‘I’d climb up to Hilarion and just feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my face.’ ALIX NORMAN meets a fascinating photographer who, long ago, was drawn to ‘the real Cyprus’

“I was more likely to be carrying a camera than a gun,” says Colin Matthews.

“Yes, it was a troubled time. But I stayed out of politics. To me, it was the everyday Cyprus that fascinated– the people, their culture and their traditions…”

Arriving on the island in 1956 with the RAF, Colin walked straight into one of the most troubled eras in Cyprus’ history. He well remembers hearing news of Eoka, of Makarios – discussing events with his colleagues, and reading about the situation in the Cyprus Mail (where he worked, part-time, as a press photographer).

But while he understood the importance of such events, Colin was far more drawn to the ‘real’ Cyprus. At the age of 86 and now living in Canada, it’s the daily life of the island that this Brit remembers most fondly.

“I bought a Lambretta,” he grins. “I’d never ridden a motorbike before, so getting it from the dealers in Nicosia back to Episkopi where I was based was quite hairy! The roads weren’t straight and smooth in those days; not like the highways of today I imagine. So I was really quite proud that I made it all the way back to camp without falling off!”

With his own means of transport, Colin was able to explore Cyprus to the full – criss-crossing the island from east to west, south to north, taking photos with his Rolleicord wherever he went.

“I drove along that coastal road to from Limassol to Paphos so many times,” he says. “It was such a beautiful journey, right next to the sea. And I’d go to Kyrenia whenever I could: across the hot, dusty plains, through Nicosia, and over the mountains; the scenery was amazing. I’d climb up to Hilarion and just feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my face.”

But it was the Troodos mountains that were Colin’s favourite haunt.

“Up in the hills, life was different. The villages were full then, the people lovely. High above the cities, life went on as it had for centuries – there were Greek Cypriots, there were Turkish Cypriots; they all appeared to get on very well. And, even though I was a Brit, I was welcomed with open arms. I sat with them at the cafeneion, was invited into their houses. I saw a life that was straightforward, happy.”

With the help of his ever-present camera, Colin documented this simple life; sometimes for the Cyprus Mail (his photos of sailing regattas and other local sporting events were a hit with the expat population), but mostly for his own enjoyment. Speeding up and down the mountains, making friends and enjoying local hospitality, he found himself entranced by the island and its people.

“I was always stopping to take photos,” he smiles. “Those off-the-cuff moments are what I best remember about Cyprus – I never staged anything, I just took what I saw; took photos of what life was like. One winter,” he exclaims, “I was invited into a village home and was staggered to find all this meat just hanging there – I’d never seen that before.

“In particular, I made a lot of friends in Kyperounta,” he recalls. “The men, their wives and children – they became like family to me. I still have the photos I took of the Village Games – everyone would go, everyone tried so hard. Does that happen anymore?”

In his hundreds of images of daily life, Colin captured the essence of a time long gone. Here, a family gathers to eat a simple meal; there, children play in the courtyard. There are photos of young men standing proud and tall, or competing against each other in the Village Games. Snaps of the mountains, the coast, the plains.

And, most importantly, of the people: a people who Colin remembers as “always warm, always welcoming”.

When we think of Cyprus in the 1950s, we often hark back to the tensions of the time; the anti-colonial struggle and the rise of nationalism. But Colin suggests he experienced nothing but peace: a golden island where hospitality was everything.

“As a foreigner, I felt completely safe,” he recalls. “In fact, the only thing that ever happened was in Kyperounta cafeneion: my friend’s camera satchel was stolen while we were chatting to our village mates.”

Colin and colleague were told that the thief probably thought the bag contained a recording device. But that it would be retrieved post haste.

“Stelios, my good friend from the village, put the word out. And within the hour, the satchel – equipment untouched – had been quietly returned! Would that happen nowadays? I’d like to think Cyprus hasn’t changed too much.”

In 1959 with his posting at an end, Colin left the island and the people he loved.

“I packed everything onto my little Lambretta and took the ferry to Naples; driving up through Italy and Switzerland and France back to England. I’d have loved to continue as a photographer,” he sighs, “but it wasn’t to be.”

Building a highly successful career as an insurance agent, Colin married and then, following his brother’s footsteps, moved to Canada.

And now, 65 years on and a world away from Cyprus, he’s speaking via Skype from St Catherine’s, Ontario – eyes alight with remembrance.

“It’s cold here,” he grins. “Nothing like Cyprus! You forget the heat, don’t you? But you never forget the people. I’ve been back three times over the years; it’s not a trip I think I’ll be able to make again.”

The first time Colin returned, he went looking for his friends in Kyperounta, Stelios in particular.

“He’d moved to the UK in 1974, lost contact. The funny thing is,” he laughs, “on the plane journey back, I encountered an enthusiastic football fan – and it turns out he was Stelios’ son! I had photos of him as a child on my Lambretta.

“That’s Cyprus all over, isn’t it? You leave. But you’re part of it forever. You make one friend, and now you’re friends with everyone; the whole island knows you! I hope,” he asks, “it’s still like that today.”

Colin has shared many of his photos of Cyprus on the Facebook page ‘Cypriot Memories – The Hallouminati’