Bordeaux visit (1) and The Black Eyed Blonde

May 24, 2017

We are not long back from a week’s holiday in Bordeaux, the beautiful city on  the river Garonne in the south west of France. It’s only a two hour flight from Edinburgh and we got through customs quickly. The hotel recommended that we get the Lianes 1+ bus, so we got that. We hadn’t realised that this bus stops everywhere and it took us 1 hour 10min to get to where we changed for the tram, because of rush hour traffic. So we just had to thole it. There is always an element of uncertainty when you travel to a new place and you never quite relax until you get to where you are staying. Where we did stay – the Hotel Vatel – was excellent in terms of comfort, staff and location.

From our hotel, we could see the River Garonne which flows around the city. It’s a wide river and some cruise liners (not the huge ones) parked on the quayside. There are a number of bridges across the Garonne, with the oldest being Le Pont de Pierre (good photos) which was ordered to be built by Napoleon and opened in 1822. It is a very impressive piece of engineering, with 17 spans, most of which you can see in the first photo below. You can walk or cycle across the bridge or cross it by bus or tram. Bordeaux has an excellent tram/bus service and you can get a ticket, which you can use on the tram and/or bus for 1Euro 50cents – this takes you anywhere you want in the city and lasts for an hour. There is a new bridge in Bordeaux, Le Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas (good photos) down river from Le Pont Pierre and it is a stunning example  of modern design, engineering and architecture. Unusually, the bridge has a vertical lift (see website) to allow the larger ships to pass under. You can see the bridge’s elegant towers in the second photo below and also, in the background, in the drum band photos below. The towers reminded us of the modern architecture we were used to seeing in Dubai when our son, daughter in law and twin granddaughters lived there.

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Le Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux (click to enlarge)

 

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Le Pont Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux

Another feature of the riverside is the promenade or quayside (good photos) where hundreds of people walk, cycle, roller blade and run every day. You have to watch carefully as some of the cyclists and roller bladers go at high speed, weaving their way in between walkers and runners. On the Sunday morning, we could hear the sound of drums further up the river, away from the centre. The drumming got louder and louder and the first of the drum bands approached. All the bands were brightly dressed and drummed with passion – it looked very hard work, so they must have been very fit to do the drumming.  This was a great addition to our Sunday morning stroll and very much appreciated by the many people on the quayside. Two of the bands are shown below.

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Sunday morning drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

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Drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

On the plane home, I finished reading Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) The Black Eyed Blonde, given to me by my good friend John. The book is written in the style of Raymond Chandler (podcast by John Banville) and features Chandler’s world-weary detective Philip Marlowe. It is a wonderful read, with a well-paced plot, interesting and believable characters, sharp dialogue and Marlowe’s accurate and often witty observations on people he meets and the world in general. Like the Chandler novels, this is one of these books that you can open at random and find something quotable. Marlowe is asked by a Miss Cavendish to find a man called Nico Peterson. Miss Cavendish is (like many women in Chandler novels) beautiful and Marlowe reflects on “.. the tip of her nose – and a very nice tip it was, to a very nice nose, aristocratic but not too narrow or too long, and nothing at all like Cleopatra’s jumbo snozzle”. This is typical of a Marlowe reflection – detailed and often containing wit. It turns out that Peterson was found dead but, on Marlowe’s second meeting with Miss Cavendish, she claims to have seen him alive. Marlowe follows a number of leads and meets a range of flawed (and sometimes unsavoury) characters and is subjected to serious violence at times in the story, like many detectives in novels. The ending is neat and not melodramatic. My (very literate) friend John argues that many crime novelists lose their nerve when it comes to ending their books and go for wildly dramatic and often violent scenes. Neither Chandler nor Black is ever likely to do that. This is a memorable novel, so get a hold of it any way you can.

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The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

 

Surgeons as writers and Americana by Ray Davies

May 9, 2017

The Saturday edition of The Guardian comes through the letter box and thumps on the floor, as it contains a variety of sections – the main paper, sport, review, travel, family and food. I keep the Review section  for Sunday mornings and I enjoy reading the main article, as well as the non-fiction, fiction and poetry book reviews. On Saturday, the main article was by William Boyd and entitled “A matter of life and death: The rise of the surgeon memoir”.  In the article, Boyd looks at the works of surgeons such as Atul Gawande, Henry Marsh and Gabriel Weston. Gawande’s Complications describe what Boyd calls “significant” procedures e.g. “We made a fast, deep slash down the middle of his abdomen”. Boyd quotes Gabriel (in Direct Red) “We cut the woman open from breastbone to pubis and cleared her gut out with one deep sweep.” Boyd then goes on to wonder “.. how anyone can do this as a matter of course on a near-daily basis and remain a happy, functioning human being”. The author is obviously enthralled by surgeons and notes that he happens to know four surgeons with international reputations and he elicits from one of them, Brendan Moran, what is need to become a top surgeon – a lack of squeamishness, strength, knowledge, skill and experience. It is an interesting article, with some detailed outlines of procedures that some people e.g. the squeamish, may wish to avoid, and it gives an insight into the working lives of top surgeons. I also found it a rather obsequious article in that Boyd seems to think that because these top surgeons are making life and death decisions (and they admit to making good and bad decisions), they must be on a higher plane than other professions and he finishes by referring to “the extraordinary profession they [surgeons] share and the phenomenal life they lead”. This raises the question of whether Boyd should be so amazed by the surgeon/writers. Would Boyd be so in awe of top researchers who have made major discoveries in science, medicine, history, psychology or chemistry i.e. people who have no physical contact with others? I think not and perhaps society as a whole has tended to treat people in the  medical profession (mainly doctors) as being cleverer than the rest of us. A surgeon has great responsibility but so has a bus driver or train driver or airline pilot. Read the article and see what you think.

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Direct Red by Gabriel Weston

I don’t buy much music these days but, having heard Ray Davies’ new album on Spotify, I bought it today.

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Americana by Ray Davies

Ray Davies has always been more than just a writer of pop songs. In his days with The Kinks, Davies wrote songs with a socially cutting edge e.g. Dead End Street (YouTube link) – “Out of work and got no money/ Sunday joint of bread and honey” or Lola  (YouTube link) about a young boy meeting a transvestite in a club. The new album also has a cutting edge and is based on Davies’ time in America – with The Kinks in the 1960s and 1970s, but also on more recent visits. The recurrent theme in the album is The Great Highway, both in the physical sense of travelling on the roads in the USA, but also life as a journey. There are many intriguing tracks on the album and almost all demonstrate Davies’ critical look at modern society, particularly in the USA, but also globally. In Poetry, he sings ” .. the great corporations providing our every need/And those big neon signs telling us what to eat” but he asks “Where is the poetry?” in the blandness of shopping malls and other aspects of today’s society. In A Long Drive Home To Tarzana, he finds that “.. there’s nothing there except/that space/ Beautiful space” and this seems to be the dream, to be away from the crowded cities. Davies is accompanied by the fabulous Jayhawks band, including Karen Grotberg, who duets with Davies to great effect. If you listen to the album, you’ll hear echoes of the Beatles in some tracks and Neil Young in others. In the first track, which you can listen to here (YouTube), the first lines are “I wanna make my home/Where the buffalo roam”. In Neil Young’s Far From Home (YouTube), the chorus starts “Bury me out on the prairie/Where the buffalo used to roam”. So, a superb album of country/rock with Davies’ ironic lyrics adding to some wonderful tunes.

No blog next week, as we are off to Bordeaux for a week’s holiday.

 

Smooth tattie dreels and bluebells

May 3, 2017

My home county of East Lothian is often referred to as “the garden of Scotland” because of its rich arable soil. In the past two weeks, several fields around Dunbar have been transformed from being roughly ploughed and not very interesting areas, into mesmerising rows of tattie (Scots for potato) dreels (Scots for drills). The first photo was taken at a slight angle to the dreels and I love the curvature of the shaped soil and how one set of dreels leads on to another further up the field – and the 2nd set appear to curve in a different direction.

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Tattie dreels on the edge of Dunbar (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is taken more or less straight on and the regimented dreels look like an endless set of brown piano keys, which might play a song such as (appropriately for this blog’s author) Tatties and Herrin. This song claims that the “natural food” of the Scots is potatoes and herring – and the video shows the reaping, gutting and barrelling of the herring (aka Silver Darlings). In the 1920s and 1930s, tatties and herrin’ were indeed the staple diet of many Scots people. Of course, in the 1920s and 1930s, before the advent of tractors, tatties would be sown by hand or by an early potato planter and they would be sown in much smaller fields, compared to the huge fields we see today. I have planted tatties in my own garden this year – the first time for over 30 years and yes, my dreels are smooth. When the first nascent shaws appear on my crop, I’ll post a photo

 

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Tattie dreels and the Lammermuir Hills

It’s May, so time for the bluebells to make their annual appearance and, for a brief time, be the dominant flower in woodland areas. A fellow blogger – Bookish Nature – has an excellent post on bluebells and she includes a lovely quote from Gerald Manley Hopkins and a clip from a Robert MacFarlane video, based on his excellent book The Wild Places. I ventured to the woods at Foxlake Adventures – as I did last year, to try to take better photos of the bluebells. The first two photos show the extensive bluebells among the trees at Foxlake. In some ways, the trees enhance the bluebells, emphasising their colour and showing how they cover the ground around the trees. The bluebells also enhance the tall, erect trees which are just coming into leaf, showing their mottled bark and their reach towards the light. In the 2nd photo, the sunshine has lightened the colour of the bluebells and strengthened the green of the new leaves. The bluebells will soon fade away but the leaves will get bigger and change colour to a darker green, so you have to appreciate the light green shapes that have emerged from the buds while they last.

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Bluebells beneath trees at Foxlake Woods

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Bluebells and trees in the sun at Foxlake Woods

Taking close-up photos of bluebells is something I find quite difficult but I keep trying. The first photo shows how the bluebell petals curl up when open and when you are looking down on stretches of bluebells, you hardly notice this feature, which is like women’s hairstyles in the 1960s. The vibrancy of the blue in the bluebell comes out very well here and you have to crouch down and look closely to appreciate this. So, next time you are in a bluebell strewn wood, hunker down and take a close-up view.

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Bluebell close up

For the 2nd photo, I had to hold the stem of the flower and turn it upwards. Bluebell flowers droop down, as if the flowers are too shy to show off their attractive pale cream anthers which hold the pollen. Only the creatures that scurry in amongst the bluebells, e.g. the beetles or perhaps a curious little wren, will appreciate the aesthetics of the underside of the bluebell. Seeing the bluebells in full colour and spread is a heart-warming sight, as you can feel the warmth in the colour of the flowers and know that Spring is well underway and soon the sun will have real warmth as well.

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Bluebell close up, showing pale cream anthers

Visit to Glamis Castle and Promotion!

April 24, 2017

On our visit to Alyth, after our delightful stay at Tigh Na Leigh, we headed for the historic Glamis Castle. The castle and the Thane of Glamis (pr Glams) is referred to in Shakespeare’s play MacBeth but the bard’s story is set in the 11th century and the castle was not built until much later. However, you will still be told that Duncan was indeed murdered in Glamis Castle, such is the longevity of myth. Glamis is not one of Scotland’s strongly fortified castles, it’s more of a grand house, property of a range of aristocrats over the centuries. The extensive gardens are certainly worth visiting, starting with a riverside walk. On our visit, the trees were just coming into bud and some of the rhododendrons were bursting into flower. We passed this bridge, with its elegant railings (photo below) on the way into a path leading into the woods.

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Railings on a riverside walk bridge at Glamis Castle (Click to enlarge)

There are some huge trees in the woods and many of them are multi-limbed, and look as if they might consist of more than one tree. There are certainly some very elegant shapes to be seen amongst the trees. In the photo below, the sunlight on the hump-backed tree trunk enhanced the smoothness of its shape and I like the shadows on the trunk. The footpath is wide in the woods and the trees are spread out, so it’s an enjoyable walk with plenty of light.

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Trees at Glamis Castle

At the end of the woods, is the Italian Garden (good photos) which is enclosed by thick hedges and contains a number of statues, as well as “two pleached alleys of beech” shown in the photo below. Pleached is a new word to me and it means that the branches of the trees are interwoven. As you walk through this alley and look up at the entangled branches, they have  a surreal quality, like an abstract sculpture.

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Pleached alley of beech at Glamis Castle

As you approach the front of the castle, you can view the original castle and the wings and turrets built by successive owners. I don’t find it a very attractive building, as it’s rather squat and there are too many turrets but I’m probably in a minority here. I do of course like the stonework but there is no mention of the people who actually built the castle.

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Glamis Castle front

Just outside the castle, there is a modern sculpture of Macbeth’s three witches, sitting around their cauldron, chanting “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”, although you have to listen carefully to hear it. The sculptures (photo below) were made from fallen trees on the castle’s estate.

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The three witches outside Glamis Castle

We went on the tour of the castle but you can’t take photographs. However, you can see many interior pictures of the rooms – many ornately decorated and furnished, here. The tour is informative and you get to see a mixture of the old and the modern. As the late Queen Mother stayed here often as a child, there is a lot of emphasis on royalty near the end of the tour. As this is of little interest to me, I concentrated on the décor.

You might be wondering why Promotion! is in the title of this post. Those people who have had an email from me will know that the strapline at the end of the message and my signature is “It’s hard tae be a Hibee”. My older son and I are long suffering season ticket holders at Easter Road in Edinburgh, home of Hibernian FC and for the last 3 years, we have endured the humiliation of being in the 2nd tier of Scottish football (aka soccer). This all changed just over a week ago, when we were promoted back to the top division. At the end of the game, Joy was not so much unconfined but beside herself. There was what some people might describe as a religious experience as 17,000 Hibees (as we are known) sang out “Sunshine on Leith”. This rather dirge-like song by The Proclaimers (fellow Hibees) contains a rousing chorus, with “Sunshine on Leith” as the key part. This is because the football ground is in Leith (good photos), a suburb of Edinburgh – and yes – the sun really did shine on Leith as we sang. So, when I use my season ticket (below) next season, we’ll be back.

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My season ticket

 

 

Tigh Na Leigh and their orchids

April 18, 2017

We went for an overnight stay last week to the village of Alyth (good photos) in Perthshire. As we drove towards Alyth, we passed many fields of raspberry canes and others with polytunnels for strawberries. We were now in the area of the Berry Fields O’Blair –  a famous Scots song about the people who used take a holiday in July and spend it picking berries. Another song is When the Yellow’s on the Broom (contains old photos) which is about the travelling people in Scotland who spent the winter in scaldy (i.e. non-travellers) houses, often in very poor conditions, but went berry picking in the summer. The song describes the travelling people as the gan(g)aboot folk, who tak tae the road when the broom flowers. We were booked in to the Tigh Na Leigh (pr Tie Na Lee) Guest House. You have to take the Guest House part with a pinch of salt. This is no ordinary guest house, it’s more of a boutique hotel, with luxurious accommodation. The website has several photos of the interior of the house and there were some exquisite touches such as the egg tree shown below in one of the very comfortable guest lounges.

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Egg tree at Tigh Na Leigh (Click to enlarge)

Also in this lounge, is a log fire built into the wall, with a glass front. Many years ago, we used to live in a house with 2 wood stoves, and there is no better heat than that which comes from burning logs. Also, there is the fascination with the action taking place in the fire itself. The logs attract the flames and are consumed by them, after changing shapes and colours many times. It’s hard to look away from the wildly exotic aerobics of the flames. Sitting by the fire with a glass of wine before dinner was a real treat.

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Log fire at Tigh Na Leigh

The owners, Bettina and Chris, made us very welcome and if you like aeroplane business class service, then Tigh Na Leigh is the place for you, as that’s what you get. We opted to eat in and were sent a menu the day before. For starters, I had a delicious twice-baked smoked haddock (smokie) soufflé, pictured below. This was delicious, with a creamy cheese sauce to enhance the light and delicate soufflé. Our main courses of duck comfit and salmon fillet were also very tasty and the food and wine is very reasonably priced

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Double baked “smokie” soufflé at Tigh Na Leigh

The large dining room, which also has a lounge area, looks out on an extensive garden with a large pond (photo below) and while we had dinner, there were a succession of birds appearing on the lawn or the pond. Behind the pond is large stone fronted mound which was built by the present owners but looks as if it’s been there for centuries, and it has a very natural looking waterfall emerging from it. You also have breakfast in this room and there were numerous bowls of fruit – raspberries, strawberries and blueberries – and fruit compote, as well as yoghurt and a range of cereals. This is in addition to the varied breakfast menu, which includes some of Chris’s excellent omelettes. When you stay here, you start the day very well. Bettina did tell us of one very unwelcome (and non-paying!) guest – an otter which ate all the fish in the pond and threatens to return if the pond is re-stocked. We cannot recommend this superlative accommodation too highly, so if you are travelling in Perthshire, don’t miss it.

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The pond at Tigh Na Leigh

Tigh Na Leigh has flowers in every room and on the stair, there are two beautiful orchids which were instantly attracted to my camera. According to the RHS “Indoor orchids are mainly epiphytic (growing on trees) or lithophytic (growing on rocks)”. So, two new words for my vocabulary, although don’t test me anytime soon. The orchids I saw were beautifully balanced and delicately coloured. In the first photo below, the petals appear to be made of whipped egg whites and stroked with purple food dye, while the centre looks like a small stage with an ornate backdrop.

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Orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

In the 2nd photo, we move into the surreal. The more you look, the more different images you are likely to see. A tiger’s head? A Daliesque set of tonsils? The colours are numerous shades of purple and yellow. The 3rd photo is perhaps more dreamlike and the top half could be an imaginary creature in a SciFi film. What of the bottom half? Purple moons from a planet hundreds of light years away? As ever, you are bound to see something else or different.

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

 

Redhouse Castle, walls and daffodils, and honeywort

April 11, 2017

Sometimes you get to places by accident. Recently, we were visiting the Carol Barrett exhibition and there was a huge queue of traffic going into Aberlady (good photos), we headed west, through Longniddry  and ended up at Redhouse Castle (good photos). There is a new garden centre next to the ruin of the castle, which is a late 16th century building originally standing 4 storeys high. The first photo shows the ruin from the edge of the garden centre. It is perhaps not one of the most attractive castles which have survived but, given the technology available in the late 16th century, it is an impressive site.

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Redhouse Castle., East Lothian (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo shows the arched entrance into what would once have been an impressive courtyard of the Douglas family who built the original castle. It was acquired by the Laings (good photos) in 1607.

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Entrance to Redhouse Castle, East Lothian

The final photo is a close up of the doorway into the castle. Above the wooden door, on the pediment, can be seen the Laing family coat of arms and the initials MIL for Master John (Ioannes) Laing and RD for his wife Rebecca Dennistoun or Deenistoun. The motto on the lintel is Nisi Dominus Frustra – one translation being without the Lord, all is in vain, although like many Latin mottos, other translations exist. The stonework around the doorways is smooth, unlike the rougher – but more attractive, sandstone of the building itself.

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Doorway into Redhouse Castle, with the Laing family arms

On to stonework which is on a much lesser scale but, as I built most of it myself, remains attractive and has been enhanced by the array of daffodils now in flower above the walls. The first photo is of the first wall which I built with much advice and help from former stonemason Ian Sammels. This remains – unsurprisingly – the most impressive wall.

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The Sammels/Herring all and Spring flowers

The 2nd photo is of the latest – and final(?) stonewall, which I built myself. The mixture of daffodil types – white or yellow petalled – with the different shades of red sandstone, plus the shadows of the bushes behind, make this – I think – a well composed photos.

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The Herring wall with a variety of daffodils

A new plant in my garden is honeywort, given to me by my lifelong friend and fellow blogger Tam Bruce and his wife Sandra. Tam gave me two cuttings from their impressive garden in Edinburgh. This plant, shown below, has the wonderful name of Cerinthe major “Purpurascens”. It is a long established plant which attracts bees – thus its name – and one source quotes Virgil as ” using this plant as an offering to swarming bees in order to entice them into a new hive”.  As the photo shows, the plant has very colourful  tubular bell flowers, and at the moment, the leaves are starting to change colour and will develop into brilliant blue leaves or, more precisely, bracts which are defined as “leaf like structures”. So there is more to come from this plant, which seeds itself vigorously and has to be controlled. Tam and I had some fun in email exchanges, suggesting a modern update of the Beatles’ song Honey Pie, with a new line of “Honeywort, you are driving me crazy..”. I like the shadow of the plant against the stone and its intriguing shapes.

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Honeywort in my garden

 

Carol Barrett exhibition and Wagga Beach

April 3, 2017

It was on 22 March 2014 that I last featured an exhibition by the superb wildlife artist Carol Barrett on this blog. The artist has another exhibition of her paintings at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, of which I am a member  although I’m not a practising birder. Just as the Inuit People don’t like to be called Eskimos, so birders don’t like to be called twitchers. This new exhibition – only on until 5th April – a few days hence – is one we’ve been meaning to visit for ages but it was certainly worth the effort. While the last exhibition concentrated fully on Carol Barrett’s stunning paintings of African wildlife, especially the magnificent elephants, the current exhibition has an Australian section. The African part of the exhibition contains intensely detailed portraits of elephants, lions, hyenas and cheetahs. It is the detail e.g. of the lion or cheetah’s whiskers that is so impressive and Carol Barrett’s paintings do present these graceful but powerful animals very well. In the Australian part of the exhibition, there are beautiful portrayals of birds – rosellas, cockatoos and kookaburras – as well as animals such as koalas. This section brought back memories of our 3 year stay in Australia in the 2000s. Before going to work for Charles Sturt University, I was told that I would see what were referred to as budgies and parrots flying around. I thought I was being teased but in fact, you do see budgies/parakeets and many different kinds of parrots in towns and in the countryside. As an aside, the term budgies is also Australian slang for men’s tight fitting swimming trunks or speedos.

I emailed Carol Barrett and she kindly sent me two samples from the exhibition. The first is of a sulphur crested cockatoo. This is a fine image and captures the bird’s rather haughty look, its punk hairstyle, its vicious beak and alert brown eye. This is a cockatoo at peace with the world. These birds often sound as if they are at war with the world. The first time I heard these birds was when, not long after arriving in Wagga Wagga to live, I was out cycling in the countryside. I passed a large tree but did not see the birds in it. The next thing I knew was that there was a hellish screeching just behind me and then in front of me as a group of cockatoos screamed past me. I really did get a fright. If you went down to the Murrumbidgee River (good photos) in Wagga Wagga at dusk, hundreds of cockatoos came to roost and there was a great cacophony of noise at the water’s edge.

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Sulphur Crested Cockatoo by Carol Barrett (Click to enlarge)

The second painting is of a blue winged kookaburra. This bird is a bit smaller than the better known laughing kookaburra which we saw quite often in the woods around Wagga Wagga. The colours in this painting are delicately presented and I like the way the different shades of blue flow down the beak, body and tail of the bird. This looks like a well manicured bird, with its head feathers blow dried and swept back. When we saw the laughing kookaburras, there was sometimes a family sitting on a tree branch. This bird of course is known for its “laughing” call and we’d sometimes hear them calling out their merry cry at the edge of the Murrumbidgee. You can see the bird and hear its call here.

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Blue Winged Kookaburra by Carol Barrett

To complement Carol Barrett’s depiction of a kookaburra, I’m adding 2 photos of my own. the first was taken in  large park during a visit to friends in the outer Western suburbs of Sydney. These two kookaburras were quite nonchalant about my approach and my camera clicking. They have superb, symmetrically patterned tails and large, protruding beaks. Considering the raucousness of their laughing call, kookaburras appear the calmest of birds.

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Laughing Kookaburras in the Western Sydney suburbs

 

The second was taken at Wagga Beach (good photos). Now, many of you will know that Wagga Wagga is 283 miles (455K) from Sydney but there is a sign on the way to the Murrumbidgee River in Wagga Wagga saying Wagga Beach – a little local joke. There is some sand at this point on the river’s edge and many people go swimming in the river in the summer time, so maybe it can be classified as beach – just an inland one.

 

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Laughing Kookaburra at Wagga Beach

 

Back to St Abbs and Spring flowers (2)

March 26, 2017

On Sunday, another visit to one of our favourite places, St Abbs Head (good photos), featured many times on this blog. It’s a small village but you can vary your walks and views nearby and always see something just a bit different from the last time. We parked at the National Trust car park and walked down past the farm on our left, which had a shed full of sheep just about to lamb. We saw some lambs in a nearby field and I managed to capture them amongst some shapely reflections of the trees.

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Lambs at St Abbs (Click to enlarge)

We went up the first part of the cliff top walk – going west to east – but only wanted a short walk, so we didn’t go any further. On the way back, you look across the to village of St Abbs Head, past the ragged shaped outcrop of rock (Photo below). It made me wonder whether, in a hundred or two hundred years, that rock column, sculpted by the weather, will still be there. It’s a superb view, taking in the harbour and all the houses built on the once empty cliffs above. There was only a gentle swell on the sea that day, with the waves edging slowly around the rocks, and not crashing over them as they often do.

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Rock column and St Abbs Head village

The next photo is from an angle I don’t think I’ve taken a shot from before. It is looking back across the edge of the harbour towards the clifftop walk, with the impressive Northfield House prominent on the cliff. The rock column in the photo above is just to the top right of this photo. Behind the house on the left with the red roof, with chimneys at either end (like the house to its right), there is a wooden staircase which leads you up to the impressive St Abbs Visitor Centre, which is well worth a visit.

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View across St Abbs Head arbour to the cliff walk

We walked back to the car park and, at the end of the farm buildings, I came across a trailer load of neeps – see photo below. In Scotland, we call them neeps or turnips. In England, they are called Swedes. What people in other parts of Britain call turnips, which are much smaller than neeps, we call white turnips. Around Dunbar, you will also hear people referring to Tumshies, another name for neeps/Swedes/turnips. Very confusing? For your amusement, but maybe not illumination, read this excellent Guardian article on the subject.

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A trailer load of neeps at St Abbs Head.

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Close up of neeps at St Abbs Head

And so to the second reflection on Spring flowers. In many towns in Scotland, councils in recent years have greatly expanded the planting of Spring flowers and it is not unusual to see great swathes of bright yellow and white crocuses at the entrance to these towns. Councils also planted thousand of daffodils and it is they which now take centre stage, as the crocuses have faded. There is something uplifting about seeing large groups of daffodils and I think Wordsworth had something to say on the topic in two versions (see website). I took a photo of daffodils on a banking at The Glebe in Dunbar. This small park overlooks the sea and the harbour entrance. The photo looks towards the remains of Dunbar Castle(good photos).

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Daffodils on a banking The Glebe, Dunbar

My aim every year is to take very clear close-up photos of flowers, to get to the heart of them and look at them as abstract shapes as well as attractive flowers. In the first photo below, I took two contrasting daffodils, one with white petals and one with yellow petals. They are both enchanting flowers but maybe the white petals emphasise the yellow, choir boys’ ruff of the flower’s centre more. Both have delicate stigma which thrust out to attract the pollen seekers. They are like mini corn on the cob with extensions.

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Two daffodils in my garden

In the final photo, I like the delicate folds in the prawn cracker petals and the ragged edge of the flower is similar to the rock face above at St Abbs. Also, the colour in the flower is not uniformly yellow but contains various shades, making it even more attractive.

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Yellow and white daffodil in my garden

 

Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” and Spring flowers (1)

March 17, 2017

It’s not often that you come across a novel that is absolutely riveting and makes you want to write down a quote from every page of the book, but the new novel by Sebastian Barry –  Days Without End comes into this category. You can listen to an excellent Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Barry about his novel and this adds further insight into the book. The novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty, who was among thousands who fled from Ireland when the potato famine struck. McNulty briefly tells us of his arrival in Canada on a ship where “I was among the destitute, the ruined and the starving for six weeks”. The Irish who reached Canada “were nothing. No one wanted us… We were a plague. We were only rats of people”. When McNulty subsequently meets a fellow teenager “handsome John Cole” who becomes his life-long friend and lover, he tells us “I was a human louse, even evil people shunned me”. This feeling of McNulty’s – that he and his kind are worthless – continues throughout the book, and McNulty explains that his and John Cole’s ability to withstand the horrors they see, comes partly from this. The book tells of the boys’ and subsequently men’s lives as dancers dressed up as women to entertain miners, then as soldiers engaged in “cleansing” the frontier of Indians and then as regular soldiers in the American Civil.

Barry’s writing is described by reviewers of the book as “vibrant”, “beautiful and affecting”, “exhilarating” and “vivid”. He is one of these writers with an enviable ability to produce descriptions that make your read them again. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find them. The soldiers eat with “the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders”. Other soldiers, sent out to meet an Indian chief and his followers “rode like chaps expecting Death rather than Christmas”. There are detailed battle scenes in the book, but also moments of tenderness and humour. Barry does not shrink from describing mass killing – of Indian men, women and children and of rebel soldiers – but he manages to focus on the personal. In the heat of the battle with the rebels, McNulty reflects “Other things I see is how thin these boys [rebels] are, how strange like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones”. I am two-thirds through this astonishing novel already and I know that when I get near the end, I’ll want it to continue for another 300 pages. Go and buy it.

 

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Sebastian Barry’s stunning novel

Spring really has sprung around here and there is now an abundance of colour in my garden, with much more to come. The first photo is of a tulip from a vase in the house – my own tulips are biding their time, letting the daffodils have their spot in the sunlight, before they upstage them with a glorious display of colour. As readers of this blog will know, what fascinates me in particular is the insides of flowers and their often surreal appearance. I love the symmetry in this tulip as well as the vibrant colours and the central feature, which could be a creature from a sci-fi film or something inexplicable found by archaeologists in a 3000 year old grave. What do you see here?

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Close up of a tulip flower head (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is of violas on the side of our hanging basket at the front door. The cyclamen in the body of the hanging basket has passed its best. The violas, planted last autumn wore plain green coats all winter and shrivelled in the frost at times. In the past 2 weeks however, they are transformed and show us purple and yellow dresses in a display of sartorial elegance. They are delicate little flowers but have eye-catching, mascara like centre patterns. As the title of this blog post indicates, there will be more Spring flowers to follow.

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Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

Contrasting seas and a bulb that might “see me oot”

March 10, 2017

I’m very lucky not only to  be living by the sea but having an uninterrupted view of the sea from my back door. Each morning when I open the blinds in our conservatory, I see something different and, of course, unique. The tide will be fully in or fully out, but more usually at some stage in between. The uniqueness of the sea – that individual wave will never been seen again, although its almost identical siblings will – and the sky – those clouds will never be seen again and if it’s a clear blue sky, that shade of blue will never be exactly reproduced. It always looks similar but it’s never the same. There are rocks that emerge on the outgoing tide and they attract a variety of birds, which I view through my scope. This morning, there was a small group of dunlin (includes video). These are energetic little birds (see video) and pitter-patter amongst the rock pools, constantly feeding. I also see groups of maybe 20 dunlin take off and fly around. As you watch them they turn and flash their white bellies. It’s like a magic trick as first you see birds flying, then you see an aeronautic display of little white shapes. I hadn’t realised – until I did a search on a well known search engine – that you can see murmurations of dunlin, as in this spectacular video.

What I see out of my window depends, of course on the weather and last week, on consecutive days, I had contrasting views of the sea. On one day, as in the photos below, the sea was universally grey, apart from the white waves, and the rain battered the balustrade. I took the photos in a slight lull, when the rain had eased off a touch. For most of the morning, the rain spat angrily at the sea, the land and our house. It was driven on by its pal the wind, which blew off the tops of the waves. So going for walk was not an option. However, there’s a certain pleasure to be had from watching the wind and rain from the calm interior of your house. I found it interesting when I lived for a while in Australia, that people there would still have corrugated roofs on very expensive houses, as they liked the sound of the rain on the roof.

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Grey seas in Dunbar

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Grey seas and sky in Dunbar

The next day, the outlook was completely transformed. The storm had worn itself out, the rain had gone elsewhere and the wind – an angry old man yesterday – was now a twenty-something breeze, bringing warmth and calm. In the photos below, the white waves really are white against the blue sea and there’s a lightness about the sky, so different from yesterday’s heavy and almost indistinguishable clouds. I find it interesting that we would mostly see the 2nd photos as containing more beauty than the first two. Is that because we are conditioned to see light as more beautiful than dark?

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Spring pots on the decking, blue sea and sky at my back door

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Blue skies and blue sea in Dunbar

Last week, we had to replace the bulb in our bathroom and my wife returned with a new bulb. We have a solatube light fitting, which brings in natural light during the day from the roof and is fitted with an electric light for night time. The light – photo below taken in daylight – looks as if it has 4 bulbs but it has only 1.

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Solatube light source

When I got the new bulb, I looked at the packaging (below) and I noticed 2 things. Firstly, not only does it use 85% less energy and you save lots of money BUT it claims that it will last 23 years! There’s a Scottish expression which people use, usually in a jocular fashion, addressed to someone of a certain age – “Aye, it’ll see ye oot” (will see you out). This means that a person who has bought e.g. new furniture may die before the furniture is replaced. Now, I’m hoping that I will still be here in 23 years time, although as a Scottish male, certain statistics may be against me i.e. it might “see me oot”. The second thing I noticed was the wording at the bottom right of the photo below i.e. that the bulb will “deliver a colour matching the warm and comforting feel of an older incandescent lamp”. It was the word incandescent that intrigued me, as I’d never heard of an “incandescent lamp”. Looking it up, I discovered the history of such lights which  were a real breakthrough in their time. The original incandescent lamps were, according to this website ” Not energy efficient (90% of energy goes to heat, 10% makes visible light”. So now I know. I knew what incandescent meant, in terms of someone being, for example, in an incandescent rage, meaning that they were furious. By coincidence, reading this morning’s Guardian Sport, one article begins “Jose Mourinho was left incandescent after a UEFA official appeared to laugh off his concern…” This of course made me think about what an incandescent lamp might be like. A lamp so mistreated by its owners that it refuses to light up except when they leave the room and go to bed? A jealous lamp, following the arrival of a new lamp in the room, switching itself off and on constantly? Okay, I know that a lamp is an inanimate object but, can you prove that your lamps don’t light up when you’re not there?

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Light bulb packaging