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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Lighthouses and Lime Kilns

There are many lighthouses in the Canary Islands and locals and many visitors will know that there is a particularly fine one at Maspalomas in Gran Canaria. The lighthouse, or Faro in Spanish, helps sailors to navigate their ships and is an integral part of sea-life. Usually, they are cylindrical towers with a light on top, and emit a fixed sequence of beams that is unique to a particular lighthouse. Built in 1980, the Maspalomas lighthouse is still operational and, for those who like full details, provides 3 white flashes every 13 seconds. Before lighthouses were invented, sailors were warned of hazards by the lighting of fires along the coastline.

Since visiting these islands for the first time many years ago, I am often amazed to discover the strategic and important place that these small islands and its people have in history. Indeed, these islands pack a far greater punch than their size would lead most to believe. The development of the lighthouse is just one of these intrigues. Let us now visit Plymouth in Devon, and stand on Plymouth Hoe, looking out to sea into the impressive expanse of Plymouth Sound...

About 14 miles from the coast stands the Eddystone Lighthouse, which is the fourth lighthouse to be built on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks. Earlier attempts had either caught fire or were washed away, with the exception of one. This was the lighthouse called Smeaton’s Tower, which now stands proudly on Plymouth Hoe and was once used to guard against those treacherous rocks.

In 1756, an engineer called John Smeaton was asked by the Royal Society to design the third Eddystone Lighthouse. His inspiration was to be an oak tree - a tall, natural object that could withstand gales without breaking. He used 1,493 blocks of stone, rather like the rings of a tree, dove-tail jointed together with marble dowels and oak pins. Now this is the clever part, Smeaton also pioneered the use of hydraulic lime, a form of concrete that would set under water. This lime came from Arinaga, in Gran Canaria.

Since ancient times, the small coastal town of Arinaga, operated a small cottage industry for the extraction and burning of lime. Quicklime from the Arinaga furnaces was sold throughout the islands and beyond its shores, which led to increased prosperity and economic expansion. It was this quicklime from Arigaga that made the building of Smeaton’s Tower possible.

In the early twentieth century, the first cement plant in Arguineguin opened and demanded a lot of hydraulic lime, as well as being needed for agriculture, buildings, ports and roads. Most of the lime produced in Gran Canaria came from Arinaga, where dozens of workers worked in this industry. The industry is now long gone, but some of the old furnaces have been carefully restored and preserved and can still be seen at the end of the beach in Arinaga, as a memento of its proud contribution to the building industry on the island and beyond. It is inspiring to think that a combination of Smeaton’s inspired design and highly advanced engineering skills still required the contribution of Canary Islanders over 2000 miles away!

Smeaton’s Tower protected shipping in Plymouth Sound for 120 years and when it was finally replaced in 1882, it was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe. It still stands as a permanent reminder of the very clever engineer who created it, with just a little help from the lime workers of Arinaga!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

It’s Hot Up My Barranco!

“Phew, it’s hot up my barranco today, darling,” gasped Miranda as she staggered down the street carrying two large and heavy bags of clattering bottles from the local supermarket. Before you get too carried away by imagining a doctor about to don a pair of surgical gloves for some emergency female probing, I should explain that Miranda is one of the village’s more colourful characters. She is a school assistant in one of the less classy private schools by day and a tattooist by night. I once asked if there was any conflict of interest between her two jobs. She screeched loudly in my ear, before resting her mug of gin on top of my car.

“No, not at all, darling. It’s a great way to help the kids with their reading.”

I must have looked puzzled, as I thought I knew a thing or two about teaching children to read, and she seemed to read my thoughts.

“You see, I have all the letters of the alphabet tattooed all over my body somewhere, so I use those to help children to read. If it’s Tina the Tiresome Transvestite we are reading, I just point out this letter “T” on my arm and then we find the picture of the Tina on my back. Easy, the kids love it.”

“So you have all the letters and associated pictures somewhere on your body?”

“Oh, yes, darling, but I should say that some are more difficult to find than others. We tend to keep off the “Y” and “Z” words otherwise I would get the sack, darling. If you know what I mean!” She guffawed loudly, as she nudged me in the ribs and winked knowingly.

I think you are probably getting the idea of what Miranda is like. A lovely lady, but back in the UK I would be surprised if she had a job. However, over here, I am much more open-minded.

As Miranda dropped her bags by my front gate and she propped herself on my parked car, she watched what I was doing with some amusement. I stopped washing the hedge (actually it is one of those plastic ones, but I do like to freshen it up a bit from time to time) and it is always a good opportunity to remove the crisp packets and condoms from its branches.

“You are home early today. Is everything alright?”

“Darling, it’s the heat. It is just so hot. I tell you, darling, it was 41ºC up my barranco at lunchtime. It was just too much darling. We sent the little dears home early, because they were just fading away.”

I tried to imagine Miranda’s boisterous pupils fading away and thought it highly unlikely. We have a number of calimas, although some people call them siroccos, on the islands each year, and the islanders are generally conditioned to withstand them, and it is the expats who suffer. They can be a little unpleasant for a few days, bringing with them very high temperatures from Africa and the Sahara. In my own village, when the wind disappears, it is a case of staying inside as much as possible with air-conditioning on and plenty of cool drinks. These heat waves can occur at any time during the year, but they are less common during the cooler months.

Miranda’s school is situated in a barranco, a Spanish word for ravine. Some would say that was a foolish place to build it, because of potential sudden rainstorms, but I guess the land was cheap. Anyway, I suspect it was built to withstand the heat and would have air conditioning installed as essential.

“I was pleased to get home early, darling. I needed to get ready for the bonfire this evening.”

“Bonfire? In this heat!” I exclaimed.

“Darling, tomorrow is the Festival of St John the Baptist. A most important religious festival! You mustn’t miss that. We are having a bonfire party tonight to celebrate. Not here you understand, but outside Telde. It’s traditional you know, darling. You really must come. You don’t have to be a Catholic, just bring a bottle!”

So there we have it. We are in the middle of a calima where daytime temperatures are around 40ºC, in the shade, and the good people of Telde are planning a bonfire party to celebrate St John the Baptist. The activities on this island never cease to surprise me.

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

Anyone Here Called Juan?

I am very fond of pizza; that is if I can find one that is vegetarian. Being vegetarian, I have sometimes found it very difficult to get across the message that a ‘pizza vegetal’ is pizza without the inclusion of flesh of any kind. I have been presented with supposedly vegetarian pizzas laced with generous dollops of tuna, a fried egg and even a generous sprinkling of ham, which I thought was red pepper, before my stomach started heaving and I headed like a bullet for the door.

No, it has not been easy being a vegetarian in Spain and the Canary Islands, but I have now found the perfect pizzeria, or cafe bar to be more accurate. Personally, I think that the pizzas produced there are some of the best on the island - a perfect combination of a thin, not too crisp base and a perfectly cooked range of seasonal vegetables. We often have a take away pizza ready for a night in front of the television with a good film.

A few days ago I telephoned to place our usual order. Instead of the usually cheery bar owner/chef answering the telephone, came a sleepy voice. “Er, can you call back later please? The ovens have still not heated up”. I thought this strange, as the cafe bar opened at 7.00pm and by now it was nearly 8.00pm, which I know is still very early for Canarians to eat. I hoped that this was not the beginning of the end for yet another cafe bar, forced to lay off staff and eventually close because of the effects of the recession.

When I finally arrived at the bar to collect my order, the chef gave me a cheeky grin and told me that he was thankful for my call, because he had overslept and my call had woken him! The bar was, by now, full of elderly and middle aged men, some with a beer in hand watching sport on the television, others playing on the gaming machine, whilst others simply propped themselves against the bar, no drink in hand, but obviously there just for the company. One younger man was cheerfully helping himself to a shot from behind the bar - after all, the bar owner was still cooking my pizzas, yet I noticed he carefully placed a number of coins by the till. It was a very Canarian scene.

Suddenly the door burst open and a small boy of about six or seven burst into the bar frantically waving a mobile phone above his head.

“Anyone here called Juan?” he yelled (in Spanish, of course).

Suddenly the noise stopped, all the men turned and faced the small boy and three quarters of them stood up and shouted back “I’m Juan”, before helpless laughter broke out in the bar. The small boy looked puzzled before he ran off followed by several of the men. I would love to have known what the urgent message was about.

Although I have not checked any surveys of the most popular names used in the Canary Islands, I would guess, without a doubt, that the most popular name for men of a certain age in my village is Juan, and the best place to find them is in our pizzeria.

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

Living on a Volcano

Shortly after moving to the Costa Blanca, we discovered that in the nineteenth an earthquake had destroyed a small town close to the urbanisation where we had made our home. Nowadays, we live on a volcanic island in an archipelago where there are still several active volcanoes.

One of the very first pieces of advice that we received when we arrived in the Costa Blanca, and one that we quickly learned to be particularly valuable, was “Never believe what you hear from bar gossip; always find out the facts for yourselves.” Bar chat is easy and, like Chinese Whispers, often varies significantly from the truth, and particularly if it is bad or disturbing news. However, many expats, desperate for information and advice in their own language, often readily fall for misleading information.

The current topic in many of the British bars in the Canary Islands is the issue of seismic shocks currently underway in one of our neighbouring islands, El Hierro. This island paradise is quickly becoming the source of overreaction and potentially dangerous gossip causing concern. So what exactly are the issues?

Over the last few weeks, seismic shocks on El Hierro, which the experts call ‘swarms’ have been mostly of low magnitude since they started in early July, and most of the seismic activity has been limited to about 9 to 16 kilometres below the surface. The question on everyone's mind is, “Is El Hierro heading for an eruption and, if not, what is going on beneath the surface?”

We need to remember that the Canary Islands are volcanic in origin and a wide variety of lava has erupted from Canary Island volcanoes over the years. This is what makes the islands what they are, and without the volcanic eruptions in the past there would be no Canary Islands. Experts tell us that they are similar to the volcanoes found in Hawaii, and that they share many similarities in that they can grow very large and that the style of eruption and lava flow are similar.

Should we be surprised by this seismic activity at El Hierro? The answer seems to be: No. Although the islands’ volcanoes are nowhere near as productive as Hawaii or indeed Iceland, the Canary hotspot is one of the more vigorous on the planet. Does this seismic activity automatically lead to an eruption? Not necessarily, and this activity might not even lead to an eruption. However, now that we have many of these volcanic systems so closely monitored, we notice this subtle activity as it happens, rather than waiting until we can feel the seismic activity on the surface, which usually means that an eruption is highly likely. In other words, there are plenty of warning systems and the monitoring of seismic activity is constantly taking place.

These incidents should remind us that El Hierro is an active volcano and that these signals might be a warning of an eruption sometime in the future. However, it could be many years between a seismic swarm that eventually leads to an eruption of the volcano.

It is always a good idea to be prepared, especially when living on a volcanic island. Over 10,000 people live on El Hierro, and emergency planning will tell residents what to do and where to go if El Hierro does decide to erupt. However, most eruptions produce lava flows and ash that are not likely to be a major threat to the island’s residents unless they are caught unaware, which is highly unlikely. People on Hawaii have been living with a constantly erupting volcano for over 30 years, Mount Etna in Sicily performs a regular firework display, as do the volcanoes in Iceland; so any activity on El Hierro should be impressive to watch, but not a catastrophe for the residents of the island, nor indeed for the rest of the Canary Islands. So back to your gin and tonics and the sun beds; you now have the facts and not just the bar gossip. Cheers!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

"The Stars Smile Down on You”

Those who have easy access to BBC television may have seen the series, ‘The Wonders of the Solar System’, hosted by Professor Brian Cox, which has inspired me to take much more notice of the night sky. After all, the Canary Islands are very well placed for stargazing. During these programmes, I also wished that I had been taught by such a passionate and enthusiastic teacher as Brian Cox during those interminably boring physics lessons when I was a pupil at school. Apart from one memorable experience, my studies were a very boring diet of what seemed like useless information and regurgitated facts that had no relevance to the world that I lived in. Why were we not told more about the wonders of the universe and information that related to our very being? No, the highlight of my career in physics was a pinhole camera that I made after one lesson about light, when I was suddenly and surprisingly inspired. This happened to be the beginning of my interest in photography and so possibly those boring physics lessons were not completely wasted on me after all.

My pinhole camera experiment was a revelation in more ways than one, because in the process of testing the quality of focus, a friend and I decided to photograph the rear of a teacher’s car in the staff car park thinking that we could use the vehicle’s number plate as a test card. It was after we had spotted that the parked car was swaying gently from side to side that we realised that we had discovered a passionate relationship between a member of staff and the pretty French language exchange student in the back of the Morris Minor that we were photographing. Needless to say, for two curious eleven-year-olds, the whole experience was an interesting revelation into the ways of the world and made for an interesting physics lesson after all.

Returning to the television programme and the wonders of the Solar System where our own small planet Earth was both celebrated, as well as placed into the much wider context of the solar system and beyond. From this programme, I began to understand one of the sayings about the Canary Islands, possibly used far too much by travel agencies, as a place where “The stars smile down on you”. Physics now, at last, began to make some sense.

Sky watching is at its best in the Canary Islands where the night skies are mostly crystal clear thanks to the efforts of successive islands’ Governments over the years to reduce light pollution. The location of the Canary Islands also means that we can see all the constellations of the northern hemisphere throughout the year and mostly without the help of a telescope. As our eyes become accustomed to the night sky, we can get a flavour of the vastness of the universe and suddenly thousands of stars seem to appear and form a glittering blanket; if we are really fortunate we can sometimes see shooting stars as well. A high position away from the main centre of population gives the best view or, in my case, a quick stroll to the seashore is usually good enough for a spectacular viewing.

It is wonderful how new information and earlier gained knowledge sometimes just falls into place when inspired or we are somehow reminded at a much later time. For me, stargazing has been a revelation, although I do still wonder how two grown adults managed to do anything of significance in such a small car! Mind you, they may just have been conjugating verbs!

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

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