Walk on the Biel estate and Keith Brockie paintings at Waterston House

January 31, 2023

I last posted a reference, with photos, to Biel House, almost exactly two years ago on this blog. In order to get to Biel (pronounced Beel) Estate, which c3miles/5K from Dunbar, you leave the A199 and go up a long drive to the house, firstly passing a cottage which would have formerly been the gatehouse to the estate. Once you are over the bridge spanning the A1 dual carriageway, you come to a newish set of gates (photo below) which lead to an impressive avenue of cedar trees. This is a stunning entrance and it is a very pleasant walk with the tall, thick trees to your left and right and the Lammermuir Hills in the distance. There is farmland on both sides of the trees, with the winter/spring wheat growing slowly but becoming a sparkling lightish green in the sunshine.

Entrance to the Biel Estate (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the end of the cedar walk, you come to a lane (photo below) with a small forest on each side. The side of this narrow road is still decorated with fallen leaves from the autumn and this scene refreshes your memory of when the leaves were yellowing and browning, but still on the trees. The adjoining wood is a mixture of rhododendron bushes, evergreen and deciduous trees. So there is a contrast all the way up the hill, with the bare tree on the right and the branches of the fir tree extending across the avenue. At some points, where there are mainly deciduous trees, you can see through to the fields beyond. This view will disappear in the late spring.

Lane leading up to Biel House

At the top of what is quite a steep hill for walkers and cyclists, you come to a crossroads, with the left taking you down to the Biel Burn and the right to attractively named Beeseknowe Farm (good photo). The entrance to Biel House itself (photo below) has impressive, elegant and graceful twin columns, with decorated, thistle-like rounded tops. The sign says Private and this is meant for cars, as walkers and cyclists appear to be welcome as passers-by. The photo shows the still flowerless rhododendrons to the right and left but if you look closely at them, you can see the small buds appearing, a sign of beauty to come. As you can see, there are some impressively tall trees here and the carpet of rust-coloured leaves adds to the attractiveness of the entrance.

Entrance to Biel House

We visited an excellent exhibition recently at Waterston House in Aberlady, the home of SOC (Scottish Ornithologists’ Club) to see the work of well known wildlife artist Keith Brockie, whom I have featured here on the blog on more than one occasion, the last time being in 2017. The exhibition finished not long after our visit and we are looking forward to the present exhibition, featuring examples from Scottish Nature Photography Awards. I am grateful to again to Laura Gressiani at SOC for sending me, with Keith Brockie’s permission, the three examples of his outstanding work below. The first example (photo below) is entitled Brooding Tawny Owl and shows Brockie’s truly amazing grasp of detail and his ability to portray the details of the tree and owls. It is hard for me as a non-artistic layman to imagine just how long this must have taken him to paint, but the result is a wonderful piece of art. Seeing Brockie’s quite large paintings at the exhibition is quite a different experience from looking at the photo, but the enlarged photos here will give you a chance to admire his work at close hand. On first seeing the painting, you notice the adult owl and its tired but still alert looking face, as well as its colouring and the very realistic looking feathers. Then you see the baby owl, fast asleep it seems to me and its green beak accompanied cleverly by the green, exquisitely veined leaves. Then there is the patterns on the smooth bark of the silver birch. In all, a painting to be admired again and again.

Brooding Tawny Owl by Keith Brockie

The second example (photo below) from the exhibition is entitled Mistle Thrush and is another example of Brockie’s supreme artistry in portraying birds and their environment. Once again, you are struck by the sheer amount of detail here. This bird, with the unfortunate (for us) scientific name of turdus viscivorus, has an enchanting song, which you can listen to here (scroll down to song audio). Brockie’s bird is not singing, but is perhaps waiting for an opportunity to sing to attract a mate, perhaps. The patterns on the bird’s breast give an aspect of surrealism, whereas the keen eye and the sharp beak, ready for the berries below, are painted realistically. The colour contrast been the berries and the bird draws our attention to both. The branch upon which the bird sits has a claw-like feature, seen just above the artist’ signature. A study in ornithological concentration is presented here and is as eye-catching as the owls above.

Mistle Thrush by Keith Brockie

The final example shows Keith Brockie’s art (and artistry) at its finest. This is a stunning portrait of a wild animal and you can see the muscularity in the hare which will give it its lightning speed. Out cycling around Dunbar, I have often seen hares, whether on the road in front of me or in a field, and when they start running, they go so fast that you think they might be flying low above the ground. The hairs on the animal’s ears, face and body are drawn so convincingly that you think this must be what it is like to be really close to a hare. There is alertness in the ears, the eyes and the nose and this is a hare which is very aware of its surroundings and possible dangers. This site (good video) tell us that “The hare grazes on vegetation and the bark of young trees and bushes”. You have to admire Brockie’s skill in painting the grass upon which the hare will feed and the way in which the grass mimics the shape of the hairs on this powerful but stunningly beautiful animal. The contrast in colours – white, brown, black, orange and green – in the painting should take your eye up, down and across the painting to appreciate its visual beauty. This was a most remarkable exhibition and if you ever get to see a Keith Brockie art show, grab the opportunity with both hands. A huge round of applause to Waterston House for acquiring this enchanting display of wildlife art.

Brown Hare by Keith Brockie

Spott Burn, the ford and nearby Brock Wood on a soggy New Year’s Day 2023

January 20, 2023

I have featured the walk up to Spott House a few times on the blog e.g. here. On New Year’s Day, we went to do the same walk but the gates were (unusually) locked, so we walked through the village of Spott (good photos) and on past the older houses. We then came to what is known as the Witches’ Stone Photo below). Some local historians repeated the story that the stone was erected in memory of Marion Lillie, a witch who had been burned at the stake in the early 1700s. However, this was refuted by a researcher studying the local Spott Kirk (good photos) records, who noted that Lillie had been interred in Spott Kirk (Scots for church) in 1705 and buried in the kirk graveyard. Although Lillie was accused of being a witch, she could not have been buried in the graveyard, as women found guilty of being a witch could not be buried. The early 1700s was a time of fear for many women and you can read about the witch trials, with women often found guilty on flimsy evidence, here. A new sign at the stone was placed there a few years ago and the stone is now seen as a memorial to the women who died unjustly.

Witches Stone at Spott. Photo by Hlz Wlz (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the bottom of the hill, past the stone, you turn right and down another hill until you come to a ford, through which flows the Spott Burn (Scots for stream or small river). This is normally a gentle flow of water and you can drive your car safely thorough it with impunity. On the day of our walk, there had been recent heavy rain and the normally calm water appeared to be either in a boiling rage or in throes of an ecstatic experience, as it hurtled under the footbridge, carrying on its journey eastwards to the sea. The photo below shows the view looking eastwards, up the road to the village. You can see from the marker denominating the height of the water that it is 6 inches, which is high, as normally the water from the burn does not go beyond the edge of the burn on the left. The photo also shows the sturdy trunks of the many-limbed tree and the branches reaching down to the water. In the field beyond, the green shoots of what will later be a wheat or barley field are now emerging. When the sun catches the sun catches such a field at this time of year, it enhances the greenness of the crop. To the left of the photo you can see the buildings of Spott Farm.

The ford at the Spott Burn

The map below shows the exact location of the ford, down the narrow road from the Witches’ Stone. The F B opposite Ford stands for footbridge. The road going up from the ford is locally known as Daniel’s Brae (brae is Scots for hill) but on the map is Daniel’s Side Brae. I could not find the origin of the word Daniel in this name. The map also shows Brock Wood of which more below. Opposite Brock Wood is Spott Dod and the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines one meaning of dod as “A bare hill with a rounded top” and this word is also used in the English language. Spott Dod is the site of an old hillfort according to this Canmore site indicates that this was originally “the remains of an Iron Age enclosure, in which the defences were predominantly of timber” and was a functioning fort about 2,900 years ago. If you followed the high road from Spott village, you come to another dod Deuchrie Dod (good photo).

Spott and district map from https://canmore.org.uk/site/search/result?NUMLINK=73230&view=map

I took this video standing on the west side of the ford.

Near the end of the video, you get a view of Brock Wood and we walked through part of the wood, which is separated by Daniel’s Brae. Brock Wood (good photos) is a nature reserve and also popular with walkers with an ornithological inclination. This site states that on the last visit to the site (10 photos) , wildlife included “Dippers, nuthatches, lots of woodpigeons, tits, screeching birds of prey, possibly a jay. Ripe raspberries, blackberries, elderberries”. The Scottish Wildlife Trust site describes the wood thus “Brock Wood, located 3 miles south of Dunbar, is a mixed woodland. Non-native trees, which were originally planted for timber, are gradually being removed to encourage the regrowth of the native alder, ash and oak”. The photo below is near the entrance on Daniel’s Brae and is taken when the greenery has returned to the trees and the winter leaves on the ground have been replaced by summer growth. In the Spring, I will walk through both sides of the wood and continue this story.

Photo by Tony O’Connor

Wintry swans at Seafield Pond and a frosty West Barns Bridge

January 10, 2023

One of my last walks of 2022 was to nearby Belhaven. I parked the car opposite the Surf School (good photos) and walked up what is known as the Dump Road to Seafield Pond, which was originally a clay pit for the Seafield Brick and Tile Works in the 19th century. It later became Dunbar’s refuse site, thus the name Dump Road. The wall separating the sea from the path to the pond is known as the Divvy Dyke and was built by David France, who established the brickworks. France was referred to by Dunbar historian James Miller as “the man who beat Canute” after building the dyke (wall). At high tide, the sea comes right up to the wall. On the day of my walk, instead of sea water, there was thick ice to be seen over the wall. The first photo below shows the frozen grass – submerged at high tide – and the ice beyond. Further out is the wide stretch of sand forming Belhaven Bay (good photos) with the Bass Rock in the distance. The second photo shows the very thick ice further along the sand and you can just see an array of birds further out. These birds – oystercatchers and redshanks – normally feed closer to the wall.

Frost and ice at Belhaven Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Ice on the shore at Belhaven Bay

My walk was in the afternoon and I managed to capture the partly frozen pond while the sun was setting in the west at about 3.30pm. I was lucky enough to have two elegant, graceful and very calm swans feeding in the pond. The photo below shows the swans, with the sun making a golden streak across the pond, the frozen and whitened reeds to the left, and more frozen solid in the ice in the foreground. It was a freezing cold, but fairly still day and the only movement at the pond was the two swans lowering their heads to feed where they had broken the ice. There is a serenity about this photo which I like, although it was not a day to stand still for long. There are numerous lines in the photo, with the grasses above the ice, the reeds standing to attention and the bare branches of the trees shown clearly by the white glow of the sun.

Ice, grasses, reeds and swans at Seafield Pond

You need have patience when taking photos of swans as, just when you think you have the perfect shot, one of them dips its head into the water. The swans were aware of my presence but treated me with insouciance, as if to say “Take your photos but don’t expect us to pose for you”. In the next photo below, you can see the ice in the foreground and, waiting a short time, I managed to capture the sun coming over the pond and the narrow strip of gold on the pond, ending beneath the feet of the swans. The ice/water below the swans has turned to pink and the sun has made reflections of the swans in the water. Just at the point of taking the photo, the further away swan lowered its head but this does not detract from the photo. Swans have a beautiful shape and look perfectly formed with their graceful necks, orange beaks and feathers neatly tucked in to produce warmth on this winter’s day. The legs and feet are perhaps less elegant but there is a fascination about swans which attracts the viewer. You can see more photos and a video of swans at Belhaven on a sunny autumnal day in a previous blog post.

Ice, swans and reflections at Seafield Pond

If you keep walking west past the pond, you come to a path which borders the Biel Burn, over which stands West Barns bridge. West Barns is a village about 2 miles/3.2k from Dunbar. The photo below shows the path and the bridge looking west, with the sun nearly set but leaving a white glow above the trees. There was a dog walker on the bridge and his reflection can be seen, as well as the bridge’s in the water. Across the bridge, the fields to the right were thick with frost and the path was very slippery, so I had to walk next to the wall on the left. So, a very picturesque scene but there was only enough time to take the photo and move on, my breath showing white in the cold air.

Frosty path and reflections at West Barns bridge

Looking east, back to the bridge (photo below), you can see that the wooden railings going on to the metal bridge are white with frost and the grass next to the path is temporarily petrified by the frost. The reflection in the water looks like an impressionist artist’s depiction of the bridge, which loses its colour in the water. I have taken my mountain bike over this bridge many times as you join a path to the right which takes you along a bumpy route to John Muir Park (good photos).

Heavy frost at West Barns bridge

In a previous blog (good photos), I referred to what a relative and a friend of mine would call the art of guddling. The Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) – a treasure trove for Scots words – defines to guddle as “To catch (fish) by groping with the hands under stones or the banks of a stream”. Another definition given is to catch trout “by tickling the underbelly with one hand, grabbing them with the other”. One reference from 1921 states “An’ oot aneth a mossy stane some muckle troot he’d guddelt” which is translated as “And out beneath a mossy stone, some huge trout he had guddled”. See here for more examples of guddling from the DSL. The photo below shows the view upstream in the burn and a favourite guddling site was just around the corner to the right, where the burn forms small pools, into which the trout would swim and rest. There are more reflections here – of the wintry trees and although there was little wind that day, some of the trees appear to waving their “arms” about in an aerobic fashion. There are more lines of sight here, from the left you see the wall, the path, the grassy verge, the burn, another verge and another wall, so the photo is well worth more than a cursory look. The walk ended with me going back along the Dump Road, into car and driving home for a warm and welcoming cup of tea.

Upstream view from West Barns bridge

That Was the Year That Was – 2022

December 31, 2022

As this is the last blogpost of 2022, I am looking back over this year’s posts and making a fairly random search to pick out some highlights.

In February, I wrote “Every year I try to go somewhere different to take photos of the snowdrops which now adorn our woods and gardens. In 2021, I posted this description of the snowdrops at Smeaton Lake. I also remind you each year of Alice Oswald’s uniquely beautiful poem The Snowdrop – read here by Andrew Motion, accompanied by some elegant and graceful photos, including a close-up one of raindrops on the flower. I have just found another site in which you can look at and listen to – “The Snowdrop: An immersive exploration of the science, folklore, and horticulture of this first sign of spring”. Produced by Cambridge University Botanic Garden (good photos), this site is well worth exploration for its information, stunning photography and The Snowdrop – with lyrics – read by Sandie Cain, the garden’s Horticultural Learning Coordinator. I make no apologies for once again quoting from Oswald’s poem “Yes, she’s no more than a drop of snow/ on a green stem…. But what a beauty, what a mighty power/ of patience kept intact is now in flower”.  The photo below gives a close-up view of a peaceful and sedate looking snowdrop community. As ever, the heads – gorgeous white bells – are bowed as the flowers maintain their private thoughts. The photo also shows the forest floor environment in which the snowdrops grow during their relatively short lives. Not only are there brown leaves from last autumn but the green, spiky, storm-blown mini-branches of the neighbouring fir trees. The sunlight adds to the aesthetics of the photo, emphasising the brilliant whiteness of the snowdrop heads.

Snowdrops in Lochend Woods (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

In May, my wife and I went to Perthshire (now Perth and Kinross) for a short break. The blog post began “We recently had a two day break in Perthshire, staying at the excellent Grandtully Hotel, of which more below. The bonnie town of Aberfeldy (good photos) is 5 miles/ 8.1k from the hotel and is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area. It has an excellent bookshop – The Watermill (good photos) – and I would heartily recommend that you also visit its café (good photos, especially the food) downstairs. The town is best known for its glorious walk, known as The Birks of Aberfeldy (good photos). Birks in Scots means birch trees although part of the walk has mostly beech. The photo below was taken on the early part of the walk and you can see the Moness Burn flowing through the stones, as well as the newly-leafed trees, with their delicate greens. The stones take on various hues as the water passes over them and, at the bottom right, the stones which sit out of the water are moss-covered, adding yet another shade of green.

Flowing water in Aberfeldy

I also included this video of the rushing water further up the hill.

In August, we paid a visit to Berwick Upon Tweed and I wrote: “We have not been back to Berwick Upon Tweed (good photos) since 2019 – see this blog post. We walked along the promenade at Spittal Beach which is a long stretch of sand close to the town, which is usually just referred to as Berwick. The photo below shows the southern end of Spittal promenade and the end of the beach. There is a Lowry connection here as his painting Beach Scene can be viewed on the highlighted link. The beach can be seen from the top of the cliffs in the photo below in the second photo, which shows the extent of the beach and the railway viaduct to the left. In the second photo, the tide is further out. On the day of our visit this year, there were many families on the beach and quite a number of adults and children swimming in the water. On occasion, you heard the scream of a child as s/he first entered the cold water with feet warmed by the summer sun.

Spittal Beach
View across Spittal Beach to Berwick

In October, my wife and I went on a short holiday to Porto and one of the main highlights was the visit to the  Palacio da Bolsa (good photos). I wrote “The last room you visit is the one worth waiting for. This site (good photos) tells us that “The pièce de résistance of the Palácio da Bolsa is the Salão Árabe (Arab Hall) by architect Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves de Sousa, who was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain”. The hall was restored again in 2009-2010. The style is faux Arabian and you can see in the photo below how the designer completely embraced the Moorish forms on the walls, the pillars and the ceiling. Note also the highly decorated pillars, with a different design at each stage going from the floor upwards. The floor is also very impressive and the site above adds “As in the rest of the building, here too, the floor is made from the finest woods such as mahogany, rosewood, satinwood, rosewood and maple”.

The Arab Hall in the Palacio da Bolsa

I took this video when in this magnificent and unique room.

So that was 2022. We had a bleak start to the year as Covid restrictions were still place and mask wearing was compulsory inside buildings, but there was a gradual improvement, especially during the longish, hot (for us) summer. As I write, we are 9 days beyond the shortest day of the year and already, there is more daylight. It only remains for me to wish you all A Guid New Year and thank you for reading this blog. May 2023 bring you good health, prosperity, love, luck and laughter.

Warkworth in winter re-visit and frost hits the churchyard and the sprouts

December 20, 2022

Checking the blog, I realised that we stayed in Warkworth in 2013 and that was in July. This visit – overnight only – with relatives was in the depth of the very cold spell we have been having for the past two weeks. The temperature was below freezing on the day we arrived and never went above until we arrived back in Dunbar the next day. On the positive side, we have very warm winter clothes and it was a gloriously sunny day, with a big Australian sky above us. We went for a walk around the historic Warkworth Castle (many photos) but had to be careful of icy patches on the pathway. The castle dates back to the 12th century and was the stronghold of the powerful Percy family from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Percys owned most of the land in the north of England at this time. To the right of the photo, you can see the Great Tower, described as being “in the shape of a Greek cross, with four polygonal wings radiating from a central block, above which rises a viewing tower”. In the photo, you can also see the motte and bailey, along with the drawbridge and the portcullis. This castle was built to impress and to withstand attack or siege. It is still a formidable looking building which dominates the landscape around the village and beyond – exactly as the Percys would have wished.

Warkworth Castle in Northumberland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Beside the castle, the River Coquet provides a quiet and peaceful environment and a good walk. As it was a beautiful day, the reflections on the river were very photogenic. Perhaps the -3 degrees temperature enhanced the quality. In the photo below, you can see the multiple reflections of the stones, the tree trunks, the greenery of the evergreens, the pampas grasses on the right and the patches of blue sky. The river appears so still that it could be a mirror. I also like the shadows on the right which are also reflected.

Reflections on the River Coquet, Warkworth

Further along the river’s edge, on which stood very tame ducks as we passed, you come to the medieval bridge (good photos) and the site above notes that “John Cook of Newcastle, who died in 1379, left the sum of 20 marks towards the building of a new bridge at Warkworth, on the condition it was built within two years”. Approaching the bridge, we got another excellent display of reflections (photo below) of the trees but also the bridge itself. We were hoping to cross the bridge but it was so icy past the defensive tower (good photo) that we had to turn back.

The 14th century bridge in Warkworth

On the following day, it was still below zero at home and there had been a hard frost and a light covering of snow overnight. The roads were clear, so I drove up to the nearby Spott Kirk (good photos) to capture it on a freezing but still crystal clear day. The first photo below is taken from the entrance to the church and shows the gravestones – some dating back 200 years – amongst the ice. There are shadows in this photo as in the previous ones and you can just see the shadow of a nearby tree on the roof and the bell-tower. The trees on the right are mostly bare, with some greenery on the top of the more distant trees. The other green on show is the ivy climbing up the trees and the bushes just above the old stone wall. The second photo is taken down the steps from the left of the entrance and shows more shadows on the bell tower, more gravestones and looks towards the more modern section of the graveyard behind the church. Beyond the kirk on the left, you can see the fields stretching over towards Wester Broomhouse (good photo) farm in the distance.

Spott Kirk with snow and ice
Spott Kirk and beyond

On my way home, I stopped at a field of sprouts near the former Easter Broomhouse (good photo) farm. This is a huge field, stretching into the distance, with the sprouts standing to attention in rows like the soldiers of the famous Terracotta Army (good photos and video). Going in closer, I could see the well developed sprouts, clinging to their stalks like mussels on a rope. The first photo below shows the sprout plant, now with drooping, yellowing and purpling leaves, with its family of young sprouts gathered on the stalk, ready for the harvest. Some of the leaves have fallen off and lie frozen on the ground, covered with ice. The sun is shining directly on the plant and this gives us a variety of greens and yellows as well as the white veins, like river tributaries, on the big leaves. The second photo shows the serried ranks of the sprout army stretching into distance, with the Lammermuir hills beyond. You can see the redeveloped farm buildings – now houses and cottages – of Easter Broomhouse on the right. Unlike many people, I am not a fan of sprouts, whether steamed or roasted as I find the taste too strong, unlike cabbage, which I love.

Sprouts and frost at Easter Broomhouse

Trip to Porto: Skyline, river and Luis 1 bridge

December 9, 2022

To get one of the best views across the city of Porto, you need to climb up from the river all the way past the station (blog post) and round to the magnificent Porto Cathedral (good photos). The cathedral was closed for renovations when we visited, but the photo below shows the grandeur of the building, built as a place of worship but also as a structure to dominate the city and send a powerful message to its inhabitants. This site tells us that “Built in the highest part of the city, the Sé Cathedral is the most important religious building in Porto. It is located in the Batalha district, next to the walls that once protected the city. The exterior of the building has the appearance of a fortress with battlements”. My first impression on seeing the back of the cathedral was that it appeared more of a castle than a cathedral.

Part of the outside of Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto)

From the back of the cathedral, you get wonderful panoramic views across the city. The photo below shows a range of domestic, corporate and local authority buildings. The red pantile roofs are of various vintages but make for an attractive sight on a warm, sunny, early October day. On the right in the foreground, you can see some of the tiles on the houses and the balconies which are ubiquitous in Porto. The tower in the distance is the Torre de Clérigos (good photo) and the site tells us that “The Church of Clérigos (Ecclesiastics) is a genuine baroque masterpiece dating from the mid-18th century. It was designed by Nicolau Nasoni, an architect of Italian origin”. We are also told that “The tower extends upwards through 75 metres of elegance forming rhythmic stages before rising to its crowning glory, the spherical clock house. The baroque decoration is thoroughly delicate and of a wonderful lightness”. This seems to me to be a very good translation of an excellent description.

Looking over the roofs of Porto

Again looking over the ramparts of the cathedral, the photo below shows some more of the blue tiles on the face of the houses, the various shades of pink and red on the tiles, and a range of different styles of windows, balconies and doors. At the bottom right of the photo, you can see two doors with the names FADO and SE painted in white. I checked this out and it is the Casa do Fado Sé i.e. the house of Fado at the cathedral. I was once invited to run workshops in Lisbon and the hosts took my wife and I to a Fado concert. The singer was melodious and the guitar playing was superb, but although we couldn’t understand the language, it was clear that Fado songs are not joyful. One dictionary definition of Fado is “a type of popular Portuguese song, usually with a melancholy theme and accompanied by mandolins or guitars”. Above the doors are two banners, one with a mandolin and one with a guitar, and if you look above that, you will see a mandolin on display. You can hear some beautiful guitar an mandolin playing in this video, advertising the Casa do Fado Sé and see and hear a Fado song on the video below. This is a lovely rendition but Fado concerts tend to last about an hour and that is a lot of misery to take in.

Looking down from the cathedral

Running through the middle of Porto is the wide river Douro and we did a long walk (14k) from our hotel near the city centre out to the Foz do Douro (good photos) on the Atlantic coast and back. This is a very busy river although it does not look so in the photo below. However, if you look at the top left of the river, you will see two medium sized cruise ships (example) parked on the south side of the river. Out hotel looked over the river and each morning, we could see new the ships arriving or leaving. Along the right hand side of the photo, you can see a number of piers going out into the river, and these are for river cruises (example), of which there are many. From the bottom right, you can see the walkways along the river and these feature markets during the day and, further up the photo, a multiplicity of restaurants. These were packed out each night and, without booking, it was very hard to get a table anywhere.

Looking west along the river Douro in Porto

The river is also quite spectacular in the evening, after dark. We went to the excellent Muro do Bacalhau (good photos) restaurant and the view below is the one from outside the restaurant, looking west. The reflections in the river are best seen by enlarging the photo and in the enlarged version you can see one of the little ferry boats in the middle of the river. There are new buildings going up across Porto and you can see one with the crane in front of it on the right hand side of the photo. Next to it, with the black sign, is one of the stores holding Porto’s most famous product – port.

Douro river and reflections at night

I took this video from the Monastery of Serra do Pilar (good photos) which stands on a rockface above the river and it is quite a climb to get to it. The monastery – run by the Augustinians – dates back to 1527 and is well worth a visit inside the circular buildings.

You can briefly see the Luis 1 bridge in the video. You can walk across the bridge, which is also used by trams and when there are no trams, people walk down the tramlines. You can see the bridge, with the tram wires but no trams, in the photo below and the building at the end of the bridge on the left, is the monastery. The bridge crosses the river and is one of six bridges that traverse the Douro. You can see excellent photos of the bridges here. The views from the bridge give tourists and locals a spectacular view down the river. The second photo below is an example and it shows one of the river cruise boats about to go under the bridge. We went on one of the 6 bridges cruises and it was an enjoyable 45 minutes. It should have been 50 minutes but the sea mist (haar in my part of the world) rolled in. The guide in the Palacio da Bolsa (previous post) told us that this is known locally as “dragon’s breath” and that the dragon is the city’s emblem.

Looking across the Louis 1 bridge in Porto
River Douro from the Luis 1 bridge

The bridge, named after the king of Portugal at the time it was built, is a magnificent structure as the photo below shows. The bridge opened in 1886 and this site tells us “With a span of 172 metres (564 ft) and a height of 44.6 metres (146 ft) this was a great feat of engineering. The designer this time, Téophile Seyrig, had been Eiffel’s partner on the previous project and showed himself to be a more than able engineer with this bridge”. The reference to Gustave Eiffel (of Paris fame) is because Eiffel designed another Porto bridge earlier. As the photo shows, it has two levels, trams on the top and cars etc on the bottom level.

Dom Luis 1 bridge

The Palacio da Bolsa and Joseph O’Connor’s Inishowen

November 29, 2022

One of the best visits we made while in Porto was to the Palacio da Bolsa (good photos). This magnificent building dates back to 1842 when it was built as a stock exchange by Porto merchants, on the site of a former convent, which was burned down during the siege of Porto ten years later. You pass the palace as you walk uphill – apart from along the river, you are always walking up or down hill in this city, so it is not for the unfit – towards the the city centre. The impressive exterior of the palace is best seen from the park across the road. The photo below shows the extent of the building with its four sturdy columns, multiple windows with small balconies and impressive clock tower. The date of 1834 represents the date when the original building was started. In all, the building took 70 years to complete in its final version.

The entrance to the Palacio da Bolsa

You can only enter the palace by buying a ticket for an organised tour, but it certainly worth every euro cent because of the quality on show as you are taken from one grand room to another by the very informative guide. While waiting for the guide, you are shown into a vast hall (1st photo below) with its beautiful balcony, ornate windows and doors and paintings representing the various merchant trades and emblems of Porto. All this below a stunning glass skylight. This hall, known as the Pátio das Nações, was the original trading floor. When you are looking up and around the walls, you are standing on colourful geometric floor (2nd photo below) with its circular patterns and an elegant and very graceful symmetrical centrepiece.

Entrance hall in the Palacio da Bolsa (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Geometric floor in the Palacio

There are two rooms, also highly decorated with sculptures, paintings and exquisite furniture on the tour and again, the standout feature is the floor. The photo below shows the mesmerising patterns on the floor in this grand room. At the start, you see a beautifully crafted pine floor, with light squares bordered by darker wood. If you look away and then look back again, you see a different floor, as this time it looks as if it is created in 3-D. As you walk through the room, the patterns constantly change. There are many paintings in the Palacio but these floors are works of art in themselves.

Eye-catching floor in the Palacio

The last room you visit is the one worth waiting for. This site (good photos) tells us that “The pièce de résistance of the Palácio da Bolsa is the Salão Árabe (Arab Hall) by architect Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves de Sousa, who was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain”. The hall was restored again in 2009-2010. The style is faux Arabian and you can see in the first photo below how the designer completely embraced the Moorish forms on the walls, the pillars and the ceiling. Note also the highly decorated pillars, with a different design at each stage going from the floor upwards. The floor is also very impressive and the site above adds “As in the rest of the building, here too, the floor is made from the finest woods such as mahogany, rosewood, satinwood, rosewood and maple”. The second photo shows the ceiling’s symmetrical, interweaving patterns and, like other similar North African styles, it reminds me of Aboriginal art in Australia.

The Arab Hall in the Palacio
Intricate ceiling in the Palacio

I took this video as a reminder of our visit to this fabulous room, which was used for concerts and balls. Imagine dancing in this luxurious space in your tuxedo or evening dress after a grand dinner and, of course, some superior local port.

I recently finished Joseph O’Connor‘s novel Inishowen (review). The novel was published in 2000 and is thus one of O’Connor’s earlier novels. I think that if he was writing this novel today, O’Connor would do some serious editing because, while there is superb dialogue and not a little humour in the parts set in Ireland, the parts of the story set in the USA are less convincing. Inspector Martin Aitken has problems at work and at home, as he is seen as a rogue detective at work and his drinking has led to his divorce from his wife. Eileen Donnelly is an American woman who is trying to find her birth mother and, by contacting nu ns in Ireland, she finds out that her mother – remarried with children – is in the village of Inishowen. Eileen also has a dark secret that his not revealed until midway through the book. Aitken first comes across Donnelly when she passes out on a Dublin street. The two make a trip to Inishowen later in the book. There are some fine and funny set pieces between Aitken and his police colleagues and O’Connor gives us an insight into Dublin city as well as the Irish countryside. There is an ongoing plot but I felt that O’Connor complicated the story near the end of the book. Despite this, he is an accomplished novelist and a great storyteller and if you accept the flaws in some parts of the book, you will find this an intriguing and enjoyable tale, which I highly recommend.

Trip to Porto: Hotel, Radiogram and the São Bento Railway station

November 16, 2022

On our visit to Porto (good photos) in October, we stayed at the excellent Memoria Porto Hotel where we had high quality service. We were picked up at the airport by a pre-ordered taxi, with the hotel charging about the same rate as if we had queued. Our flight was late – Ryanair long delays on the way out and back – but at the hotel Luiz at reception greeted us warmly, offering us tea/coffee and cakes and a glass of port. The hotel has a great location – see view from our bedroom in the photo below – near the centre of the city and the staff were superb e.g. recommending and booking restaurants for us. This is a fairly small hotel and it has a cosy and welcoming breakfast room, with an exceptional spread each morning, as well as spacious bedrooms. The value for money here is outstanding, so check it out if you are going to Porto (which you should, if possible).

View from Memoria Porto hotel room window (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

One feature of the breakfast room – also open in the afternoon and evening with a superb selection of cakes – was the radiogram which played gentle music when we were having breakfast. The photo below shows the radio part, with its multiplicity of stations and the casing of the radiogram, with the handle of the side cupboard to the left. This is an Arabella (good photo) radiogram, made in Germany and you can see that it is operated by knobs and buttons – no digital equipment here.

Arabella stereo radiogram at the Memoria Porto hotel

When the two side cabinets were opened, they revealed further features of this remarkably well preserved radiogram. The photo below shows the left hand one in the photo above when opened and it revealed a turntable which you can see in the photo below. It has a 45rpm record on it and you will be able to see the 16,33,45 and 78 settings more clearly in the enlarged photo. The needle holder has a Dual sign on it and this shows it was made by the company Dual. Below the needle arm, you can see repet – German for repeat, but then stop and start in English. Maybe this was done for the international market. As a piece of nostalgia, this is an excellent example, although the revival of vinyl has meant that many people now have turntables once again in their homes.

Arabella radiogram turntable

Opening the other side reveals a large tape recorder, with the name of the company which made it Nordemende shown prominently, as is the Grundig tape. Compared with later tape recorders, this looks enormous but it may have provided a much higher quality than its descendants. The buttons at the bottom are Aufnahme meaning recording, Sperre meaning lock and Trick which translates as Trick, but must mean something else. If you know, get in touch with me, please. So, who would have thought that we would have found a German radiogram, with sophisticated equipment, in a hotel in Porto? Opening the side cabinets was a pleasurable surprise for me and the other guests near our table. A conversation about radiograms, vinyl records and tape recorders ensued with our fellow guests from the USA, reviving memories for all of us, although none had seen a tape recorder like this one.

Tape recorder in Arabella radiogram

There are quite a few must-visits in Porto but the São Bento (good photos) – the main railway station, unique because of its magnificent tiled walls at the entrance, is one of the top visits. The tiles are azulejo and the site above states that “The word azulejo stems from Arabic roots, meaning small polished stone”. You can see tiles on many buildings in Porto, but the ones on display at the railway station are large and highly decorated tiles which make up a range of stunning scenes from the city’s history. The tiles were painted over a period of 11 years by artist Jorge Colaço and, as the photo below shows, the tiles are presented on a huge scale. The battle scene below shows the victor and the vanquished, with a multiplicity of details – soldiers, horses, flags, pikes, swords and castle walls.

Henry the Navigator in Porto railway station

A more peaceful scene is depicted in the photo below. Here we see oxen carrying barrels of port across the river and boat with a large sail behind that. In the foreground, your eyes are draw to the three women, one navigating and scanning the land at the far side of the river, and another woman cradling a baby, with perhaps her rather poor looking daughter to her right. it is a poignant depiction of the women, who look worried, perhaps about what they will find or experience on the shore. The scene also takes in the view upriver, with the mountains in the distance. Once you start to look at the details of the picture, you forget about the lines of the tiles and appreciate the art work here.

River crossing in the Sao Bento station in Porto

I took this video inside the station to show the wonderful display of tiles. I have left in the noise of the crowds coming and going in the station as it gives the atmosphere of this ever-moving place. To add commentary, I would have had to cancel the crowd noise, so add your own.

Autumn comes to East Lothian

November 5, 2022

We are now into November and this week, I have been planting a variety of Spring bulbs into the pots, now devoid of their resplendent summer flowers. Autumn is here and we are into the 3rd month of this season already. The clocks have gone back an hour and it is dark at 5pm. The photo below shows a beautifully dark maple tree in the gardens at Spott House, on our walk and often featured here on the blog. In Clive James poem Japanese Maple, he writes “My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new./ Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame”. James sensed that he was nearing the end of his life and he added, poignantly “What I must do/ Is live to see that”. In the photo, the maple tree stands out, even if it is in shadow, against the greenery of the grass and nearby trees, the pale sandstone of the house, and the blue of the pond, the sea and the sky beyond. The shadow at the bottom left is cast by a nearby building which has a brewery-like chimney pot on its roof.

Spott House in the sunshine and shadows (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Walking back from the house, we pass one of the driveways up to the house itself. The photo below shows the leaf-laden driveway, with many more leaves to come. In Emily Emily Brontë’s poem Fall, Leaves, Fall, she writes “Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;/ Lengthen night and shorten day;/ Every leaf speaks bliss to me/ Fluttering from the autumn tree”. In this photo, there is certainly a kind of bliss, with the yellowing leaves on the ground, the evergreen bushes to the left and right and the trees, some of which are deciduous, in the sunshine beyond the path. There was little wind on the day, so there was a calmness about this scene, which can be wild, windy and noisy on some autumn afternoons.

The side driveway up to Spott House

Walking back down the driveway, the view is one which can be appreciated at all times of the year. The trees on both sides of this avenue still have their leaves but those they retain are changing colour, from green to yellow or russet. While the trees change shape and colour throughout the year, the view in the distance, to North Berwick Law (good photos) is constant. The brown fields you see below The Law ( as it is known locally) have recently been ploughed but will soon turn to a brilliant green (on sunny days) as the Spring wheat emerges. This was late afternoon, so a perfect time to catch the multiple shadows which stretch across the roadway from one grass verge to the other, with patches of white sunlight seemingly randomly scattered amongst them. This is one of these vistas that, no matter how often you see it, you have to stop walking and just take in the beauty of it.

Another autumnal scenario can be found at the Knowes Farm Bridge, also featured more than once on the blog e.g. here. The recent rain has greatly increased the flow of water in the River Tyne at the bridge and the water was hurriedly hastening onwards towards, eventually, the sea. The photo below shows the river from the side with the fading grasses and young trees. This is a crossing but a dangerous one on a day like this and you can see the exit point in the left middle of the photo. Once across the bridge – to the right of the photo – you can walk behind the trees on the far bank and follow the river on an often muddy track all the way to Preston Mill (good photos). The water is calm to the left and then hits some rocks to form a rushing, white-water gallop, before settling down again as it goes under the bridge.

Looking from the bridge – photo below – at this time of year, you see the river below through the berried branches of the hawthorn tree. To the left of the river, there are fields where the spring wheat is just emerging and bringing a new, startlingly bright green and signs of new growth in this season of decay. John Clare delighted in this time of year in his poem Autumn – “I love the fitfull gusts that shakes/ The casement all the day/ And from the mossy elm tree takes/ The faded leaf away/ Twirling it by the window-pane/ With thousand others down the lane”. No gusts on this day but there are times when a gale blows and you have to hang on to the side of the bridge to keep upright.

River Tyne and autumnal berries

I took this video of the river, so look and listen and enjoy the energetic but peaceful sound the water – no commentary needed.

One of the late blooming bushes to be seen up the country lane from the bridge is the holly. The photo below shows the prolific amount of berries on this bush, which forms part of the hedgerow at the side of the fields to your left and right as you walk up the lane to the road leading to East Linton (good photos) to your left and Tyninghame (good photos) to your right. The holly is usually associated with winter but autumn brings vibrant displays like this, but only on some bushes. Further down the lane there is a large holly bush, but it remains a thorny green, deprived of solid red berries. So, if you look around on your autumnal walk, you see the last of the leaves falling and dying – but later feeding the ground as they rot, but also the recent growth in the fields and on the holly bush. It may be colder now but, in some ways, autumn is the season of colour, perhaps in a more subtle manner than the gaudy summer, but no less beautiful.

Holly bush near the Knowes Farm

Villefranche Sur Mer and Nice marina

October 26, 2022

Many years ago, my wife and I had a holiday in Beaulieu Sur Mer (good photos) and I remembered swimming in the warm sea there. On our recent trip to Nice, my pal Roger and I went to Villefranche Sur Mer (good photos) which is the second stop on the train from Nice, while Beaulieu Sur Mer is the next stop. This is a beautiful and charming little town, built mainly on the hills surrounding the beach and the sea. One of the great pleasures of visiting the seaside towns of Provence is being able to walk straight into the sea, with no shock to your feet, your legs and the rest of your body which you experience if swimming in most of the UK. I have a memory of swimming in Cornwall with the water much less vengefully cold there, but still nothing like the welcoming, pleasant temperature of the Mediterranean. The photo below shows the beach at Villefranche and the calm, pleasurably blue sea, with its slight ripple and what Philip Larkin called “the small hushed waves repeated fresh collapse” in his great poem To the Sea.

The beach and sea at Villefranche Sur Mer

I took this video on the promenade, just along from the beach and you can briefly see the beaches to the left at the beginning of the video.

The town of Villefranche Sur Mer sits on steep hills around the bay. You can walk up from the railway station, through narrow streets with shops and cafés, up to The Citadel (good photos), a huge 16th century fortification built to protect the townspeople from raiders arriving by sea. The Citadel was “purchased by the commune in 1981” and houses the Town Hall and four museums (good photos of museum rooms). Unfortunately, on our visit, all the museums were closed for renovations and remain so. This was a major disappointment. You enter and exit the Citadel via a drawbridge. The photo below shows the chains of the drawbridge and note the solid walls, the thick wooden beams above the entrance/exit and the solid iron door. Also, you can see the wonderful view across the town from this point. The Citadel was built in the mid 1560s as a result of a Turkish attack in 1543, with 110 galleys headed by the pirate Barbarossa.

I took this video on the way up to the Citadel and it gives a good view of the town across the bay from the Citadel side. Note the train approaching the station, on its way back to Nice. If you are ever in this area, a visit to Villefranche Sur Mer is a must.

One of the proposed visits on our trip to Nice, in addition to going to the football to see Nice play Angers on the Sunday, was to visit the very impressive Museé Matisse (virtual tour in French). Unfortunately, when we got there, the museum was closed for 3 months from that day i.e. I had not checked the website before going. I was telling an Irish tourist in a café later about this and he said “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” – perhaps a cliché but a new one to me, and certainly a truism. There are terrific views of the city from the museum and also, next to it is the Cimiez Monastery which is well worth a visit. The photo below shows the inside of the monastery’s church and note the wonderfully preserved frescos on the ceiling – enlarge photo for best effect.

Cimiez Monastery in NIce

A walk around Nice marina (good video) is a pleasant way to enjoy a quieter part of the city. The range of yachts and motor cruisers – of various sizes – on view is impressive. There has been a vast amount of money spent on these pleasure boats and it makes you wonder how often they are used. Are they investments for rich people perhaps, rather than boats on which people regularly pursue leisure activities like sea fishing? On our visit, during the week, there was very few people about, apart from what looked like the crew on board the large cruiser you can see in the photo below. I am sure that many of the yachts on view here are an impressive sight with their sails up, out on the nearby ocean, but none were on view on our visit.

Nice marina

There are two very different, but equally interesting pieces of public art at the marina. The first is Lou Che by the contemporary sculptor Noël Dolla. The photo below shows this elegant and graceful sculpture which sits at the head of the marina, near the tram terminus. It represents three boats sailing on the waves and it is only when you look closely at the shapes (seen clearly in the enlarged photo), that you see the outlines of the three boats and you can feel the motion of the waves on these fragile looking structures as they make their perhaps perilous journeys across the sea.

Lou Che by Noël Dolla at NiceMarina

At the other end of the marina, going up the hill, you come across Un Dimanche A Nice (A Sunday in Nice) by the sculptor Stéphane Cipre (examples of his work). The photo below shows this unusual example of public art, which combines design, realism and humour, with the little car and its roof rack with lilo, ring and beach umbrella. As a metaphor for a Sunday outing to to beach in Nice, it is a very cleverly thought out and constructed work, suitably placed on the hill overlooking the marina.

Un Dimanche A Nice by Stéphance Cipre

Nice is one of these cities that you can visit time and time again and never tire of its attractions, its views, its restaurants and its variety of cultural activities on offer. Put Nice on your list.