Mount Kochylas and the south of the island

Between the reedy bays of Kalamisa (south) and Achi­lli (north) stretches a thin band of alluvial land, probably once submerged, which effectively divides the island in two. Its east side is fed by numerous springs which rise under the steep, western slopes of Mount Kochylas (792m)—the springs of Sli­nas, Flea and Loutro, the last with a rather poor-tasting water. From here the road hugs the west shore of the Kochylas massif and after the church of the Aghia Triada at Nyphi, climbs up onto an open and mountainous plateau—the domain of goats and of a sparse maquis which they keep assiduously cropped. These wild slopes are also the winter domain of the Skyr ian horse, a diminutive and ancient breed, traditionally used on the island as a packhorse.

THE SKYRIAN HORSE

In the central and southern valleys of the island, it is common to see the wild Skyrian horse grazing freely. Though ‘wild’ in the sense of freely roaming, its temperament is notably placid. Never more than 1–1.1m in (shoulder) height, this is a rare and distinct species of horse which is known from as early as Mycenaean times and may have changed little from its ancient ancestors. At the beginning of the 2nd millennium bc a nomadic people entered Greek lands from the central Eurasian steppe-lands: we know little about them except that they were good potters and that they came with horses. Those horses may well have been of a form similar to the ones that now graze on Skyros, whose size and nature—because of their isolation—has not evolved or been modified through the cross-breeding, principally with Berber stock, which has characterised commoner breeds. If not al ready present from before, the horses may first have been introduced onto the island by Athenian colonists in the course of the 7th and 6th centuries bc. In fact the horses pictured in the Parthenon frieze appear very small by comparison with their modern counterparts and may have been of a similar kind to those on Skyros today. The horses winter in the wilder southern half of the island and then migrate to the northern part in search of greenery and shade during the hotter months. Their number on the is land is fewer than 150 with few examples elsewhere, and there are naturally concerns for their survival as a breed.

The northern branch of the road (junction at 19km) continues high above the wide sweep of the bays below, and leads, after a long descent by switchbacks, to the wild and deserted cliff-scenery of the island’s southeast corner (26km). The southern branch of the road, descends to Tris Boukes Bay (or ‘Tre Bocche’)—its name referring to the three entrances into the bay defined by the two islands of Platei­a and Sarakino, just off-shore. With the presence of more ancient quarries in the mountains inland of here, the bay of Tris Boukes was, like Pevkos, used for the ship ping of stone by the Romans, who built an aqueduct in order to bring fresh water to the area. In a grove of olive trees just below the road, is the solitary grave of Rupert Brooke (20km). The young English poet (1887–1915), commissioned into the navy in the First World War, was buried here during the night of the 23 April 1915, having died of septicaemia the same afternoon aboard a French hospital ship, the Duguay Trouin. The expeditionary force, of which he was a member, sailed the following morning for the Dardanelles.

Brooke’s valediction in The Times was written by none less than the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, Winston Churchill: he described Brooke as ‘joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, [and] with classic symmetry of mind and body’. At the time of his premature death, his personality and writing had already begun to make a considerable mark. His striking stature and good looks, with a mane of golden-red hair, caught the attention of many—amongst them, Henry James who encountered Brooke on a visit to Cambridge in 1909. His circle of friends and acquaintances included E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Geoffrey and Maynard Key nes, Frances Cornford, and the Prime Minister’s vivacious daughter, Violet Asquith. He travelled extensively in Europe and the United States, and then across the South Pacific to New Zealand. He stayed a while in Tahiti, where it seems that he may have fathered a child by a woman of the island. He was only 27 when his battalion set out for the Aegean in the winter of 1915. Frances Cornford, with her keen and com passionate sense of irony, later wrote of Brooke as ‘A young Apollo, golden-haired ‘¦ dreaming on the verge of strife/ Magnificently unprepared/ For the long littleness of life’.

The first grave here was an improvised pile of stones with two wooden crosses, but there is now a simple stone sarcophagus, with carved oak-leaves and rose decorating the cross at its head. At its foot is inscribed Brooke’s famous sonnet, The Soldier, written in 1914. There is poignant irony in the prophetic words of the poem and its emphasis on the ultimate solitude of human existence. There are few graves more dramatically solitary than this, and few landscapes that could have been more distant from Brooke’s beloved fen-lands. The remoteness of the setting and the peaceful animals grazing here, constitute in the memory one of the most indelible images of the island.

Skyros Island is part of the Sporades Island Group, Greece.

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