Water.

By the time we reached the summit there was even a patch of sunshine on the delightfully named Robinson, while Great Gable and Pillar briefly appeared out of the clouds ahead of us and we could look down over Ennerdale water. We were by now entirely convinced by Wainwright’s belief that this is one of the best climbs in the Lake District.

One of the many delights of Haystacks is the small tarn at the summit. As Wainwright said: ‘For a man seeking to get a persistent worry out of this mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.’

We decided against going down the way we had come up, and instead descended to Innominate Tarn, where Wainwright’s ashes were scattered, and from there worked our way round to the river coming down from Brandreth. Following the previous day’s heavy rain, the expected stepping stones had disappeared under a raging torrent, and the crossing might well have been beyond us but for a helpful guide who told us where best to put our feet and hauled us up on the other side. The adrenaline buzz was worth the wet feet.

The rest of the descent was straightforward. All in all, it’s a wonderful circuit, with none of those tedious stretches you can meet on mountain walks, a new and often stunning view around every corner and no little excitement as well. As Wainwright said, ‘Could you wish a better place?’

You can listen to Wainwright talking about Haystacks here. He describes the walk in his book Western Fells or you can follow it here.