3 Men and a Donkey – Notes on hiking Le Stevenson in the Cevennes

I’ve just got back from hiking Le Stevenson with a donkey and thought I’d jot down some notes while they’re still fresh in case it helps anyone else.

What is Le Stevenson?

In September 1870, Robert Louis Stevenson was waiting for his American sweetheart to finalise her divorce and to kill time set off with a donkey to hike through the Cevennes. He later published his notes in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, which brought him fame and the beginnings of his career.

Le Stevenson, aka the Chemin de Stevenson and the GR70 is a “Grand Randonee” of about 140 miles that tries to follow his route.  It isn’t wholly accurate to the route RLS took (partly because he often got lost, partly because at times a more scenic route as been edited in) but it’s a pretty good likeness and goes through the same villages he mentions.

In terms of ups and downs, as with all these sorts of walks, some days are better than others and terrain is mixed. The below is from the guide that can be found at most tourist informations and in many of the gites and hotels.

When to go/How long does it take

July and August were hot – pushing 30 degrees most days but still manageable thanks to shade and a donkey carrying our things. People in the Cevennes suggested Spring and early Autumn as the best both for temperature and colours.

Unless you’re superfit or wanting to run the whole thing, 14 days is about right for the whole thing. It is topped and tailed by a day’s walk from Le Puy en Velay to Monastier (where RLS actually started) and from St Jean du Gard (where he actually finished) to Ales. These are there simply for logistics as it’s easier to get to Le Puy and Ales than Monastier or St Jean.

We came across a number of folk chunking the walk, either because they didn’t have enough time to do the whole thing in one go or because they were with children. A lot of the villages are tiny, though, so I’d have thought Pradelles, Langogne and Florac are the best bets for chunks.


For us, donkey hire and half-board accommodation (breakfast & supper included) came in at a little over 1000 euros each for the fortnight. Below are the details of where we stayed – there were 3 of us sharing a room which was good in terms of value, possibly questionable in terms of quality of sleep.

Sandwiches could often (but not always) be bought along the route. We found it better to order packed lunches at the Gites the night before, but be ready to tire of cheese and ham baguettes if you do. There’s a butcher in La Bastide after the monastery who does an amazing deal

Distance Destination Accommodation Cost (Euros) Notes
Prologue Puy En Velay Gîte Bellevue 81 nuit et petit-déjeuner – supper in town
Day 1 19.3km Monastier  Gîte l’Estella 119
Day 2 23.6km Bouchet St Nicolas Gîte L’Arrestadou 142
Day 3 20km Pradelles Gîte Terre d’Accueil 140
Day 4 15.5km l’Herm  Gîte La Tartine de Modestine 118 In a yurt …
Day 5 19km Luc Gîte de la Huchette 137
Day 6 16.5km Notre Dame des Neiges Staying in a Trappist Monastery so“donations” are asked for rather than fees.
Day 7 17km l’Estampe Gite Le Relais de Modestine 170
Day 8 21km Station du Mont Lozère 150 euros
Day 9 14km Pont de Montvert L’Auberge des Cévennes 141
Day 10 23km Cocurès l’Hôtel La lozerette 203 More boutique hotel than gite – amazing wine list
Day 11 24km Cassagnas Relais Stevenson 159
Day 12 21.6km Lébou La Ferme de Patience 149 Our hands down favourite
Day 13 16km St Jean du Gard.

Maps, Books and GPS

Le Stevenson is very clearly marked all the way with red and white signs indicating both where to go and where not.  In general, the website for the Association Sur Le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson is very full and complete.

We had a range of books, maps and guides with us. Alan Castle’s book ended up being slightly annoying – lots of “the last time I was here it was better” comments – so we ditched that. The maps we had (details here) were basically a back up if the GPS failed and we didn’t use them once. A combination of the ViewRanger app and this GPS Route for Le Stevenson saw us safely along the way. The only times we went wrong were down to us chatting away and being oblivious to things, not due to unclear directions.

Backpacks, Baggage and Donkeys

Lots of people carried their own kit and quite a few used a service called La Malle Postale , which takes your bags from A to B for a small fee.

Caline, our brilliant companion

We hired a donkey (Caline not Modestine) from Canelle Labaume of Arts and Nature and it was all a lot easier than we initially feared. Essentially the set-up is this:

  • You get an initial training in how to groom the donkey and the do’s and don’ts before you start, how to put on a harness and bags etc.
  • Grooming involves: picking stones out of the donkey’s hooves, brushing her, adding ligament to any nicks and grazes she may have picked up, and pasting on some anti-fly juice.
  • Grooming needs to be done morning and night, before and after the walk. We were told that a lot of families didn’t do this and the donkeys end up either injured or truculent.
  • Donkeys are meant to be fed in the morning and in the evening and given a drink. In practice, we found it impossible to effectively stop Caline from munching what she wanted along the route but it never stopped us for long and was often a welcome breather.
  • Each place we stayed had a field nearby to put Caline in. Donkeys sleep out and usually the food is the foliage and grass in the field. Some gites provide proper food though. Most of the gites owners knew far more about donkeys than any of us ever would so we took their advice.
  • The maximum load for the donkey is 40 kg. We had about 30kg and this had to be balanced evenly in side-sacks. Inners for rucksacks are perfect for putting in these. Plastic bags also work but you might find your clothes end up smelling of turps and donkey for a while after the trip.
  • Caline was far surer footed on many of the paths than we were so while we panicked at first that she wouldn’t be able to make things she was always fine.

Water & Last Words

One final note is water. Ironically, given you are traipsing around Europe’s largest watershed, there is no guarantee of regular water. Many of the villages you pass through are virtually empty and you are in a National Park for a lot of it.  Unlike the Via Francigena or some other Caminos, there are no pilgrim taps. It’s well worth taking more than you think you’ll need. Your donkey can always carry it.

There’s probably a lot I’ve missed out, but the main thing that surprised us was how easy the donkey was and what a good companion she was compared to Modestine. It’s hard work but a great fortnight.

What Shaolin Monks Taught Me About Teaching

The best teacher training I have ever had was from a 34th Generation Shaolin  Warrior Monk, Shi Yan Jun.

Over the years, I have had in-school training such as INSETs, after-school twilight sessions, teacher observations (given and received). I have had off-site training run by battle-hardened professionals but sweetened with coffee, fancy biscuit and lecture notes. And I have followed my own CPD via conferences, Teachmeets, reading the latest literature, followed some inspirational education professionals online. Some of these have been useful (especially the last category), but a lot, however good the intention, have been poor. (For me, anyone who tells you putting up displays in a school is “sexy” needs sectioning). As the brilliant David Weston pointed out a while back, that “[doesn’t just mean] poor value for money or insufficiently effective – it’s much worse than that. A large swathe of training has no effect whatsoever on pupil outcomes.”  My time with the Shaolin monks has already had an impact.

Professional development wasn’t my reason for going to China. Instead, as John Kay might put it, the training happened obliquely. A while back I read about an inspirational headmaster who started every academic year with a challenge. He would, to take one example, play the bagpipes badly in front of the whole school, and then explain to the children that by the end of the year he would be better. At the end of the year he would show how far he had progressed. I loved the idea of publicly learning something with the children and so, in the spirit of all good learning, stole it. This year’s my 10-year old students challenged me to become a “tai chi kung fu master”. Like many teachers, I am time-rich so rather than struggle with evening classes during the working week, I decided to go to the source and visit a Shaolin monastery.

It took a month, I was forever bottom of the class and I spent a lot of the time either in pain or with “panda asthma” or both. I would also do it again in a shot. There are clearly physical and mental benefits but it has also made me a better teacher.

Teaching Take-Aways

None of what follows is ground-breaking. After all, the method the Shaolins use is centuries old. What was different for me, though, and what I had not experienced quite so vividly for far too long, was being on the receiving end of different teaching methods, day in, day out, as a struggling student. Being there, at “Level Zero“, even for a month, gave me the chance to view many things in the raw. However much I may try to read, watch and listen to edu-posts, from Ken Robinson’s Kool-Aid to testing and formative assessment, from how timetables feel to peer learning, I never see them from the point of view of a student.

I began to take notes, and was lucky enough to be able to chat to Amanda Gibson, an art teacher from Canada, to get her perspective on things. Broadly speaking, there were 8 lessons the experience held for teachers.

  1. Humour signals effort.
  2. A trellis is not a prison
  3. Small steps still need a direction
  4. Crispness beats pace
  5. Enough rope, then scissors
  6. Review, review, review
  7. Variations on a theme
  8. Value students’ free time

1. Humour signals effort. Remembering everything you have to learn is hard. It’s even harder when you’re physically exhausted, keen to do well, but a little embarrassed at how hard you’re finding it. That’s then makes you hyperaware of others doing bits quicker, or spotting how far ahead the senior students are and thinking about how far you have to go. All of our group worked hard. You could see the frustration on everyone’s faces when they made mistakes and the determination despite the aches and pains. We all, also, encouraged each other, with little bits of advice here and there, with congratulations and with humour.

It struck me that I will have almost certainly at times in class misjudged students’ humour and chatter as a lack of effort and focus when it was quite the opposite. That humour is not necessarily mischief.  Often it is an indicator of how hard the students were working, or if you like the panting in between flights of stairs. Humour signals effort.

2. A trellis is not a prison. Our timetable was, on the face of it, rigid: up at 5.30, cold shower, eight hours of kung fu training a day, regimented meals to be eaten in silence, all very much like a school. Similarly, within the sessions, there was always familiar routine: qi gong, warm-up runs, stretching and then training. While I didn’t always relish the prospect, that routine boosted my readiness to learn. By doing those simple things regularly and often, when the critical part of the activity came, I was properly focused on it. Equally, while there was a basic timetable, there was flexibility within that to practise and train on what best suited me. The shifus would make sure I was all right, and I was always encouraged to ask questions, essentially so they could bespoke my experience.

A large part of me loves open space events, like unconferences, Teachmeets and the like. I’m also a big believer in the value of unstructured play, of independent, self-directed learning and am easily excited by experiments in different sorts of school structures.  While I still value those, the monastic timetable has made it clear that those little classroom routines and broad structures are not a prison were a trellis to support me. If I understood it intellectually after reading Doug Lemov and others, since coming back, I have been a believer.

3. Small steps still need a direction.  Learning the various forms, from the basics to even the most advanced, was taught by chunking. Each journey, as Lao Tzu said, starts with a single step. Forms, or series of moves, were broken down in to smaller sequences to help us learn the whole. This worked, and worked well. Whether it was Tai Chi, Wu Bu Quan or Staff Form, the shifus would take us step by step through the moves. During the longer forms, though, I often wondered how close to the end we were. (A little bit like children in a car asking “Are we there yet?”). Ignorant of the form as a whole, I had no sense of progress. For the staff form, another student, Pascal, had cunningly asked the shifu to demonstrate the moves and videoed him while doing it. He shared the end result (below) and that helped me plot my progress.

As a teacher, I sympathise completely with the shifus. It is all too easy to break the challenge down in to steps for the student and to become so focused on teaching those individual steps that one assumes the student remembers or understands the end goal. This is compounded in the UK in lessons where there is a push to focus on “progress” and showing that students are moving from A to B.

The problem with that, I discovered, is student motivation. Chunked tasks work and are hugely effective, but in and of themselves they do not add any “oomph”. What Pascal showed with his video was that an understanding of how far you have come, and how far you have to go, helps you tackle the chunked tasks with a huge amount more energy. Small steps still need a direction.

4. Crispness beats pace. For three weeks, I found it frustrating learning forms. For the most part, that was because every time I felt I’d “got” one section of the form, and demonstrated it to one of the shifus, they’d tell me I had to make another little tweak to what I was doing. While I was keen to race through and learn the whole form, they were keen on making sure everything I did was as crisp as my abilities would allow.

Slow-witted character that I am, it took me three weeks to realise this was exactly what Josh Waitzkin had outlined in his Art of Learning. I’d read this book, nodded along with it, but when the time came to apply it, or as he might say to “discover the macro by diving into the micro”, I’d ignored it all. In the end, I got it and when I did everything became both less frustrating, I felt I was learning more, and I started making more connections between what I was learning. As a teacher, I have become far more focused on taking time to make sure the micro is there. Crispness beat pace by a country mile.

5. Enough rope and then scissors.  Naturally, within each group some of us were at different levels from others. One of the principles Shi Yan Jun repeated often was that we should not teach each other new things. We could help each other try to understand what we’d been taught but teaching each other new forms ended up giving the learner bad habits. It made sense, even if it sounded a little Draconian. During practice, though, especially while I was trying to learn the staff form, I often found myself asking friends like Henry, Marcel or Nick what on earth I was meant to be doing (and vice versa). What we found was that peer-learning got us some way there, but the shifu would often have a solution that made everything easier and they often timed their interventions to perfection, letting the struggle happen but not letting our frustrations debilitate us.

In my own class, I encourage sessions of peer learning. I think it’s important for students to have a go at maths problems themselves first and I think there is value in their rephrasing ideas for themselves. Similarly, there are moments where students need to work on a task on their own. While there is not always the obvious, rapid feedback of getting your kung fu limbs in a tangle with a stick, what being on the other side has really highlighted is the value of timing one’s input as a teacher, giving students enough rope but using scissors at just the right time.

6. Review, review, review.  Each shifu started the session with a recap of what had been learned in the previous session. Often, this was as simple as doing the form as far as we knew how to. The benefits were two-fold: for the shifus, it provided a very obvious “how are they each getting on” assessment. For us, as students, it also helped. It highlighted areas we didn’t know. Less obviously, perhaps, it gave us a chance to ask questions about what we had not understood.

That last bit was a Damascus moment for me. As a student, it takes time to understand what you don’t understand. As a teacher, I have probably been guilty of moving on too quickly. The simple review allows the students time to have processed what they learned (or didn’t) in the previous session. It was this focus on review at the start of the lesson that was perhaps the biggest take-away of the trip, and one that I think both Amanda and I found the most obvious, despite our different subjects. Since China, “review, review, review” is at the top of all my planning.

7. Variations on a theme.  There were four shifus who taught me and they all had different styles. If I had to characterise them broadly, there was kindness, strictness, energy and enthusiasm. Depending on how I felt I was doing, any one of those might work or not. Some students clearly preferred others, depending on levels, characteristics and approach. What did happen, though, was that the variety of styles, when combined with their unison of purpose, honed our skills. (Xie xie, shifus!)

If jury service taught me anything it was this: that you could disagree with the individual voices but agree with their collective effect. This same dynamic seems to work with teaching styles. Students will always chime with some teachers and not with others. Similarly, given the range of different styles in a staffroom, it is easy to feel “I should be more like X or Y”. But that is not standardising on the right thing (Dave Gray has some interesting things to say on this). Seeing the effect of the different characters of shifus has made me think that the variety is all to the good as long as we are variations on the same theme.

8. Value students’ free time. I was worried before I went that the other Westerners would be six-packed, testosterone heavy “alpha” types who were keen to prove their standing. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The gentle, cheerful support everyone gave each other was astonishing. And what was nurtured in time away from the monastery came back ten-fold during practice.

From a teacher’s point of view, the effect is simple. Give the students time to be together outside of lessons and that will only benefit them as they try to learn. In more jargony terms, unstructured play clearly works. In less jargony terms, let people know that you are aware that there is more to life than school, and school seems a more sensible place to spend your time.

Be rubbish and you will learn

As above, none of this is new, or even close to being groundbreaking. What worked for me, as CPD, was the perspective. Rather than sitting in a hall, or a classroom or a seminar, and rather than imagining what it was like to be a student, I went up a mountain and did something I found hard. I learned a little bit of kung fu, but I learned a lot more about how to teach and more importantly how better to empathise with my students. If you want a different type of CPD, but one that stays with you, I would recommend doing something where you are the student, where you are underconfident and where you start at Level Zero.

Last day on Lesvos

Very belated, but as promised for Anna-Karin, here is my last diary update from Lesvos. Bit odd rereading the retsina-y scrawl. Feels a lifetime away. Looking at the Calais eviction happening soon has made me think about another trip.


My last full day. New Year’s Day.

I have a headache but it feels like a routine now. Struggling with the shower with its three-foot short curtain and the water that sprays anywhere but on me, soaking the floor, having a cup of coffee in the foyer of the hotel, a boiled egg and some orange juice, and then the same conversation that I have every morning with the Greek lady at reception, she with the same hands on hips stance and the same strong waft of lavender.
“You help refugees?”
“I’m trying to.”
“You help refugees.”
“Thank you.”
It’s all in the intonation.

Today she carries on, though. She raises her eyebrows and says with her smoker’s growl
“Dance, yes.”
It’s seven o’clock in the morning and I really don’t know how to reply to this. I can feel my face creasing.
“You dance.” She’s smiling now and comes up to kiss me on the cheek.
“Now?” I can’t possibly dance with her now. “I’m afraid I have to go.”
She laughs and pushes me in the chest.
“You dance last night. Is party.”
“Ah … yes. “ Feel a little embarrassed. “I thought … yes …. we danced. Yes, yes.”
We had. When I got back to the hotel after pizza with Olly and Meredith, Asha, the pretty but depressed Arabic translator, the ambulance crew and the suave hotelier were all having festive metaxas in the hotel foyer. I stayed for a couple and we did a few stumbling rounds of syrtaki.
“Many happy New Years.”
“And to you too’.

Down the hill to the cafe – relieved – for some reason there’s always a dog turd somewhere on the corner of the hill. It’s cold in that see-your-breath way and it’s still dark at 7.30am. As per usual I’m a little early. Another coffee at the cafe with the old barista with a voice like a bust Vespa, and then the others arrive. They’ve explained several times now where they’re staying but it still doesn’t quite make sense to me. Somewhere a few blocks from the harbour in the cobbled lanes. Linda is looking a lot better for her early night. Smiling, less exhausted – all that furious energy is back. Meredith is coughing, sniffling and stoic . And then Olly turns up with the car, tired, cheerful, chatty and mortified as always for staying in a nice hotel. I love these three people.

We drive along the seafront, past those colourfully blanketed sleeping families by the port and then on past the castle to Moria. We slow the car to say hello briefly to a group walking along the road that Olly has recognised. Doctors, including lovely Anna, all walking back home after being up all night helping in the camp over New Year’s. It seems miles and I can’t understand how they are they still walking after an all-nighter helping out. Anyway, they wave us off smiling and we say sleep well. The Swedish medics make me feel a little like an Oompa Loompa . I’d probably resent them for it if they weren’t real-life superheroes.

We arrive, pick our way through the olive grove to the spare clothes tent and say hello to the night shift. They look dead on their feet. 5 boats came in at 2am, freezing cold conditions, then another couple in at 4.30am. Lots of women and children. The dry clothes tent is almost empty. Everyone’s quiet at the handover. One of the blonde twins with from the Midlands has been crying – her eye shadow’s run. Normally she makes a deadpan joke and winks but she just walks off today. Exhausted and upset.

“Happy New Year”

Everything seems tired in the camp today. Washed-out blue, bitterly cold and empty. We help unpack clothes, fold up and label shoes, readying for the next rush. Everyone’s talking about how grim last night must have been. Everyone’s saying how important it is we stock up as much as we can. The tent crew work well together I think. We busy about things – I’ve stopped judging the clothes. They’re just sizes. Size 42 shoes. Medium Trousers. Children’s socks. Olly has to go – deliveries to run to the north of the island – but says he’ll be back. It feels like it’s going to be busy. I start fidgeting and checking the Slack reports – numbers are big. People start talking about how calm the seas are and how that means there’ll be a big load coming over. We wait, readying for the rush.




“Is there anything you want me to do?” “How can I help?”

Norwegian teacher Arne and I start crunching cardboard boxes together. They hold the donations and we then reuse them to give to the refugees – the cardboard acts as good base bedding. Arne’s likeable, easy company – we compare professional notes. His travelling companion Siri, also a teacher, wanders past every now and then joking with him about how little he’s doing. They’ve both got colds. Again can’t help thinking how much I like the characters Moria seems to have attracted.

In comes a boat. 60 odd. Slow. Where do we go. Grey blankets, silver-gold survival foil, shivering. Funny what a week does. I feel pretty comfortable telling people to come forwards if wet, tell those looking for spare shoes to trade to leave, bossing them into single file. Maybe it’s the ridiculously big high-viz jacket I’ve got. Miming at them, smiling. Some of them are even beginning to mimic my continually asking them to line up single-file. “Wunn by wunn, Wunn by wunn” they say to me, imitating me with a laugh, as if it’s going to get them a special pass to the front.

All too soon nothing again. Which is good, I suppose. A couple of children come up to the empty line and ask where I’m from. Deutschland? No. We sit down together and make a sign out of a cardboard box. It says: Tent shut for restocking. Come back in 2 hours. One of the young boys, he looks about ten, gets his father help translate and the young boy writes onto the cardboard the same in Farsi. Both children then runs off and in a moment come back with another child, a slightly older girl who translates it into Arabic. Our American translator, Gentle Jim (I still don’t know what he’s called), looks at it and nods his approval. The children dig into their pockets and then start to add stickers to the sign. I’m not sure where they found them but they become for a moment graphic designers, deciding where that star should go and where that unicorn should best be placed to give the sign maximum impact (they end up deciding to save it). Then they sit there at the start of the line proudly explaining the sign to all-comers.


I wander over to the chai tent and wish I hadn’t. Over a cup of hot sweet tea I hear about a 6 month year old child who froze to death about 10 metres away from where the dry clothes tent is. They had a funeral but only the mother had been able to make it. The father had been off around the camp trying desperately trying to find blankets for the rest of his family. They also tell me of a woman who gave birth on the boat coming over. I say goodbye and go back to find the children and the sign but the children have, understandably, sloped off.

The day drags. Bleak.

Dinner is planned at Scala. Olly, Linda and I make the 45-minute drive up to meet Melie and Kathy at about 7. We’re shown a tour of the mini-camp and it seems a world away from Moria. Dr Montana Katie is there, smiling as always, tents have names, there’s a smart bonfire dining area, a petting lamb for children – it’s like a first class refugee camp. I can’t quite believe it. We look at the dry clothes tent and Olly, Linda and I raise eyebrows at each other. A couple of enormous Swedes (cooler than Danes in every way) wander past with drills – they’re upgrading the lighting. We chat and seem to have lost Linda and then a boat comes in. Olly and I try to get out the way, letting those on duty do their thing. There’s one French girl – eighteen or so – in the dry clothes tent. We ask if she’s ok but she says she’s never done it before. We start to help and she leaves and so Olly and I are handing out socks, trousers, pants and shoes. It’s different here. We work for two hours or so, the same hectic non-stop what do you need, socks, who’s got size 42, where are the trousers, not him, he needs to come forward, women and children that way, take your families that way first frenetic activity but there is less of a crush, more hope in their faces. . Still not quite sure who should have been doing it instead of us. Dry clothes done we help one of the tall Swedes (so much cooler than Danes), a nightclub owner when back home while we wait for the others. We shove sea-sodden clothes into black bin bags to be washed and reused. Linda, no surprise, has thrown herself into helping out in the women’s and children’s tent.

Olly and I have one of those embarrassing conversations while he’s smoking a roll-up.
“Are you cold?”
“Me too.”
“I’m not dressed for this. I thought we were just going for supper.”
“Me neither.”
“Feel a bit pathetic saying so.”
“Me too.”
Then a young 21-year old refugee who we’ve just dressed and who is still shivering from the crossing comes over, he makes a special effort to say to us, apologising for his English, that
“This place is beautiful. Thank you” and bows.
We shake hands and smile and wish him luck. Then Melie and Linda turn up. They’ll come to supper but Katie might be a little later as there’s a 2 year old who’s being checked for pneumonia. As we’re walking to the taverna, Olly and I agree sheepishly that our conversation never happened.

Warmth, buzz, chat, usual Greek menu. One guy in cowboy boots waiting outside smoking Marlboro reds makes it a little surreal. This is “the best” food on the island, apparently. I always cringe when I hear that. My ordering a bottle of Malamatina for people was a mistake: no-one likes retsina. In children’s book terms, “Melie tries it. Melie thinks it’s a cruel joke. Kathy tries it. Kathy is a diplomat.” Katie Montana is grinning about calamari – “they’re kind of rare in Montana” – and she orders seconds of them. Everything smells of olive oil.Then in come the Spanish lifeguards in their trademark bright orange. Laughing, smoking and oozing cool – they have a regular table. These are the men and women that dive in to save lives. It’s hard not to stare; Melie starts twinkling and taking selfies of herself with the lifeguards in the background. There is some brief conversation about what a shame it is that there isn’t a proper hairdryer and how bedraggled people feel but for the most part people are on their phones, checking back with families. Kathy and I share a moment of old-fashioned disappproving raised eyebrows when we are the only two on a table of ten who are not texting. It is wholly unfair, people are away from families and are working full-steam during the day.

Olly taxis Linda and me back to Mytilene. Linda nods off in the back while Olly and I chat away like old friends. It seems a long time since our first drive up the island and our special emergency delivery of flip flops. London feels a world away. I’d thought I might wander round Mytilene tomorrow morning before I fly but I’ve realised I’ll be going to Moria. I couldn’t not. A part of that is down to the little I’ve seen. But a large part too is because Olly, Linda, Meredith, Anna, Arne, Siri, Melie, Kathy, Wade, Katie, Mysterious I and all the many others I’ve worked with are genuinely inspirational.

This island is full of good people and good people, I’ve realised, make you better.

Superman Pants

My diary entry from my first day in the Moria Clothes Tent, Lesvos.


Today was superman pants.

They just arrived. The women and children queuing on one side the men on the other, startled, slow, shivering and in shock. I really wasn’t ready for it. The questions, Farsi, Arabic, the same questions again and again, some missing a shoe, many sopping sea-wet from the raft, wrapped in blankets and beach-given silver-gold survival foil, all ages, the babies with ice cold hands, the young studs, the mothers and the fathers and the toothless three score and ten, some grieving friends and family just lost, some texting their safe arrival, I couldn’t stop gawping, some signing again and again and again, for shoes, for socks, for hats, for cache-cache(scarves), for trousers, for “where next?”, for the doctor, the “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”s, the volunteers rushing past and my not remembering where soap was, or where toothpaste was, not knowing if we give out blankets, the “not him, his shoes will dry” advice, the “we don’t have enough size 42”s, the “gloves, are we out of gloves?”, the trying to understand why NGO’s hands were tied and it’s complicated and there are legal issues of course but are all these donations from independent people?, BARK – stepped on the dog – the texts, cold thumbed and slow on Greek phone to O “forgot to bring lunch”, J in charge, orderly, competent and patient, my bothering poor L “where’s this? where’s that?”, patting down shins and socks to see how wet, “remember to use hand sanitiser”, “Where’s Patrick? Have you called him?”, brought man in queue with in bare feet shivering uncontrollably to front of queue, “Patrick hates everyone” “But he’s in charge of the warehouse”, an 11-year old Brit kid calmly walking past and helping a stranger, J and “need you to manage the queue”, my wholly ineffectual please don’t push said in terribly polite tones, the please please slow down, please don’t all go at once!, “you can’t let them bunch like that”, one at a time, one at a time, one at a time, N coming to rescue, helping with queue, laughing and cheering and miming and dancing and making them smile, “don’t let too many through”, the long-stayers trying their luck – get rid of him please, patting trousers and shoes, “there’s scabies of course”, (what exactly is scabies?), bringing children forward as priority, I from Japan quiet and kind, the queue still growing, grey blankets, dark eyes just staring, curious, “tell them we have no more shoes”, socks inside survival-foil, check who has shoes in the queue, know that now, M noticing hadn’t had break and bringing out some water, “one at a time please”, “take them, it’s all we’ve got”, queue slowing down, 5 hours gone by, translator explaining “it’s not a shop”, “take the shoes”, “it’ not a shop”, “take the shoes”, what do they need after Athens?, “they’re the only shoes we have”, make sure only the desperate get them, we don’t have enough to go round, you can’t help everyone, taking old woman and her son to medical tent next door, on and on and on.

For 6 hours it was non-stop. And then it slowed. At about 2pm, finally, it started to slow. I tried to help an old man find some clothes. He was white-haired, polite, dignified and wet to the bone . He would have been waiting for 3 hours, quietly, and without complaint. We had no shoes in his size. I tried to show him how he could put dry socks inside the flimsy-feeling survival foil to keep his feet warm while his shoes dried out. I wished I knew what the Arabic for sorry was. He pointed to his trousers. The only pair that were close to fitting were too big, grey pinstripe and thin. We did not have a belt. I found him a hat, a big wooly pom-pom hat and then he asked me for pants. All I could find were superman pants. Bright royal blue with a big bold red and yellow S across the crotch. That was all that was left.

Superman pants. I handed them to the white-haired, polite, dignified and wet to the bone old man and he smiled, put his hand over his heart with a little bow and went off to the changing tent.. Felt mortified.


Reading If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson back in the hotel.
Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 18.51.04



Their heart grew cold,
they let their wings down …

That’s possibly the most striking thing about today. Nobody let their wings down. Despite all the chaos, the shivering, the uncertainty, and the fear, there is this wonderful warmth.

There is warmth among the refugees. They are astonishing: courageous, patient, grateful and ever-ready to smile, regardless of these ridiculous conditions.

There is warmth among the volunteers. They’re equally special in their own way. They’re from all over, Japan, US, Canada, Switzerland, Jersey, London, Norway and with no clear expertise (other than the doctors). They don’t really know each other, but they all just muck in, helping where they can, encouraging and coaxing and, well, being loving.

And there is warmth between refugees and volunteers. It is a lovely thing to see complete strangers hugging.

Nobody’s heart grew cold.
Nobody let their wings down.
And as far as I’m concerned, they all deserve superman pants.

Trying to help

Had a bit of a rush of blood to the head.

Am off to Lesvos after Christmas to help out with the refugees for a week. Tickets and hotel booked.

I’m not actually doing it to raise money. I’m paying for it myself and to be honest, I may well end up staying in my hotel bedroom trying to get the wifi to work and pretend things aren’t as grim as they are outside – but if you like the work the real aid-workers do, I’m sure they’d appreciate your support.

MIST – Educational Videos for Maths and Science

Outside the day job, I’ve been working away trying to repurpose an old project called MIST (Mentored Investigations into Science and Technology) and is essentially a set of videos and lesson ideas for maths and science at the primary level. I’ve also put up a number of “cheat sheets” for those teaching science over on TES.

Version one of the site is now live, and it’d be great to get any comments or suggestions for improvement.

An Open Letter From One Patient To Another

[A friend asked me for advice for her brother, who’d been recently diagnosed. So I opened a bottle of wine.]

Dear W,

I’m so sorry to hear the news – good luck with the operation. A has asked me to write to you with some advice. I’m not a big fan of giving advice, I’m afraid – I dread it actually – but I remember feeling lost, pretty much from diagnosis onwards and nothing I found online seemed very genuine. There was lots of talk about little things, like courage or religion, but not very much about the big things, like chatting to family or what it actually felt like. The below is an effort to at least give a badly drawn map as per Holub’s poem. It may not be a route to anywhere sensible but it is, at least, a route that has been taken.
Continue reading An Open Letter From One Patient To Another


Really enjoyed Doubt. This parable definitely going to be reused with students.

“A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew— I know none of you have ever done this—that night she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession.

She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. “Is gossiping a sin?” she asked the old man. “Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing a finger at me? Should I be asking your absolution? Father, tell me, have I done something wrong?”

“Yes!” Father O’Rourke answered her. “Yes, you ignorant, badly brought-up female! You have borne false witness against your neighbor, you have played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed!”

So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness. “Not so fast!” says O’Rourke. “I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me!”

So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to the roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. “Did you gut the pillow with the knife?” he says.”Yes, Father.” “And what was the result?” “Feathers,” she said. A world of feathers.

“Feathers?” he repeated. “Feathers everywhere, Father!”

“Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind!”

“Well,” she said, “it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.”

”And that,” said Father O’Rourke,“is gossip!”