Return to Thorntonloch Beach: Stones, rocks and incoming tide

April 6, 2021

It is two months since I posted a blog about Thorntonloch beach. My 2016 book on the people who visited the beach to see the 147 whales stranded there in 1950 has sold well, earning funds for Dunbar and District History Society as I take no royalties. The recent visit was on a sunny and calm day with a gentle sea nonchalantly making its way to the shore in a series of what appeared to be very relaxed waves. Over the years, a huge mass of stones has been accumulated at the edge of the beach and they are a very attractive sight. The photo below shows this long trail of stones along the beach, with the flat sand beyond. This was a day for the blues – not sorrows or American music – but a range of blue colours on the sea and in the sky. At the far end of the photo, Torness Nuclear Power Station dominates the skyline.

Stoney edge to Thorntonloch beach (Click on all photos to enlarge -recommended)

It is worthwhile stopping and taking a closer look at the stones, with their myriad of shapes and colours. The photo below shows some examples of very smooth, graceful blue stones that are very pleasant just to hold in your hand and feel the result of perhaps thousand of years of sculpting by the waves. There are other stones that will never be completely smooth, pockmarked as they are by fossils. There is a smaller, striped stone just to the left of centre middle and this is perhaps the most striking of the stones. If you cast your eye slowly along the stones from right to left and top to bottom, you see an apparently randomly aggregated collection. Are there patterns in the stones and shadows that we humans can’t see but the oystercatchers which feed on the shore can? We’ll never know.

Smooth stones on Thorntonloch beach

The tide was quite far out on our visit this time and revealed a series of rocks along the beach. The photo below shows a rock which looks like a dolphin or one of the small whales from 1950. The nose appears to be drinking from the black liquid on the beach. There are a fascinating number of contours on this rock, which looks like a large island in the ocean, seen from a plane. In the photo, you can also see (particularly in the enlarged photo) the patterns on the sand left by the outgoing tide and these resemble hieroglyphics found on ancient stones.

Rock on Thorntonloch beach

The rocks in the photo below have a completely different appearance. They are covered in what looks like black seaweed strips which appear to have been petrified on to the rock. The blackness of the seaweed may suggest some kind of pollution in the past but they can be seen as solid, maybe hand painted sculptures, that might appear in an avant-garde gallery as exhibits. I also like the sharp edged shadows next to the rocks and of course, as the earth moves round the sun, these shadows will change shape and finally disappear.

Seaweedy rocks on Thorntonloch beach

As I write this, there is a huge tide at the back of our house, reminding me of Tracey Herd‘s poem Seabirds in which “The wind has the sea’s grey heart/ in its wolfish teeth, pulling/ hysterical waves by their/ bent, defeated necks towards/ an empty beach”. The scene at Thorntonloch was the diametric opposite, with little wind and the waves easing their way on to the shore, as if tomorrow would do. You can see the waves in the photo below which also shows more of the multi-faceted rocks, and intriguing patterns on the sand, on this magnificent beach.

Rocks and tiny rippling waves on Thorntonloch beach

I took this video which shows the larger but still relatively small waves out to sea and you can hear how the sea made only a gentle sound as it moved towards me. I also comment on the survey vessel and you can read more on this and see larger photos of the vessel here. This was a spirit-uplifting walk and we felt privileged to have this brilliant location not far from home.

Scottish Birds’ photography and James Lee Burke’s New Iberian Blues

March 29, 2021

The latest edition of Scottish Birds cam through the door last week and it has some outstanding photography in it, as well, of course, as some excellent research articles. I contacted Harry Scott of Pica Design (new website soon), who does the design and typesetting for the journal, and he gained the permission of the photographers identified below for me to use photos from Scottish Birds – so thanks to all.

The first photo is of a yellow-bellied flycatcher (good photos) which has the elegant scientific name of Empidonax flaviventris. This rare bird – for the UK – was spotted by RSPB officer John Bowler in his garden at Balephuil (good photos), a hamlet in Tiree on the far west coast of Scotland. In the Scottish Birds article, Bowler describes the bird as “Rich olive green above, with a complete bold eye-ring, an orange lower mandible, a distinct yellow suffusion on the throat and down the centre of the breast and the belly, olive washed breast sides and very striking yellowish-buff wing-bars, and edgings to the tertials and secondaries”. This is using technical birding language, which you would expect in a journal of this kind. The “eye-ring” is obvious and can be made of “orbital feathers” of dry skin and the “lower mandible” is the lower part of the bird’s bill or beak. I like the term suffusion as it suggests that the bird may have been dipped in yellow for quite a while to let the colour soak into it. Tertials are the feathers closest to the body and secondaries are “Long flight feathers growing from the forearm of a wing” according to Avian Report. The photo of the bird is a piece of art, which can be appreciated for its shapes e.g. the tail feathers, the contrasting blue and yellow of the beak and the elegant marble-like eye. The bird’s feet, by contrast, do not seem to fit its body and look as if they could be made of metal and attached to the bird. You might imagine that you could dip one of the bird’s claws, dip it in ink, and write a letter with it.

Yellow-bellied flycatcher – photo by Chris Griffin (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The second example – in the photo below – is of a more common, but no less striking bird – a chaffinch, which has the awkward sounding scientific name of Fringilla coelebs. You can learn more about the chaffinch and listen to her/his graceful song here. The origin of the name of the bird is disputed and may come from the French chauf meaning bald or it may come from the old English ceaffinc – literally chaff finch i.e . a bird that eats grain amongst the chaff or straw after a harvest. You can often see chaffinches on bird feeders and more often than not, they are on the table, picking up spilled grain left by other birds. I particularly like this photo because it captures the bird on barb wire and the barb on the wire looks as it may be made out of chaffinch feet. This is a smoothly handsome bird, with its variety of colour and splashes of white on its wings, and there is a look of determination and concentration in it’s eye. Maybe it is on the lookout for a suitable mate or just wary of these pesky, humungous humans that come too near.

Chaffinch – photo by Zul Bhatia

The third photo from Scottish Birds is another bird with an interesting profile and there is an intriguing story to go with it. This is a male bearded tit (short video and call) Panurus Biarmicus and as you can see in the short video, this is a bird that never stays still, and in the photo below, the bird may have been moving. Nevertheless, it is a splendid sight with its bright yellow beak and softly hued body and tail feathers. It also has two black patches coming down from its eyes and in some photos of the bearded tit, it looks quite comical, with the black patches taking on the appearance of a drooping moustache. You can see that this is a ringed bird, with its tag just above its sharp black feet.

Male bearded tit – photo by Joyce Moyes

If you look closely at the reed on which the bearded tit above is perched, you will see that it has been burnt. The photo was taken in the aftermath of a serious fire in the Tay Reedbeds (good photos) which is an RSPB nature reserve on the banks of the River Tay in central Scotland. In Scottish Birds, author Steve Moyes notes that this area “forms the largest area of continuous reedbeds in the UK”. In April 2020, the reedbeds suffered a devastating fire in which 25% of the reedbed was lost and this was “approximately 50% of the best breeding areas in the reedbeds”. Many birds were lost in nests during the fire, but Moyes more optimistically writes that the reedbeds will recover in 2021 and the birds will return. Aesthetically, the burnt and half scorched reeds add the quality of the photo.

I recently finished James Lee Burke‘s New Iberian Blues (review) featuring his now very well known detective Dave Robicheaux. I have now read several of Burke’s Robicheaux books and have never been disappointed. The books are set in the bayou area in the far south of the USA, in and around New Orleans, and Burke’s descriptions of the water, the trees and the sunsets give the reader a real sense of place. The review above notes that Burke presents us with “a cast of southern grotesque characters worthy of Flannery O’Connor” – high praise indeed. These include Cormier, a local boy who has become a famous film director, Butterworth whom Robicheaux suspects of evil deeds, Smiley Wimple who is known to be a psychotic killer of “bad people”, Tillinger who has escaped from prison, having been sentenced for killing his family, and Wexler, who befriends Robicheaux’s daughter Alafair. There are murders throughout the book, so Burke’s novels are not for the faint-hearted, but Burke is such an excellent story teller and developer of characters with whom we become intrigued, that the reader is carried along.

Robicheaux himself and his long-time friend and ex-police colleague Clete Purcell are complex people and although we may have read several Robicheaux books, his character is always intriguing – his struggle with being an alcoholic, staying dry and attending AA meetings, his traumatic memories of Vietnam, his deep moral sense of what is right, his suspicion of local politicians and some in the police, and his protective stance towards his grown up daughter. The story is complex but Burke is always in control of the plot which develops into a believable conclusion, which is free of the melodrama in many crime novels. Burke is the ultimate storyteller and has an enviably easy style, which few writers of this genre – or any other genre – can match. If you like crime novels with depth of character, this is a must read.

Bayou setting for Burke’s book

Stenton village: Crocuses, Graveyard and Kirk

March 21, 2021

I last posted a blog on Stenton village in 2019, so on a sunny day this week, I revisited Stenton to see their exquisite display of crocuses. I then went into the graveyard of the village kirk/church to take photos of the kirk, and found some interesting sculpture there. In the UK at the moment, we have the bizarre situation of the golf courses being open in Scotland and the churches closed, whereas in the rest of the UK, the churches are open and the golf courses are closed. All purely political interpretations of the dangers of the pandemic.

I mainly went to see the crocuses in Stenton as the village always has one of the most vibrant displays for miles around. The photo below shows the mass of crocuses beside The Tron – a device which was historically used to weigh bulk items such as wool and grain in the markets which were held in the village from the 17th century onwards. The word tron is derived from the French word for balance. If you have not been to the village before at this time of year and you walk on past the kirk (spires above the house roof on the left), you get a welcome surprise by this sudden splash of colour, which stretches for about 8 metres from the end of the green to The Tron. It is a very uplifting sight and on this warm (for Scotland) Spring day, the crocuses were putting on their best display.

Crocuses in Stenton (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I took another photo from the middle of the road – no cars coming either way – and I caught the shadows of the trees behind me. I would like to say that this was a deliberate act on my part as the photographer but …. I like the way the shadow of The Tron lies on the path like a minimalist scarecrow. Also, if you look at the houses behind The Tron, you will see on the right, that there is a stone staircase leading to a flat above. The two flats look tiny but may be spacious inside. There is beautiful stonework – red and grey sandstone quarried locally – all around Stenton, in the houses, the walls and the kirk.

Tree shadows, crocuses and The Tron in Stenton

While the crocuses look attractive en masse, it is when you look at them close-up that you appreciate their delicate beauty. When the crocuses are fully open to the sun, as they were on the day of my visit, you are treated – as in the two photos below – to a brilliant display of colour, patterns and what look like birds’ wings ready for take off. You might say that the crocus petals, so elegant and graceful, have the look of a porcelain dish, but that would be to diminish the flowers. Long before potters were decorating their plates and dishes, crocus flowers were abundant in what is now southern Greece. So it is the porcelain that mimics the flowers, not the reverse. If you look at the patterns on the petals, you can see what looks like the recent David Hockney paintings of trees. In the second photo, the colours are paler but the bright orange stigma are more prominent and will maybe attract more bees.

Crocuses at Stenton

 

Crocuses at Stenton

Just around the corner from The Tron is the back entrance to Stenton Kirk, officially known as Stenton Parish Church, built in 1829 although the original church, the bell tower of which still remains – as a doocot – was built in the 12th century. As you enter the graveyard, there are a wide variety of gravestones on view, with the church looming over them. In the photo below, you can see part of the former bell tower on the left and the different stone used to mark the dead, as well as a plethora of different designs and sizes. You can always tell how important (and wealthy) people were by the size of their gravestones. The stone that intrigued me most was the one with carved red sandstone on the right.

Stenton Kirk graveyard

Looking closer, I saw that nearer the top of the gravestone/mini-monument to the deceased, was a figure holding a skull, as in the photo below. The figure holding the skull appears to be a man of wealth or importance – maybe a minister of the kirk, or a lawyer or local landowner. I tried to find an explanation for this figure but did not find anything which adequately explains it. A skull on a gravestone represents death, to which we all must succumb, but what the man holding the skull represents, I still do not know. If anyone reading this blog post does know, please get in touch.

Close-up of gravestone in Stenton Kirkyard

On to the church itself which was designed by the Scottish Architect William Burn who designed or remodelled many churches and country houses in Scotland in the 19th century. The kirk/church is described as “a T-plan kirk with a splendid east tower” and you can see the tower dominating the skyline in the photo below, which also gives you an idea of the T-plan. Given the size of Stenton village, the church is huge in comparison to any other buildings nearby and must have seemed enormous to the people living there in the 1830s. The John Gray Centre notes that in 1841, there were 696 people in Stenton and that the village had ” a good range of shops, workshops and other businesses – baker, tailors, clothier, grocer, shoemakers, a couple of general merchants (licenced) and a spirit dealer”. I like the pattern of the stonework on the church walls below with the contrast between the darker red sandstone and the lighter coloured stone.

Stenton kirk

The churchyard also has some magnificent trees which add to the pleasant walk around the church. The photo below shows one of the trees and the girth of the tree at the bottom suggests it might have been planted around the time of the church being built.

Tree in Stenton kirkyard

The falls at the Knowes Farm and Paul Morely’s Fury

March 11, 2021

One of our regular walks starts at the Knowes Farm which is about 5 miles/8K from Dunbar. We parked near what used to be the Knowes Farm shop – photo below. The farm shop is now in the village of East Linton – a mile away – and is known as The Mart. From here, it is a short walk past the farm buildings and a small field with horses in it and you end up at the bridge across the River Tyne.

The old Knowes Farm shop – photo by Walter Baxter and used under Creative Commons Licence. (click on all photos to enlarge -recommended)

We normally walk over the bridge – photo below – and walk around the small forest to where there is a weir. Stopping on the bridge, especially on a sunny day as in the photo, you can look down on the rushing water at the crossing, as well as the reflections of the trees in the water. The photo is taken on a new path on the south side of the river and we only found this path recently. Our normal walk to the weir gives us a view of the weir itself and you can just see the rushing falls from that side. As we discovered, on this new path, you get a ringside view of the falls.

The bridge near the Knowes Farm

The path on the south side of the river is much rougher than on the north side and there are notices here warning people NOT to feed the horses which might be in the adjacent field. Approaching the falls, the view you get is shown below – and it is a grand view. The water, so calm on the weir itself, is precipitately launched down the slope and, turning a foamy white, hurtles its way downstream. The trees are still bare at the moment and this gives a better view of the river. The leafless trees appear to have been frozen while waving their branches about, either in joy or rage, but you can still see movement in their gesticulating branches. There was almost no wind on this early Spring day, with just a few wispy clouds to interrupt the big blue Australian sky.

Looking to the falls on the River Tyne

Closer to the falls, as the photo below shows, there is much more of a sense of the sheer strength of the river pushing the water onwards, eventually to the sea. At the left hand side of the photo, you can see an open sluice gate which is unused nowadays but was presumably put to some use by farmers in the past, perhaps to store more water in the weir when the river was low. There is still some snow melt coming off the hills at this time of year, so the river level was quite high. There is another sluice gate which is situated in the middle of the photo, where there is a pile of washed up tree branches of various sizes. It was here that, just before we were about to turn back, I spotted a dipper (good photos and bird song) standing near the sluice gate and bobbing up and down, as if perhaps performing some kind of mating ritual. You can see this elegant and graceful little bird in action in this video. This was my first ever sighting of a dipper.

Torrents of water at the River Tyne falls

It is a short but very interesting walk along the riverside and it is calmness personified until you reach the start of the falls, where the water starts to get excited. When you get to the falls, you need to stop and just listen to the water making its own symphony. I took the video below to capture this exquisite sound.

The Poetry Book Society Choice for Autumn 2020 was Paul Morley‘s superb collection entitled Fury (review). The title of the book comes from a powerful poem in the book which is written in the voice of the UK boxer Tyson Fury also known as the Gypsy King. The main theme of the book how the lives of the Romany/Romani people (and Morley uses the term Gypsy also) are affected by prejudice. Morley also celebrates the Romany people on their travels e.g. to horse fairs in Appleby Kirk. Some of the poems are heavy with Romany dialect and I found these difficult to read at first but on re-reading, words like andesára (twilight), chiriklos (birds) and wesh (forest) give you a feel Morley’s delight in the richness of this language. Morley is a former winner of the Ted Hughes Award and is recognised as one of the UK’s leading nature poets.

What I most enjoyed about this book were the lyrical poems about nature. In the poem When I Heard the Calling of Birds, Morley refers to “emerald humming birds”, “When lazuli buntings burst in a blue cloud”, “the rapid-fire of woodpeckers in the pines” and “When stygian owls plied their sorrow-flutes in reeds”. In Sixth Lyrebird Morley takes in animals as well as birds, with “quicksilver bubbles of an otter”, “caws in a beech tree’s apoplectic rookery”, “the pin drop of a Pine Marten pattering over pine-needles” and “an Arctic Wolf’s snowball-pawed, trigger-clawed cubs”. This is a joyous and original take on wildlife e.g. the apoplectic rookery reminds you of passing trees with rooks or crows and hearing a cacophony of bird calls. I also enjoyed alliteration in the pine marten line. Finally, from 7th caravan I quote two exquisite and very imaginative lines – “This world is thrush-song, linnet-bustle in mayflower/ Geese grizzle on the ponds with hung-over necks”. I will return to this book just to once again appreciate Morley’s talent and his vivid imagery.

David Morley’s stunning book of poetry

Snowdrops in the snow at Smeaton Lake and how the ice changed the views across the lake.

March 2, 2021

The day before the thaw after the recent cold spell, we went to Smeaton Lake which is about 6 miles/10K from Dunbar. I wrote about this interesting place two year ago on the blog. The conditions between then and our recent visit could not be more contrasting. Most of the ground below the trees was covered in snow and the lake was frozen solid. The snowdrops had emerged before the snow but, being the hardy plants that they are, ignored the freezing conditions and put on a display. The photo below shows the delicate green stems and perfectly formed heads of the snowdrops. Alice Oswald’s words are very appropriate here. “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”. This graceful flower – Galanthus Nivalis – is also known as February Fair-Maid (Tennyson) and Candlemas Bell in this interesting article in The Independent.

Snowdrops and ice at Smeaton Lake (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

As you walk along the path – mostly clear and ice-free on our visit – there are little clumps of snowdrops huddled together. Then you come to an open area where there is a plethora of white bells on display. The photo below – from 2019 – shows what you can normally see. The photo below that shows that the snowdrops were surrounded by snow and you did not get the impression of a white blanket of flower heads as in the 2019 photo. In fact, you were more aware of the greenery on the snowdrops than in the snow-free photo. In the second photo, I like the way that the remnants of autumn and winter can be seen – the brown leaf on the far right apparently partially wrapped around the snowdrops, as if it is protecting them – and the skeletal remains of a dead fern, collapsed on to the ground as if felled by lightning.

Snowdrops at Smeaton Lake – no snow
Snowdrops, leaves and dead ferns at Smeaton Lake

The lake itself was almost completely frozen solid, apart from a few spots near the edge. One consequence of this was that there were no reflections from the trees, apart from where you could see narrow strips of water. Two years ago, it was different. If you compare the two photos below – the first from 2019 and the second from 2021 – you will see that the vibrant colours of the trees and the sky reflected in the water in 2019 have been replaced by a fairly colourless grey and white. Of course, there is beauty in both photos – in the verdant green of the overhanging fir branches in 2019 and in the bare, entangled branches in 2021.

Tree reflections at Smeaton Lake
Frozen surface on Smeaton Lake

Further on along the south bank of the lake, looking across the ice cap on the water, you could see (photo below) what look like the footprints of an animal which has crossed from one side of the lake to the other. Also in this photo, you can see the thicker ice in the middle of the lake and the greyer, presumably thinner ice below the trees. Here we were sheltered from the east wind and well rugged up, so it felt less cold, despite the snow on the bank and the smooth, glide-able, skate-able but utterly frozen layer if ice on the water.

Footprints on the ice at Smeaton Lake

At the end of the walk, I turned to take the photo below, looking back down the lake. It is an uplifting view, with the tall, multi-variety trees on the far bank – a mixture of evergreen and deciduous; the shiny green, middle-whitened leaves on the left, the snow on the bank and as before, the contrasting grey and white ice. I wondered what would happen if I had stepped on to the white ice. Could I walk – or slide – across to the other side i.e. the ice would be thick enough to take my weight? Needless to say, I did not take part in this ice-stress test.

Looking back over Smeaton Lake

Once again, if you contrast the view above with the view below – taken from the same point – you might be mistaken for thinking that you were in another place altogether. The tall, bare trees on the opposite bank were more frost-laden than this year and cast ghost-like reflections in the water. It was as if the strict Puritan ice had taken over and forbidden the appearance of the more gaudy Cavalier reflections. You could walk around this lake – and do take the opportunity if you are in the area – a thousand times and never have exactly the same views or the same experience. That’s why we will come back.

Looking back down Smeaton Lake

Snowy landscape and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me

February 19, 2021

Up until the end of last week, we had (for us) an extensive snowfall and freezing easterly winds which threatened to cut your face in half. Going out for a walk into this very picturesque but icy landscape involved an extra layer of clothing, a bigger scarf than normal and 2 pairs of gloves, plus a walking pole. As the roads were clear, we drove the short distance up to Spott Village and walked up the drive to Spott House – last mentioned here on the blog. The big difference this time was that the fields and the grass on the long driveway were covered with snow. The photo below shows the driveway with North Berwick Law (good photos) in the distance. You can see the ice at the side of the driveway and in some parts, there was black ice which was difficult to see. The green stems of what will be daffodils were just peeking above the snow in places.

Looking down Spott House driveway (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We walked round Spott House and past the farm cottages to the foot of Doon Hill. I have taken photos from this spot quite often e.g. here but never with this amount of snow, which from where I was standing in the photo below, was about 10cm deep. It was easy to walk on the snow at this point as the snow was still soft above the frozen, compacted snow beneath. On other parts of the paths up to this point, the surface snow had been blown away and you were walking on frozen slush i.e. there had been a slight thaw the day before but then the temperatures had plummeted to -7 degrees overnight. The photo below looks down the path which leads to the group of houses known as The Doonery and you can just make out the houses in the centre of the photo. I like the bare elegance of the bare trees which line one side of the path and your eye is taken down the right hand side of the path by the grassy verge. To the upper right of the photo is my home town of Dunbar. The sea is beyond and the Bass Rock stands solidly on the horizon, beneath a varied sky, which had some smaller clouds gracefully making their way east to west.

Path to the Doonery

The video below gives a better view of the panorama in front of us as we stood at the top of the hill, with the higher Doon Hill behind us. If you look at the still picture below, you can see the red roofs of some of the houses in Spott village, as well as the western and eastern limits of Dunbar. Just beyond the last tree on the right, you can see Dunbar Parish Church, built on a hill to dominate the skyline. As in the photo above, the video mostly shows the glimmering whiteness of the snow on the fields. If you walked up there today, the fields would be back to their pre-spring green as this year’s crops of barley, wheat and oil-seed rape, known as Canola in Australia are in the early stages of growth.

As we walked back down the driveway, I took the photo below, again looking over the fields to Dunbar but this time through the trees. I like the ways the trees look intertwined with each other with the spiny branches reaching out like antennae. The tree in the middle of the photo appears to have some green leaves on it but this is a smaller tree in front of it, obviously of a different type. There is a contrast between the glaring white of the snow, the dark trunks of the trees and the differently coloured strips of sky above.

Looking towards Dunbar from Spott

The latest novel I read was Ian McEwan‘s Machines Like Me (review). This is a fascinating book in many ways. McEwan is a consummate novelist and the book flows along with his deceptively easy style. The novel is partly counterfactual in that Britain has ignominiously lost the Falklands War in 1982 and Alan Turing, the computer scientist, has not died but has developed artificial intelligence to a high degree. In this tale, the world has the Internet in the early 1980s and a much more sophisticated version than we have now. One consequence of Turing’s work is that 25 humanoid robots have been made and Charlie, one of the novel three main characters, has bought one of them at a high price. We read of Charlie putting Adam together and, with his lover from upstairs Miranda, programming Adam and give him human traits. McEwan’s story is partly about moral philosophy – e.g. what does to be human mean? Can Adam, who looks and sounds like a human and who can think rationally and display feelings, be treated as a human or a machine? Adam is also sexually active and after Miranda sleeps with Adam, she tells Charlie that she has not been unfaithful to him as it would the same as if she had used a sex toy. Charlie – and the reader – have to think carefully about this in moral terms.

McEwan is also an excellent story teller and the plot develops as Adam reveals that Miranda has a secret, linked to a violent offender in prison. Adam has – in the Guardian review – an “inhuman iciness” in that he always tells the truth. This has consequences for Miranda not to be revealed here. McEwan also develops a number of themes, including literature as Adam is an expert in constructing Haikus, having read all the world’s literature via his super brain. As you read this novel, it makes you think about the possibilities of scientists developing machines – or people? – like Adam. There is more drama near the end of the novel which is a very satisfying read and highly recommended.

Ian McEwan’s fascinating novel

Four reflections on water: The Brox Burn, The River Tyne, The calm sea and The wild sea

February 9, 2021

One day last week, we went for a walk in the morning – from our house along the edge of the nearby Dunbar Golf Club (good photos). We stopped at the fast running Brox Burn which comes out of the historic Broxmouth Estate and into the sea. Broxmouth House – on the estate and hidden from the golf course, was once a mansion of the Duke of Roxburghe, and is now a hotel and wedding venue. There was little wind that day – unusual for Dunbar – and the sound of the burn (stream in Scots) was calming. The photo below is looking back up the burn towards the estate. On the day we went there, the burn was much higher and hurtling down from the small waterfall at the top of the picture.

The Brox Burn by Oliver Dixon and reproduced under Creative Commons. (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I was liking the sound so much that I took the video below. I was about to add my voice to the video when I decided that the video might be more enjoyable with just the sound of the water. This was partly inspired by watching some of the mindfulness videos on the BBC’s Winter Watch programmes. You can watch some of these entrancingly peaceful videos here. There is a calmness about watching the graceful flow of water across a stony bed and listening to the various noises of the water – lapping, gurgling and swishing. Have a listen.

Me and my shadow at the Brox Burn

In the afternoon, we took the car to the next town to us – Haddington – to walk along the River Tyne. Haddington (good photos) has a long history and is maybe best known worldwide as the birthplace of the Protestant reformer John Knox. It was much colder in Haddington – 11 miles/18K inland from Dunbar – and the paths were icy in places. We walked along the southern bank of the River Tyne (good photos), past the pandemically closed (but normally excellent) Waterside Restaurant, across the main road and along the riverside to the weir. I took another video, this time of the rushing river water. You can see the video, without commentary on my Google Drive here. I added a voiceover using a newly found video editor Animotica. I found it easy to use, but I was wary of its use when I discovered that it included a watermark. Normally, watermarks on such free software are invasive, but this one merely puts the name in the corner of the video. You can see and listen to the voice-added video below and decide for yourself whether it is better with or without voice-over – or it is good to have both!

Weir on the River Tyne at Haddington

On the way back from Haddington, we stopped at Belhaven Beach (good photos) featured many times on this blog. In contrast to the gushing, rushing water of the river, the sea here was remarkably calm. There were gentle, care-free waves lapping the shore. This reminded me of Philip Larkin’s onomatopoeic lines “The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse/ Up the warm yellow sand” from his poem To the Sea. Although there was no warmth on the sand on this cold February day, the waves repeated their collapse and made a gentle sound. If you want to listen just to the sound of the waves, view and listen here on my Google Drive. I added a commentary on Animotica and you can hear this in the video below.

So I returned home with my three videos of water – all different. Belhaven Beach is on the west side of Dunbar and we live on the east side. The calmness of the waves at Belhaven was replaced on the East Beach by a big tide which was thundering in and smashing into the promenade. It looked like the waves were enjoying a rugby practice, as the incoming waves were tackled by the outgoing waves. It also looked like a marine version of a Scottish country dance – the Dashing White Sergeant – with dancers leaving one group and ducking under others to reach a new group. I put the version of the sound of the waves only on my Google Drive here. Below is the Animotica version with added commentary. This completed my four sounds of water – fresh and salt – with each having its own unique sound i.e. unique in the sense that they are all different from each other, but also unique in that the sounds I recorded last week can never be exactly replicated.

Sunset at Belhaven and The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer

January 31, 2021

The days are slowly stretching out here in Scotland and whereas it was dark at 4pm a few weeks ago, it is now light until nearly 5pm on clear days, although earlier on dreich (pr dreech – ch as in German Ach) days like today when the drizzle has not stopped and it is ubiquitously grey. Earlier this week, we took the car down to Belhaven Beach (good photos) for a short walk. We arrived at 4.15 and were just in time to see a spectacular sky in the west as the sun was preparing to leave us for the day. In fact, that should be the earth was preparing to leave the sun that day. The photo below was taken from the edge of Winterfield Golf Course. The tide is out and people were able to cross the bridge on to the wide expanse of sand. I managed to capture the blazing sun just behind the cloud in the distance and this was reflected in the water near the bridge. I have been trying to improve my long shots following advice from Alison Leslie and I think this is an improvement on what I have taken before from this spot. On the left of the picture are the chalets at Belhaven. This area used to be part of Winterfield Mains farm as did the modern (from 1930s) golf course. The sun was turning some of the clouds pink as well as the water and it was an uplifting view.

Looking across Belhaven Beach (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo below is less clear because I have found out that the zoom function on my new phone camera does not meet the standards of the non-zoom photos. I was trying to get a closer view of the sun reflected in the water in the photo above and you can see the pink effect on the water and in the sky. To the right, you can see the snow on Traprain Law (good photos). It is a pity that this photo is not clearer as the sun on the water was a glorious sight. The lesson for me is that for zoom shots, I need to go back to my trusty Canon SLR.

Sun on the water at Belhaven Beach

The photo below shows Belhaven Bridge in September, when the sun is higher in the sky for much longer. There are only a few times a year that you can catch the molten gold of the sun under the bridge itself. There is a difference in the pink in the sky and on the water at September time i.e. it looks gentler and warmer. This is one of my favourite photos of the bridge, as there is a tranquillity about it – the people-free beach and water and the shaky looking reflection of the bridge in the water. It looks like the solid iron railings on the bridge itself have been transformed into shaky legs in the water.

Belhaven Bridge in September

I have read and reviewed two of the author Deon Meyer’s books on the blog e.g. here. Meyer is a consummate crime writer but also a consummate novelist. I have just finished his latest book The Last Hunt (review) and while I would not put it in the same class as Icarus, it was still a compelling read. There are two stories which eventually link up. The book is part thriller, set in Bordeaux and Paris and part police procedural, set in Cape Town. Meyer is South African and expertly describes the city of Cape Town as well as the sparsely populated country areas where a murder takes place and is investigated by Meyer’s complex detective Benny Griessel. The thriller part of the novel is perhaps less convincing – for me at least, if not other reviewers – and features Daniel Darrett who is living peacefully in Bordeaux, learning to make fine furniture. After an action scene in which Darrett beats off five men who appear to be ready to assault a woman, Meyer reveals that Darrett has a secret background in South Africa as a young soldier and hit man in the anti-apartheid movement.

The parallel story is of a murder on a train of a former policeman and it is this case which Griessel and his sidekick Cupido investigate. The man has been stabbed and thrown off the train but the case is closed as a suicide by the police authorities i.e. there is a cover up. As the investigation progresses, Griessel’s female boss Khaleni decides that the team must go it alone to solve the crime and to expose the corruption in the system. Meyer is very good at heightening tension and keeps the reader guessing as to which way the plot will go. Grieesel’s private life is also a feature – his demons as a recovering alcoholic are well portrayed – but I found the will he/won’t he element in relation to his asking his partner to marry him irritating.

The two stories come together in the end as Darrett plans to kill the corrupt South African who is visiting Paris. Meyer is particularly good at ending books i.e. he does not panic like other crime writers. My preference is for Meyer’s books to concentrate more on crime cases rather than action thrillers but this is still a book I would recommend.

Don Meyer’s latest novel

Return to Thorntonloch Beach and walk up the Dump Road

January 21, 2021

Two Sundays ago, we drove out to Thorntonloch Caravan Park (good photos) and walked down the path to the wide expanse of beach. This beach is of particular interest to me as an author, as, in 2016, I wrote a book about the stranding of 147 pilot whales on this beach in May 1950. The focus of the book is on social history as opposed to environmental disaster – all the whales died or were killed. I interviewed people who had gone to the scene to witness the whales and what they told me reflected the period e.g. few people had cars, so people walked, cycled, went by bus or by car, often not their own. The book’s cover is below and the website is here. One of the photographs from the book – second photo below – was featured in the newspaper I read every day – The Guardian. The online article featured an interview with Sandy Darling, who is the boy in short trousers to the left of the truck. One aspect of this photo is that the men are smoking untipped cigarettes – a 1950s survey indicated that 80% of men in Britain admitted to smoking, so the figure was probably higher. Another is that there is no evidence of modern day health and safety.

Local history book on the whales (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Loading dead whales on to a lorry in 1950

On Sunday, only birds appeared along the shoreline, along with some hardy surfers. The photo below shows the appeal of the beach on that day to the surfers and I caught the reflection of the surfers in the wet sand as one was finished and walking away, while the other one was venturing out to meet the incoming wave. This is surfing in Scotland in January, so the surfers have thick wetsuits, hoods, gloves and rubber boots, with only their faces exposed. The temperature that day was 5 degrees and it felt colder because of the wind. As the photo shows, there was a brightness in the sky and, as long as you kept moving, it was a delightful walk. Surfing has become increasingly popular along the coast here and this is partly due to the new surf school (good photos) in Dunbar.

Surfers on Thorntonloch beach

The wind was whipping along the crashing waves and I managed to capture this in the photo below. As each wave hurtled itself on to the shore, the wind caught the top of the waves and produced a spray effect. I also like the way the beach is reflecting the sky. It was a mesmerising sight to watch the sea relentlessly spill its waves on to the shore, in a coordinated, elegant and graceful fashion.

Wind on the waves at Thorntonloch

I took this video below but had to replace the original commentary as the wind was drowning out my voice, so what you cannot hear is the wonderful crashing sound of the waves.

Thorntonloch beach in January 2021

Last Sunday was another very cold but bright and partially sunny day, and there was a lovely light above Belhaven beach (good photos) as we walked along the old Dump Road, so called as the pond at the end was a municipal dump for collected rubbish until 1950s. As we approached Seafield Pond (good photo) a family of swans walked up the grass and on to the path separating the pond and the sea wall. One of the adult swans, hoping to be fed, came very close to us and other people walking along. The photo below shows the swan’s elegant and shapely white body with its pink beak and black eye. When you look at its web feet, however, they appear quite ugly appendages to this smoothly feathered bird. The feet are of course utilitarian, allowing the swan to glide effortlessly in the sea or the pond.

Swan at Seafield Pond

The cygnets in the swan family were less adventurous and stayed on the grass at the pond. The photo below shows the birds – getting whiter every week – grazing, with the hazy sun in the sky and reflecting on the pond and the reeds at the water’s edge. I have featured Seafield Pond – and photos thereof – on the blog in recent years, e.g. here.

Cygnets at Seafield Pond

We then walked around the corner to West Barns Bridge – see link to blog above – and I was lucky enough to capture the sun’s reflection in the water below the bridge – see photo below. The sun appeared to have burst open into a white ball in the sky and the streak of sunlight – like molten steel – stretched itself along the Biel Burn, which was quite high following recent rain. It was a very peaceful scene with the gentle flow of the water in the burn and the still-frosted grass to the right of the burn.

Sun below West Barns Bridge

New Year’s Day walk and first snow of 2021

January 10, 2021

A Guid New Year to you wherever you may be reading this first post of 2021. On the 1st January, we ventured up the country to the top of Doon Hill, stopping at the trig point (good photos) to enjoy the views. As you will see in the video below, you get a wonderful 360 degree view of the sea and the surrounding countryside from the top of the hill. Doon Hill is also known for its Neolithic settlement and I featured this on a blog post in 2015. When you stand at the trig point and realise from the settlement’s information board that people lived up here 6000 years ago, it is hard to imagine that world, with its (to us of course) basic technologies. From the vantage point at the top, you look out to the sea and on New Year’s Day, the Bass Rock (good photos) was glinting in the winter sunshine, surrounded by a sparkling blue sea. To the east, you can get a bird’s eye view of two major Dunbar local employers – the Tarmac Cement Works and Torness Power Station. To the south, you see the rolling Lammermuir Hills (good photos), now topped with wind farm turbines, which were slowly turning on New Year’s Day. The wind farm area is a popular walking and cycling area.

To the west, in the distance, you can see across East Lothian and take in Traprain Law (good photos) and North Berwick Law (good photos) which are, like the Bass Rock, structures which emerged as the result of volcanic activity in the area. The Bass Rock is reckoned to be 320 million years old. The video below is one of the first I’ve taken on my new phone. I needed to talk a bit louder because of the wind but the views are more important than the commentary.

It was a cold day – only 3 degrees with a distinctly cool wind – so it was not a day to hang around for long on Doon Hill. We walked back via Spott House and down the elegant driveway. I have posted this view (photo below) at various times of the year but, no matter the season, the trees retain their graceful stature and the view is always slightly different depending on the month and the time of day. It was after midday when I took this photo, so the sun was still casting strong shadows across the driveway. You can see North Berwick Law in the distance.

The driveway from Spott House (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We had our first snow of the year last week. It did not last long here in Dunbar, as we are near the sea. In Edinburgh, the snow came earlier and lay for much longer. The photo below, taken from my back door, shows the snow lying on the historic Parish Church roof to the left and on the rooftops of the nearby nursing home Lammermuir House. Below that, you can see that there was covering of snow on the beach. There was a big Australian cloudless blue sky which enhanced the view across the snowy roofs.

Snow on the rooftops and on the beach

The photo below takes a wider view of the town from our decking, with the snow covered pots, to the snow on the beach and I also managed to capture the moon in mid morning, just before it disappeared. By the time the tide came in later in the day, some of the snow on the beach had melted in the sun, so the incoming waves fell short of the snow at high tide. At the bottom left of the photo is the snow covered hydrangea plant. The flowers have faded from their exquisite blue but the snow enhances them.

Snow on the decking and the beach

I was given permission to post the next two photos by expert photographer Alison Leslie, who has a real eye for a photo and excellent compositional skills. The photo below shows Princes Street Gardens and Edinburgh Castle in the snow. It is not only beautifully composed but very atmospheric. Unusually for this scene, there are no people on view. The pandemic has robbed Edinburgh of its tourists. There is much to see and admire in the photo, from the path leading down to the gardens at the bottom right, to the delicate layer of snow on the trees and the deeper snow in the gardens. Your eye is taken up the up the hill to the castle rocks, on to the castle itself and then on to the puffy white clouds and the different blues in the sky. It is a very impressive photo.

Princes Street Gardens and Edinburgh Castle

The photo below is also beautifully composed and structured. It is an early morning view of the Grassmarket Vennel steps, with the untrodden virgin snow. This site indicates that vennel is a Scots word derived from the French venelle meaning little street. The Vennel steps are also known as The Miss Jean Brodie Steps (good photos) and were named after the character in Muriel Spark’s novel in 2018, the year of what would have been Spark’s 100th birthday. Interestingly, the Atlas Obscura site linked above defines venelle as a small street between two large structures. This is another eye-catching photo with superb composition. I like the way the photo takes you down the steps and then up again to the castle. There is an archway in the bottom middle with the walls and top outlined in snow. Part of the castle is seen through the bare branches of the trees. You can admire the view but also feel the cold. We get some wonderful blue-skied days in winter in Scotland and this photo shows one of these days.

The Grassmarket vennel and looking up to Edinburgh Castle