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Riding home

If ever a chance presents itself, I must have said on dozens of occasions, I’d like to ride to or from Ilkley. This small town is the home of my in-laws and the usual terminal point for journeys on the northbound highways of England. It’s also 230 miles from home which is really quite a long way.  

Following through on that vague notion and doing this ride had never really felt like a realistic prospect, which is partly why I’d allowed my brain to wander off and construct entirely unrealistic giant cycles along this theme without any rest breaks – the whole thing in one go, or even a London-Ilkley-London over three days, or some other flight of fancy when far from a bike saddle. It was something to always be talked out of, or in the decade-plus of raising our young children, to have something far better to do than actually do

Then 2020 happened, and COVID led to lockdown and an immense change in my own circumstances, and that rarest of windows to do something as ridiculous as this opened up. This time when I vocalised the wish we both realised there was no reason not to. So one July day we fled north, keen to wake up somewhere else after months in one place, this time with bike symbolically shoved at the back of the car. It emerged for a brief and triumphant ride from a farm in Northumberland we were staying on to Holy Island, a ride to be written about more elsewhere. And then again, on a chilly morning, from an ancient cottage in a village high in Wharfedale.  From there the bike and I rode home. 

I’ve done long rides before. Ten days of titanic, rarely wind-assisted efforts in Botswana and Namibia. Long days in the saddle around the Home Counties, proving I don’t know what to I’m not sure who. Various rides around Ilkley, some organised, most not, and most recently the brutally beautiful Fred Whitton Challenge in the Lake District, 115 miles of cramp-filled delight.  

I’m not sure looking back at this how it stacked up to those. I never meant it to, this was partly about taking an opportunity, partly a plan I came up with during the depths of lockdown to reconnect with as much of England as I could and partly giving the voice of no reason in my head – a constant, loud and demanding one – a chance to let off some steam. Take the reins old boy, let’s ride for days on end and see who wins. In the end we called it a draw. 

The first, 6am stage of the ride was over very familiar territory. The back side of Wharfedale, Otley and a climb over Harewood. Then into the unknown of pretty yorkstone-built Leeds commuter villages, the gloriously daft and enormous maypole at Barwick-in-Elmet and a tunnel under the A1. A giant climb looming unexpectedly out of one West Yorkshire village into another. From here the route threaded south and east, occasionally bumping disconcertingly onto bridleways that I eventually learned to anticipate and intercept, over the M62, along quiet lanes and then through a web of railway lines, the River Don and canals.  

My only pitstop that day was Imogen’s uncle’s house in Retford, where I ate an entire plate of Jaffa Cakes and had two cups of tea in fifteen minutes before getting going again. I nosed east along to the toll bridge over the Trent at Newton and had possibly for the only time in my life a genuine thrill at crossing the border from South Yorkshire into Lincolnshire. Possibly not, too. This happened again on entering Nottinghamshire, and each successive county. At one point I recall crossing back in to Lincolnshire, which is interesting given that my main thought as I crossed the county was that its roads were so quiet as to make me question whether it even existed at all.  

As with all long day rides, eventually the milestones arrive, just further down the road than you’d like them to. First a metric century, then an imperial one, and still quite a long way from the night’s stop at Little Bytham. My head was starting to loll in the familiar action of one who is running on empty. I made the last few miles by a combination of listening to music and dreaming of not cycling for a while. Then late in the day I arrived, ate the biggest plate of food I felt I could get away with, drank a beer in the pub garden and then went upstairs and fell fast asleep. The Mallard broke the rail speed record close to here. I broke no speed records. 

On the morning of day two the first thing I noticed was that I was red and sore and lacking suncream. The forecast was hot and this made me somewhat anxious, so I set out as early as I felt I could in search of supplies, – thanks to the benevolence of the pub landlord who cooked me breakfast while expressing bafflement at what I was doing. Exchanges like that, I am convinced, are rocket fuel for long-distance sportspeople. The less others see the point, the more determined I got.  

After a dalliance on the west side of what was now a route largely tracking the old Great North Road I stocked up, and then moved south of another psychological barrier, that of Peterborough – usually the first stop on the East Coast wallopers out of King’s Cross. Perhaps this allowed me to convince myself I was closer to home than I was, as the next section was arguably the toughest mentally of the whole ride. A largely unbroken straight line south to Royston via Huntingdon, with the A1 at my side, mile upon mile of not being as far along as I thought I was. Fatigue was making me feel bored, and while lovely villages like Uffington and Barnack had been thrilling discoveries at first, I was ready to be closer to home and on roads I knew well. Then again, arriving in Royston felt like a big achievement. It is not often you can say that. Royston reflections: it was old and pretty, there was nowhere convenient to buy a coke and the loo was closed and bolted. 

The final section of the ride was over roads I cover frequently – picking up the route home from Cambridge over the Old-Old Cambridge Road, and then the roads that pick their way over the slopes of northern Hertfordshire taken when riding to friends’ holiday dacha in Essex. With 200 miles in my legs the hills were heavy going and I was losing the battle against my planned average speed, if only by a few minutes an hour. I resolved not to care much about that nor that I was able to see that Imogen and the kids had driven the entire route in little more than half a day including a lunch stop and had now overtaken me to arrive home. I wasn’t far behind, and puffed along from Potters Bar to Barnet. It felt slightly unreal to be passing London Transport bus stops, and then a tube, and through the fog I started to consider that I had completed the ride, and was cycling down our street where I get filmed arriving. Winnie asked if I missed her soft toys.  

And that was that. I shan’t be doing it again, I don’t think. But goodness me, what a ride. 

The start of September

At summer’s end.

Just once this year things as they should be.

English swimming in a time of unease

It took an hour to drive to Granchester. The familiar roads leading to kids football venues gave way gradually to flatter and more rural Cambridgeshire, only just in the countryside before reaching the quiet village itself, just a bump of thatched roofs leading to the meadows and the River Cam. The place reminds me of Jeffrey Archer though it understandably celebrates its associations with Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf and Lord Byron more vigourously. Still, we didn’t linger beyond noting that we liked it. 

Grantchester on a sometimes sunny Saturday morning also brought a reconnection with the English countryside after the troubles of the past few weeks, lockdown, lockdown and more lockdown. The water is why we came, arriving exiles from the healing depths of the Fleet ponds. The Corporation of London were, and are in no hurry to liberate us cockney swimmers back to our own water, so we’ve become nomads roaming the land as far as we dare with dense, vague government guidelines and children along for the ride. 

So here was a cricket green, open fields, a church spire and at this hour just us interlopers doing our best to look innocuous stripping off by the water’s edge. Imogen, born in these parts, couldn’t get in quickly enough. I took a few seconds, letting my feet sink into to muddy bank and pondering getting emotional. I wish I really had. Then comes the wonderful familiarity of being submerged in cold water. It only took a second and I felt like a mer-man, even if I don’t look like one. The Cam doesn’t look like much but it has a current and is deeper than me and I seemed to disappear round a bend quite fast which was a bit of a jarring thrill.  

After a few minutes we were out and after flask coffee mooched along the bank, keeping distance from others until we reach the pleasant terraced streets of Newnham. This would be a nice place to live, I thought, as it turns out everybody else who has ever walked past thinks as well. I have yet to think better of the idea.

On our way back we saw three elderly women having their constitutional swim quite naked. They retreat back round a secluded bend – the ladies stretch, clearly. Before rounds of cheese and pickle sandwiches I couldn’t resist another swim, slightly longer this time and just as blissful. Winnie told me I cannot do backstroke in a river. ‘Says who?’ I replied. I felt free. On the way back to the car we threw a ball around a bit, enjoying simple things together. It was nice to feel cold like that and then warm up.  

During the following week a dam broke. Not the pond. We have to wait. But the Serpentine opened if you join the club. So I joined, as did Imogen and Marcie. After an early start it felt like a long way down there and the rewards were so-so – goose-poo and tepid water, but there was the reassuringly pondish hubbub of conversation and it was the next best thing, I tell myself. It felt both too easy a solution to the ‘pond problem’ and too hard in a world turned upside-down. It can’t last, and it doesn’t. As soon as that started it stopped, overwhelmed by swimming desperadoes like me. That was ok while it lasted. 

Better water awaited on Bank Holiday Monday in Oxford. Leaving early again – sorry offspring, again – we drove to Jericho, walk along Port Meadow and swim some widths of the Thames. This is the real thing – kids in as well, gentle current, rowers steaming by and falling in with comic regularity. An egret prodded along the foreshore opposite, a deer made a splash and a swim for it before sprinting off towards the railway tracks, like a very English and crocodile-free version of the Mara River. A walk, a picnic, another swim, the bright and endless early summer sun steaming down.  

The Men’s Pond people sent an email hinting at some version of reopening. I was scared for them and the pond in high summer. We would be better with cooling water and lessening ardour for a refreshing dip. Leave it to us nutters.* 

There’s somewhere else, too, which I’ll tell you about if you ask me very nicely that’s not far from north London’s outer suburbs and where the water is deep and cold even after a rainless Spring, where the current offers the perfect endless pool. Maybe you need to be there at 6.30 to have it all to yourself. 

*This post isn’t about the palaver of getting the ponds back open again. To be honest I think I’d better let the trauma pass a little before going back over that one. Suffice to say you can now swim in Highgate Ponds again, with a little planning and a little paying, neither of which are that painful unless you think they are really quite agonising, in which case they are. Whatever floats your, umm.

Midsummer

Midsummer in a year like no other. In the still and silence of the early morning I sunk into the river, the sweet stream that packs a punch that has come to symbolise this time of exile from most things that are familiar and normal. We found this place, or maybe it found us, half an hour from home and every inch the secret river. So much has gone, snatched away in what feels like seconds. Quietly we’ve made this place something new, somewhere we’d never have otherwise come.

It’s deserted by the ancient-sainted church, which looks Norman, and is. Round the corner a path leads to a small gateway onto common land which slopes down to the river plain. I’ve always been here alone but the place is filled with spirits. As it seems to be every week the cloud was high and layered, a little misty but pointing the way down to the water’s edge, and an easy put in. There’s not much else easy about the swim here. The current is stronger than it looks, giving a good workout up to a willow tree and a sunken branch that’s good to aim for, and then a float back down.

There’s a family of coots here, a few ducks and the odd jogger or morning dog walker, but mostly just me, no locked doors, no lifeguards, a different sense of being an outsider.

Go on, you say it, because I’ve thought it, I like it better.

There’s a bridge to swim down to and then after this week’s rain a bit of a fight to get back upstream. And then a clamber out and a few shivers, even after all the heat. I walked back to the car turning full revolutions, the village away to the east, the row of handsome poplars further upstream, woods at one o’clock. 

The journey back passed gabled houses and medieval stonework in the town centre, and then off, home again, Tony Blackburn’s bad jokes for company. Coming here points to the past and to the future and new things.

The solstice tilts the year forwards and downhill, to a summer to speed through and an uncertain autumn, with the chill of winter far away and absent from mind. So much of this river is unknown, too, where it comes from, where its springs and rills turn into the intentional stream that bends round the corner and under the bridge.

A worry: what happens when eventually it can’t carry on being perfect every week? But it doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be here. I’ll take what I can get. There’s no dancing with friends under late-night blue sky this midsummer, with sunbeams making things the sweetest dark yellow, but there’s cold swimming and comfort in the river, and the clouds, and the morning.

Thessaloniki

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Sunset over the Thermaic Gulf

There are direct routes to Thessaloniki. Greece’s second city is enjoying a boom off the back of its strategic position at the waterfront of south-eastern Europe and low-cost flights made their way here some time ago. But for a more thoughtful approach take the train from Athens’ Larissa station.

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IC52 from Athens to Thessaloniki

Four (?) daily inter-city services mooch out of the Athenian suburbs across the Attican hinterland. Quickly into the mountains that dot the Greek mainland the mythically-minded traveller will pass Parnassus, the home of the Muses swiftly followed by Thermopylae, where a Greek fighting force famously held out against Persian invaders until betrayed. Later – perhaps after a visit to the buffet car, from the other side of the train Mounts Pelion, piled on Ossa can be seen. Before the final approach to Thessaloniki begins, mighty Mount Olympus itself, the home of the Gods, looms into view. Its jagged peaks look a daunting prospect from here – no wonder Apollo and co chose this as their resting place.

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Mount Olympus

Its the crucial location of Thessaloniki, Salonika to the Ottomans and Illyricum to the Roman and Greek predecessors, that has made it such an important place. Look to the north and there’s Macedonia – freshly dubbed North Macedonia to resolve the decades-old naming dispute – Bulgaria and the rump of Europe stretching away. To the east, the old Empires that the city was once part of, now modern-day Turkey. And then the sea – the Thermaic Gulf, pierced by three peninsulas to the north of Thessaloniki. Empires rise and fall, but like Constantinople to the east this has been a much-coveted bounty.

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Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki

So here it is today – let’s say you’re coming off the train and are boggle-eyed for Byzantium. Good news: it’s all around you. Linger a while at the Roman agora – lest we forget the Byzantine Empire saw itself as being ‘Romanos’ – not just the inheritors of the Caesars, but the Roman Empire itself. Further south, when Constantine XI led his soldiers in the final, fatal battle on the walls of Constantinople he rallied his troops as ‘the descendants of Greeks and Romans’ The city fell, but in the hearts of its defenders it was Rome that fell that day with Constantinople.

Thessaloniki had changed hands fifty years previously, first to the Venetian Republic and then to the Ottomans. Centuries later, in a modest house, the city’s most famous son of the Ottoman era, Kemal Ataturk was born in 1881. The Young Turk movement was headquartered in the city. His home, within the walls of the Turkish Consulate hides a rarely seen item behind the hefty metal door: a flag of the Republic of Turkey.

Time is of the essence for a breathless whizz round the many fresco and mosaic-dotted orthodox churches to be found within the old city walls.

Yes, you’ll find yourself walking along busy streets – even the waterfront road looking out to Olympus has the familiar urban Greek cacophony of traffic. This is a living and fast-growing city with an youthful energy alongside millennia of the past. So from the Arch of Galerius, a satisfying Roman sight, you can gaze up to the Byzantine towers at the heights of the city, studded by grafitti-covered walls. Don’t go up there yet, however. Instead, one of the wonders of the Mediterranean awaits at the Rotunda.

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Rotunda

Built as a Roman place of worship and comparable in shape to the Rome’s Pantheon, it spent centuries as the city’s cathedral and still has the mosaics to show for it. On the morning I visited, just walking in was enough to be dazzled. The sunlight pierced the upper windows and greeted the pilgrim and slowly revealed the recreations of Ephesus, Petra, Rome and Pompeii, and the completely lovely birds and fruit on offer to those who reach the Elysian Fields. Its centuries as a mosque have also left a strong mark. I liked it so much that having walked in and around I exited and then entered again.

A familiar name to Byzantine buffs, the Church of Hagia Sophia, is the logical place to start. Unlike its namesake in Istanbul it remains a place of worship. The city’s patron saint, St Demetrious, has his own vast and ancient basilica, complete with a crypt with a satisfyingly low ceiling. But the true delight of Thessaloniki is nosing round the history that lurks round so many corners. High in the Upper Town, the Ossio Monastery hides in a tangle of tiny lanes and Ottoman-era wooden houses.Waiting inside its tiny interior is a series of frescoes you’ll probably have more or less to yourself. It’s not like the rest of the city is a case study for overtourism: on the sunny January day I was there I saw very few other tourists. My only company in most stops I made were surprised-looking guards taking in the sunshine.

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Candles in St Demetrious

Orthodoxy is not the only faith that has played a part in the city’s story. In 1613 over two-thirds of the population were Jewish, and several notable synagogues can be found here. The Monastir Synangogue and adjacent Jewish Museum not only tells the story of the Jews arrival here, but also their tragic extermination at the hands of Nazi occupiers in WW2. Today the Jewish population is less than 2000.

Religion is also what draws in large numbers of Russian pilgrims and tourists. Signage in many tourist attractions here is in Greek, English and Russian. Many are heading – hard-to-get permits in hand – for the monasteries of the Athos Peninsula, which for over 1000 years has been a cloistered place shut off from the outside world. Anyone can glimpse these places from the water, but only men may enter. The Athos Peninsula is the only place in the EU where Freedom of Movement is restricted to ensure the gender division remains intact.

As you would expect from such a crucial Ottoman city there are also remnants of mosques and hammams too. The most striking is the Yeni Mosque, now used as an exhibition space. The changes Thessaloniki has been through are striking. Not for the first time, the post-independence population movements that utterly transformed Greece and Asia Minor came to mind. Today 140,000 muslims live in Greece, a mixture of Albanian immigrants and Turks.

If you still have breath, take (possibly another) evening hike up to the city walls. The views across the sea and beyond are sublime at any time but this is when locals come and a very pleasant hubbub descends.

It may seem odd for this city of fortress walls and golden mosaics to have a hip scene, but it does. Co-working spaces, boutique hotels (try the Blue Bottle for an affordable and enjoyable stay) and coffee shops showcase the modern city. There is an emerging food scene in the Ladadakia area, colonising abandoned buildings and setting loose creative relish. But it is the history that left the big impression on me. OK, along with the grilled octopus and ‘Byzantine beetroot salad’  – served with cream and apple, since you ask.

The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Come

One happy recent Saturday night I did something I have done every once in a while for around a quarter of a century. With its piano intro dancing round my head I put on Strangeways, Here We Come and tried to work it out.

As ever, the last album from The Smiths played the same game again. The first side sounded packed with high points. What I later came to know to be both both singles and that remarkable first song, managing to be about Irish nationalism and late-nightmares. For me it is synonymous with light bouncing round the cabins of European night trains in the 1990s. Then side two, which tails off to a crescendo of is-that-it and where-did-that-go, still remarkable and puzzling.

Strangeways was the first Smiths album I heard. It was one of those miraculous happenings of a school friend passing on a knock-off tape. I don’t recall first listening to it, but can still feel it in the pocket of my school blazer like a package of secret intelligence. What a chain reaction from there.

Strangeways misses the boat in the head-down drive to put the Smiths in their rightful place – a trickier minefield than ever as more time passes from gladioli waving teenage icon Morrissey to today’s version. Neither are found on this album. There’s none of the bluntness of the lyrics from Meat is Murder, where teachers are violent and animals die horrible deaths. The confidence of the The Queen is Dead, with fantastical characters and romantic love stories is replaced by a vaguely-expressed stridency, the drive coming from Marr’s fabulous songs and in places a more experimental direction. When Morrissey does go on the attack he heads straight for the music industry in Paint a Vulgar Picture, and then for an unnamed friend who is walking away from him. He knows it and sounds proud and haughty: if someone feels the need to say they won’t share then the other’s gaze has turned elsewhere.

This album is often painted as a what if: what if The Smiths had somehow found a way through the morass of issues that derailed them and made more albums? Did they lack the killer instinct to become U2 or Depeche Mode, to emerge from the 1980s as a hit machine, Morrissey being too divisive and contrarian to set the controls for the heart of the sun? Then again, with a little give, hints could have become something else. Marr’s on-stage guitar heroism with The Pretenders after the Smiths split, and Morrissey instead of Neil Tennant and Bernard Sumner on Electronic could have created something as unique as anything The Smiths did before. Or perhaps the whole thing fades away like other guitar groups of the 80s as other styles take hold.

Strangeways does nothing to answer these unanswerables. I long ago lost the ability to critically evaluate it. On it goes, every now and again for more than half my life, what a mysterious and wonderful thing Strangeways is to treasure.

The time before dawn

Saturday, 6.45am, Parliament Hill Fields

In Budapest

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Back to the beautiful city on the Danube. Trams rattle over bridges and there are endless grand boulevards to pace up and down.

 

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Sent to me from heaven – St Hedwig by the Danube

 

Of the notable baths of Budapest you might have missed Kiraly. It’s not Széchenyi with its old men playing chess in vast steaming outdoor pools behind fine art nouveau towers. Nor Gellert, the textbook Central European indoor bath. Kiraly is older and more mysterious. From what I could tell its roots go back to the 16th century, when Ottoman rule swept in new influences like, well, bathing. It may be that baths like that date back further, to ancient Constantinople – the shape of the Kiraly baths brings to mind  Byzantine churches.

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The Kiraly furdo looks by some distance to be the oldest building around it at the foot of the hilly core of old Buda. Imagining the Danube in its pre-embanked state flowing through Budapest it would have been closer to the shoreline. The entrance and changing area are modern, with the slightly bewildering list of prices and options found at all of Budapest’s baths giving rise to mild panic, amplified by the oddness of being in something like a bathhouse, with pretty much no idea what you’re doing.

Anyway, in I went and after handing over several payments for a few different things (a cabin, a locker and a towel), one of which I did not have any need for, I found myself climbing the stairs to the changing area. The baths are very clean and very well set up, with electronic tags to close and lock the door of the cabin. There is therefore no need for a locker. There is, you filthy Anglo-Saxon, a need to wash thoroughly before entering the pools and steam rooms. Having done so, I made my way through each one in probably the wrong order.

The main pool appeared to be a social space, with couples old and young, groups of girls and lone males sticking to edges, only occasionally breaking out into the middle space. I like seeking the cooler pot for a spot of invigoration before returning to the warmth. Eventually I found my way into the steamiest of the steam rooms, with a thick fug of hot damp air covering everything including those breathing deeply inside. It was set in one of the pointed corners of the baths main building. Above it were thick glass tiles letting in the afternoon light, playing games with the steam and the darkness. I sat back and thought of the Ottoman Empire, of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short stay in Buda, and then wondered if I’d sat in there long enough to feel like I had done the whole bath thing. Concluding I had, I left and continued to stomp around the city until it was time to catch that evening’s sleeper train to Munich.

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The house in old Buda where Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed in while walking to Constantinople

 

At Keleti Station, with its statues of James Watt and George Stephenson, the night train to Bucharest was just leaving. Shortly after a train to Kiev headed out, then another to Prague. This parade of mighty journeys was soon joined by ours, named after Hungarian composer Imre Kalman, heading first to Vienna, then splitting in Salzburg with one half bound for Zurich and the other for Munich. Each one left 20 minutes late.

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Mighty Keleti Palvaudvar

 

As ever when sharing a couchette with strangers there was no doubting the blind was going straight down and the heat straight up. No-one, for reasons I don’t understand, ever wants to look out the window of a night train. I twiddled the heat down and didn’t argue on the latter. It had been a long and cold day and I was very tired, so with earplugs was not troubled by the man and the woman below me who for complete strangers seemed to get on very well. How well exactly I am not sure, but they were still jabbering away at 4am when we pulled out of Salzburg. Plenty of additional passengers had boarded at Vienna, now the hub of Europe’s sleeper network.

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Night train to Munich

 

The whole slightly ramshackle night train thing suits being moved deeper into Europe. But people still believe. We trundled back west through the night across rivers and through cities I’d rather have stopped at but will settle for having passed for now.

 

No autumn, winter

Autumn has been harried away by the rain and gusts of fast-arriving winter. After the chills of earlier this week, best enjoyed on a wonderfully blowy Wednesday on the Heath, Saturday is milder, wetter and earlier.

Parking up it’s still very dark indeed, the only lights the bright lamps on the changing compound. In the still night there’s no signs of life, no heron, no kingfisher, no Egyptian geese. Soon there’s no other humans in the water either, just me trundling round. As I get out after a final dive a man walks out along he jetty, bids me good morning and laughs a slightly mad laugh, jumping straight in to the 6c water. It is still dark as I drive home. This is the time of magic on the Heath and in the water, early before dawn.

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Black Moss Pot

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