Called for jury service and Piazza dei Miracoli

November 20, 2017

Note The previous post has been fixed, using Google Chrome, which I am maybe being forced to use for editing?

I was recently called  for jury service at the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh and, although I was not actually selected to serve on the jury, it was a strange experience. Firstly, I arrived at the court to be sent to the Jury Room. Here sat about 50 people, all in a strange environment. Few people spoke to each other and most either checked their mobile phones, read books or stared into space. This was a formal setting, not a social one and it was clear that no-one had any idea how long we would be there, as little information was forthcoming. After an hour, a clerk appeared to tell us that there might be two trials on today and that she would be back in 10 minutes. Half an hour hour later, the clerk reappeared and took us through to court ten, shown here. After another 10 minutes, the phrase “Court rise” was heard and we all – the potential jurors, the court staff and lawyers present – stood up and sat down again. The judge/sheriff talked to one of the lawyers and we could just about her the lawyer say that the trial could not go ahead. The judge thanked us for our attendance and our patience and said that normally, lunch was 1-2pm but there was good news. We all looked up expectantly. The good news was that we could go for lunch early and come back at 2pm as there was definitely another trial to be heard and a jury was needed. This was beginning to appear like the crime novel I’d taken along – too much padding and too little action.

So we all returned at 2pm. Another clerk said that she would be back in 5 minutes to take us through to court 12 for a jury to be selected. One advance in the tale was that there was now only 15 jury members to be selected from the 50 of us and not 2 x 15. The chances of being selected was reduced by 50%. As no-one in the jury room knew how long a trial would last or when we could start making plans again for the next few days, I got the feeling that few people wanted to be selected. 25 minutes later, the clerk took us in to the court and the ballot began. As each name was called out, the picked juror went forward and a collective sigh could be heard amongst the rest of us. Eventually 15 were picked. People started looking at their watches, as in it’s 2.30pm so we’ll be released soon. Hopes were dashed when one juror recognised the accused and was excused. Another selection, another collective sigh. The judge ordered that the clerk read out the charges – sexual assault with details given – again. Then another juror said he could not hear the judge and this man was excused, to whispers amongst the still potential jurors that he might be trying it on. The final selection was made and final sigh of relief uttered, and the great unpicked left the court room and the court. What was interesting was that, by the time the ballot was taking place, I was ready to be picked, having earlier hoped that I could not be. So, an odd day spent in an environment where I had very little control over what I could do, apart from the lunch break.

Edinburgh Sherriff Court (Click on all photos to enlarge)

My pal Roger and I went on our annual trip to a European city to a) see the sights and b) go to a football (aka soccer) match. This year’s holiday started in Pisa, where we stayed 2 nights before going on to Florence to see the game (next blog post). While Pisa is best known for the leaning tower – La Torre Pendente – I think that the other buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli (includes video), the Square of Miracles in English, are more fascinating. There’s no doubting the uniqueness of the Tower but its attraction is mainly because of a mistake. It is, of course, worth seeing.

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La Torre Pendente, Pisa

Also within the Piazza, is the magnificent cathedral, seen below. It is famous for its marble exterior, Giovanni Pisano’s intricately carved pulpit (close up photos) and high, vaulted ceilings which are brilliantly decorated. Whether you have religious leanings or not, you cannot fail to appreciate the superb artwork and interior design on display.

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Pisa Cathedral

You can also visit the  hugely impressive Battistero (Baptistry), with its high dome and a balcony from which you can look down on the large baptismal font and exquisitely carved pulpit, photo below. The official website refers to the “women’s balcony”, so perhaps women were excluded from the ceremonies below?

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Pisa Battistero

My own favourite building in the Piazza was the Camposanto (good photos). This is the cemetery and inside there are many statues to famous university teachers and members of the powerful Medici family. The most fascinating part of this huge complex are the frescoes which line the walls, as in the photo below. Some of the frescoes are still quite fresh looking, even though they date from the 14th century. The frescoes are of course, mainly religious although there are some battle scenes. A common theme in the range of frescoes is the battle between going to heaven or hell, and you can see why 14th century people might be terrified by the depictions of hell, where the devil is seen as eating humans amid  a scene of torture. It was the violence in so many of the frescoes that intrigued me – designed to inspire but also to threaten. As works of art, these are impressive in their range of colour and detail and well worth a visit.

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Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

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All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.

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In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.

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House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Making soup and the Crystal Palace in Madrid

November 3, 2017

Back to normal after a very successful trip to Pisa and Florence, of which more later. There’s an old Scottish saying relating to being on holiday and returning to the usual routine – “It’s back tae auld claes and parritich” i.e. back to old clothes and porridge. It’s not cold enough yet for me to have porridge in the morning but a new pot of soup is welcome all the year round. Today, I was making courgette, and basil soup. It’s fairly straightforward with the following ingredients: 1 medium leek, 4 good sized courgettes, one large potato and dried basil. Now I know that a good many people who read this blog will call courgettes zucchinis. This source claims that there are differences between the two e.g. that courgettes are smaller than zucchinis, but I think that the only real difference is in where the terms are used – courgette in France, the UK and (so the website claims) South Africa and New Zealand; zucchini in Australia and North America. I’m not sure about New Zealand, so a comment on that would be good. To start, sweat your chopped leek in a little oil, to which you have already added the dried basil – amount according to taste. In your solid soup pan, it should look like this i.e. a thing of beauty that might be submitted for the Turner Prize as a work of contemporary art, signifying the integration of human thoughts and deeds across the newly green world. On the other hand, it’s still a thing of beauty but a photo of leeks.

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Leeks sweated in oil and basil. (Click to enlarge all photos)

I never use a processor to chop my vegetables. There is something calming about washing your leek, cutting it into 3 and then slicing it up, although this obviously has overtones of violence. Add the chopped courgette and, magically, you have another potential submission to the prize, representing …mmm you tell me. It now looks and smells very good.

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Chopped courgettes and leeks in basil and oil.

To this, you add the peeled and chopped potato and one litre of the stock of your choice – I used chicken stock cubes. Simmer for about 20 min and take off the heat. I then mashed it down with a potato masher and then liquidised it with my hand-held blender, one of the best kitchen implements in which I have ever invested.

Here is one serving of the soup, with the chopped end of a 70% wholemeal loaf from Dunbar Community Bakery.  This raises another philosophical issue – what do you call the last slice in a loaf of bread? My wife would say heel, while in my family when I was growing up, it was always called the outsider. A relative called it the Tommy – rhyming slang for Tommy Steele perhaps? What did your family call the last slice? Another Turner Prize entrant – the four islands in the speckled green sea: the post-nuclear world. Discuss.

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Courgette and basil soup with fresh bread croutons

For the final posting on Madrid, I swithered between the magnificence of Madrid’s cathedral – especially the internal colours – and the Crystal Palace in El Retiro Park, featured here recently . Having been out cycling this morning in the cool, fresh air and enjoying the autumnal spectacle of the countryside at the moment, I chose the latter. While walking through the large park, it’s easy to miss the sign to the Crystal Palace  or Palacio de Cristal, to give it its proper name. Once you see not only the palace itself but the setting, you cannot be unimpressed. The first photo shows what you see approaching the palace – a light filled building on 3 levels, with beautiful arches over the windows and ornate decoration around the bottom, a close-up of which is shown in the 2nd photo – here is a swan – like, mythical bird, with no feet and a tail of flowers.

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Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Decoration on tiles at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Once you pass the entrance to the palace, which has been closed for a long time for internal redecoration, you can walk around the large pond, with its fountain. You pass the tall, thick-trunked trees whose leaves differed in colour,  from light green to dark green to reddish-brown. You can then see across the pond to the palace. It’s a very peaceful place, made even more pleasant by the late September sunshine and 25 degrees. The final 2 photos show the palace from the side of the pond and from the opposite side of the pond to the palace. This is a slice of remote countryside which has been picked up and placed near the centre of one of Europe’s busiest cities. The Madrilenos are lucky to have it.

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The pond, the trees and the fountain at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Looking across the pond to the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

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New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

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Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

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The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

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Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.

More Sinead Morrisey poems and Madrid’s magnificent architecture

October 12, 2017

 I have just finished reading Sinead Morrisey’s remarkable book of poems entitled On Balance”. In a previous post, I focused on the first poem in the collection The Millihelen which has been widely praised. For the rest of the book, Morrissey maintains this high standard with telling insights and memorable phrases. In Nativity which is about parents watching children in such a play, has these lines:

“mums and dads on loan from their workaday offices;/ littler brothers and sisters crashed out in pushchairs/ and parked along the aisle like outsize baggage”

The imagery continues later in the poem “… we are left/ with a row of just-licked-by-a cow-looking boys/ in dressing gowns, Mary in a dress, Immanuel/ in his cradle, low-key and ineffable …”.

In Meteor shower, “..and the stars in behind/ shining steady as lighthouses/ and yes, not once but twice/ – there and then there -/ dust on fire at the edge/ of Earth’s flaying atmosphere,/ scoring its signature”. The word “flaying” makes these lines, suggesting chaos. There are a sequence of poems entitled “Whitelessness” which looks at how different scientists might view Greenland. The Geologist finds ” .. the ridges of human teeth:/some early Palaeolithic adolescent caught/ grinning at the moment of death/ in a stone photograph”. The Photographer observes: “The red earth holds up/ a rainbow in its outstretched hands”. As The Geographer studies the earth, “Ridiculously/ overdressed, two musk ox trundle past. / We must sound enormous – / …. but they blank us nevertheless”. These are just a few examples from the book, which rightly won The Forward Prize for Poetry in 2017. It also has a beautiful cover. Get a hold of it if you can, preferably by buying it from the Poetry Book Society.

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On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge all photos)

Where to begin with Madrid’s magnificent architecture? I’m concentrating on the older buildings and monuments, but there’s an excellent slide show of modern architecture here (good photos). Our apartment, with its high ceilings and cornices, beautiful parquet flooring in different designs, had two large windows, each with a small balcony which looked across the to Palacio Cibeles. You can sit in the outside bar at the top of the building for 4 euro per person and we enjoyed a glass of wine there one evening, as well as the stunning views across the city, in the photos below. The first photo looks down on the Casa America (good photos) and on to one of the modern art deco influenced buildings behind.

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Looking across Madrid from the Palacio Cibeles

The 2nd photo looks down on the extensive army headquarters, known as the Buenavista Palace and we were unfortunate to miss the Changing of the Guard (good photos).

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Looking towards the Buenavista Palce and woods from the Palacio Cibeles

Not far from the Palacio Cibeles, you come across one of the many puerta or gates to the city of Madrid. The photos below show the Puerta de Alcala, a magnificent structure ordered to be built by Carlos III, King of Spain in 1778. Carlos was obviously not a man to do things by half and the puerta dominates this part of the city. On the right of the puerta is the Retiro Park, featured here last week.

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Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

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Top of the Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

Madrid city centre is teeming with stunning buildings, from the apartments on the Gran Via (good photos) – 2 photos below – to the umpteen churches and palaces – too many to mention here. The Gran Via is Madrid’s busiest street, best avoided at weekends.

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

The Plaza Major is often described as being at the heart of Madrid and it certainly is beautiful square, comparable in terms of the buildings/apartments, to St Mark’s Square in Venice. Again, if you go at weekends, you might never see the square properly, as there are so many tourists, but go midweek and you’ll be able to appreciate its grandeur to the full.

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Plaza Major, Madrid

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Plaza Major, Madrid

Keith Brockie exhibition and El Retiro Park in Madrid

October 6, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by the renowned Scottish wildlife artist Keith Brockie. I featured Keith’s work on the blog  two years ago, having visited his last exhibition. The new show of paintings is equally stunning and there is a superb display of artistry here, particularly in the detailed portrayal of lapwings and hares. Keith kindly sent me 2 samples from this exhibition. The first painting features a lapwing  which is also called a Peewit, due to its call which you can listen to here (scroll down to audio). The painting perfectly captures the lapwing’s delicate colours and instantly recognisable tuft on its head. There are many superb paintings of lapwings in the exhibition and I particularly liked the ones with the lapwing sitting on its nest. The portrait of the ram is equally eye-catching and you have to admire the sheer tenacity of the painter to capture the detail of the hairs on the sheep’s face and what look like carvings on its magnificent horns. When the rutting season comes, I’m sure that this individual would emerge victorious.

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Lapwing and ram by Keith Brockie (Click to enlarge all photos)

The second painting is what I have entitled “Determined hare” as there is a steely look in the hare’s eyes. A close up of view of this and other hare portraits in the exhibition demonstrates Keith Brockie’s ability to capture the finest features of this beautiful animal. Look at the white whiskers, the oval nose and the small, puckered mouth and the brilliant contrast between the light and dark patches on the hare’s skin. The use of light and dark has challenged painters down the centuries and Keith Brockie makes superb use of this feature here. The exhibition is on until 15th November, so go and see it if you possibly can. We’ll be revisiting Waterston House before then.

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Determined hare by Keith Brockie

We recently spent a week in the Spanish capital Madrid (good photos) and what an impressive city it is. Madrid is a busy metropolis and the city centre is heavy with traffic for most of the day. However, just around the corner from the busy roundabout at the Palacio de Cibeles (video) is El Retiro Park (good photos), a vast green space which is easily accessible. The park has a 4k perimeter and is a favourite place for runners at all times of the day. It’s also a very peaceful place during the week when it is quieter. Most of the park consists of avenues of trees, bushes and hedges with walkways in between. Here we met a man playing a large harp.

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Harp player in El Retiro Park, Madrid

And we passed a puppet show where a group of children sat enthralled by the singing, storytelling and puppetry of a white haired, smiling puppet master.

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Puppet show in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Inside El Retiro Park are more formal gardens e.g. the Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez (good photos). I made a short video on my mobile phone which you can download here. This is a very relaxing area, with its neatly trimmed hedges, little fountains, covered walkways and beautiful flowers, as in the photo below, taken on a lovely sunny day in Madrid with the temperature at a very pleasant 26 degrees. The topiary in the gardens is very impressive, with avenues of neatly shaped columns.

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Inside Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

There are peacocks and peahens strolling around the gardens, ignoring the photographers and looking haughtily away from what I’m sure they regard as uncouth human onlookers. The peahen below is a good example. It could well have come straight out of a Keith Brockie exhibition, with its keen eye, exquisitely shaped feathers and a tuft that a lapwing would die for.

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Peahen in Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

 

Trip to Durham: the Cathedral and the Cellar Door restaurant.

September 30, 2017

I forgot to say at the end of the last post that we were off to Madrid for a week, so no more posts for a fortnight. At the beginning of September, we went to Durham for a couple of days. We had been before but only for the day. The cathedral city of Durham (good photos and short video) is in the north east of England, so for us it was only a 2 hr drive. We stayed in a hotel next to the River Wear, a short walk from the city centre. Durham has a famous castle, with a fascinating history but we did not have time to visit as we went to the coast as well. We did go to Durham Cathedral (good photos) and it certainly is an impressive sight, both from the exterior and interior. The first photo below shows part of the outside walls of the cathedral and there is a fascinating array of structures here – the round towers, arched windows and varied stonework. As I  have said here before, it must have been strange for the local inhabitants to see the construction of something so huge on their doorstep, as they worked in the fields. Also, the workmanship is astounding, given that the cathedral would have been build using, by modern standards, fairly basic tools. Imagine being a stonemason working at the top of one of the towers, standing on wooden scaffolding, with no thought given to health and safety.

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Part of the exterior from outside the cathedral (Click to enlarge all photos)

The interior of the cathedral has cloisters (good photos) and the next 2 photos show part of the cloisters and more of the cathedral’s exteriors. Cloisters were important to the monks who lived in the cathedral and as you walk along the cloisters, you can see how such an environment would provide a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.

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Looking up from the cloisters in Durham Cathedral

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Looking across the green from one part of the cloisters to another in Durham Cathedral

We visited the Open Treasures exhibition (good video) which provided a fascinating insight to the lives of the monks, as well as showing some intricately carved stonework from the cathedral and elsewhere, and examples of manuscripts and jewellery. You can’t take photos inside the exhibition or inside the cathedral but you can see some excellent photographs here.

As you leave and pass through the magnificent external doors of the cathedral, you can see the dramatic Sanctuary Knocker (photo below) which could be used in the past by those seeking protection in the cathedral from the law. It looks more frightening than welcoming and maybe it was meant to. My thoughts on seeing it were of masks worn by South American tribes or carvings on totem poles. Whether you are religious or humanist, the cathedral is an inspiring building and well worth a visit.

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The Sanctuary Knocker on Durham Cathedral.

One of the highlights of our visit was to the exquisite Cellar Door restaurant and it turned out to be a real treat. It is an exquisitely furnished dining room, as the photo below shows. The service was helpful, attentive and unfussy and customers were made very welcome.

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The Cellar Door, Durham dining room

The restaurant offers a varied and interesting menu. For starters, I had the “Courgette flower, yellison goat’s cheese, Yemeni wild flower honey and hazelnuts” and my wife had “Mushrooms on toast – cep parfait, shemeji, girolles, mushroom ketchup and sourdough”. Both looked and tasted exceptional and my wife’s comment was that this was the best mushroom starter that she’d ever had. The courgette flower was delicately cooked in a light batter, with the goat’s cheese inside. For main, I had “Sea trout, avocado, heritage tomato, crab and potato crisps” and this was a generous serving of fish, cooked to perfection, complimented nicely by the light crab meat. My wife had “Scottish halibut, beans, grapes, elderflower and verjus”, and again the fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin. I contacted the restaurant and they gave me permission to download the photos of the restaurant above, one of their desserts and the halibut. For dine dining of this quality, we both thought that the meal was excellent value and would recommend the restaurant to anyone visiting Durham.

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Mouth watering dessert from The Cellar Door, Durham

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Crispy halibut from the Cellar Door, Durham

The Underground Railroad and cloud formations on the horizon

September 15, 2017

I’ve just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in a good while. Colson Whitehead is a new author to me but on the basis of this book, I’ll be trying more. The Underground Railroad has won many awards, including the famous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel begins on a slave plantation in Georgia with one particularly sadistic brother in charge. The heroine Cora knows that her mother escaped the plantation and abandoned her as a child. Cora has no intention of trying to escape but is persuaded to do so by Caesar. The horrors of slave life – constant hard work, poor conditions and regular beatings – are well described in a series of incidents. Whitehead is an excellent storyteller but, as the Guardian reviewer points out, other novels have covered this ground. What makes this novel unique – and this is no spoiler – is that the author takes the well known escape routes for slaves, known as the underground railroad and transforms it from a series of safe houses into an actual underground railroad, with tracks, stations and locomotives . So we are asked to follow the author’s leap of imagination and this is not difficult as Whitehead is such an accomplished writer. The novel then focuses on both those who seek to help Cora, liberal whites as well as former slaves, and on those who wish to capture Cora and take her back to the plantation. The slave catcher Ridgeway is a key character in the novel and Whitehead manages not to demonise him, despite his gruesome occupation. Ridgeway views the world in an uncomplicated manner “It is what it is” he says e.g. slavery exists and different people make money from it. The novel ends on a hopeful note although the reader does feel that there is no guarantee about Cora’s future. This is a novel which is harrowing at times, but you are driven along by Whitehead’s excellent narrative which often has you on the edge of your seat. The Underground Railroad is a passionate and imaginative novel so go out and buy it immediately. You can hear/download an interesting interview with the author here (left hand column).

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Click to enlarge all photos)

 

At the end of summer, we often get changeable weather and this is accompanied by a variety of cloud formations in the evening. Last week, looking out from the back of our house, we noticed an interesting light on the sea. Normally, it is when the moon is full and over the sea, or the setting sun casts its light. On both occasions, there is what appears to be  a silver (moon) or a golden (sun) pathway across the water, as in the photo below. In this photo however, the sun was not yet setting and this view looks north, with the sun at this point in the west.

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Light across the sea on the east side of Dunbar

So, first the light, then the cloud formation itself in the photo below. This appears to be a nuclear explosion or a volcanic eruption in the sky, and the many shades of blue on display was impressive. There’s a white castle in the middle and monster racing dolphins underneath. Otherwise, it’s a piece of abstract art representing the chaos in the world now, or what the end of our known world (or its beginning) might look like. That’s what I saw, what do you see?

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Interesting cloud formation on the horizon, looking north from Dunbar

Turning my attention west to the town of Dunbar itself, there was also an interesting formation of clouds above the town, in the photo below. Here, the clouds are in more anarchic mood, splitting up and diving off in different directions. It was one of these evening when you looked at the clouds, turned round to look north, and when you turned back the shapes had changed, as had the colours. A wonderful sight.

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Early evening cloud formation above Dunbar

 

 

 

Spittal Beach walk and Tour of Britain

September 8, 2017

On a cool but bright Sunday morning, we headed off  to just south of Berwick Upon Tweed (good photos) and parked the car near Spittal Beach. The village of Spittal’s likely origins come from the location outside the village of a medieval hospital (Ho – Spittal) for lepers. There is a long, sandy beach below the extensive promenade and it makes for a very pleasant walk, as it is rarely very busy. At the end of the beach, the walk takes you up a steep slope on to a walking/cycling track which is just next to the main London-Edinburgh railway line. Along this path, we came across a metal sculpture (below) with intriguing markings of a wheel, fish bones and shells. On the upended tail (?) of the sculpture, there are distances indicated to (on the left) Holy Island (aka Lindisfarne) -14.5 miles and Seahouses (includes video) – 27 miles and (on the right) to the Scottish border with England – 4.5 miles and Edinburgh – 94 miles.

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Mile post on track overlooking Spittal Beach. (Click to enlarge all photos)

If you take a closer look (below), you see that this is a mile post created as part of the National Cycle Network  (NCN) which stretches across the UK. This part of the track is fairly rough and suitable mainly for mountain bikes, although one road bike did pass us. I would NOT take my road bike on such an uneven surface. The NCN is a brilliant initiative which gives greater access to the ever growing cycling population in the UK.

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Mile post on the National Cycle Network above Spittal Beach

Looking back from this point across Spittal Beach towards Berwick Upon Tweed (below), you can see the extent of the beach at low tide and also, to the left, the famous Royal Border Bridge (video) which was designed by Robert Stephenson and built in the mid 1840s.

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View across Spittal Beach towards Berwick Upon Tweed

The Tour of Britain came our way again this year, with the first stage starting in Edinburgh and going through East Lothian before heading to the borders. My cycling pals and I went to see the more famous cyclists climb up Redstone Rig. This is a very steep climb, with a 17% gradient at the toughest point. I cycled up Redstone Rig for the first time earlier this year. On the day of the tour, we took a circuitous route from Dunbar to Gifford (good photos) and out into the countryside before turning back to join the Gifford to Duns (good photos) road, on which the climb takes place. We had done 27 miles (44K) before getting to Redstone Rig and unfortunately, there was a fierce wind which was in our faces for much of the time. Approaching Redstone Rig, the wind got stronger and I (and many others) did not make it to the top. After that disappointment, we enjoyed watching the professional cyclists make easy meat of the climb. There are superb views from this point and in the first photo you can see , in the middle, the start of the climb and then another section. After this, it gets very steep.

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View from Redstone Rig

There was a breakaway group ahead of the peloton and it arrived first. The best thing about seeing the riders at the top of this hill is that they are going relatively slowly.

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Leaders on Tour of Britain Stage 1 at Redstone Rig

The main peleton were behind with Team Sky very prominent. In the first photo below, Vasil Kiryienka on the far left, leads the group. It was heartening for us amateur cyclists to see him  out of his saddle to get up the steepest part of the climb. The second photo shows the larger group with the rolling hills of East Lothian in the background. The cyclists go past fairly quickly but this was an excellent opportunity to see them at close range. Once the peleton goes past, numerous team cars, each with 6 bikes on the top, go by. So this is quite a colourful spectacle for the big group of amateur cyclists who turned out to watch the event, with the team colours on helmets and bodysuits, as well as on the cars. There was a slight haze in the distance but the still uncut barley and wheat fields provided a bright background.

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Vasil Kiryienka leads the peleton on Redstone Rig

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Peleton at the top of Redstone Rig

 

 

Meeting Richard Ford and summer flowers

September 1, 2017

As a follow up to last week’s blog on the Edinburgh International book Festival, I struck lucky on the last day of the festival. I looked up to see who was on and, to my surprise and delight, Richard Ford was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. There was a Sold Out sign next to the listing but there was advice to check for returns on the day. I did so – by phone and email – and got a ticket for the afternoon session, which started at 3.15. By 2.30, people were queuing up, eager to get good seats. I am not queuer, so I waited in the bookshop tent – reading part of Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, of which more below. My luck continued as I was one of the last people in the tented theatre but, when I asked a young man if there were seats up the back, he removed a Reserved sign from a seat 4 rows from the front and gave me that one. Ms Wark talked to Richard Ford about contemporary USA and they covered a range of aspects, including of course Donald Trump. Ford is a wonderful writer but also a highly articulate and amusing speaker and he had some caustic comments on the current president, as well as on the weaker side of the USA press and on race relations.

The writer was then asked about his latest book, which is his recollections of his mother and father. It is entitled Between Them – Remembering My Parents and you can hear the author reading the beginning of the book here. Richard Ford told the audience that writing this memoir – about his mother 30 years ago and his father recently – was an attempt to portray his experience of his own childhood, but also of his parents’ lives. It’s a small book and has some very poignant moments in it. Ford is a high quality writer and his descriptions of his father coming home on a Friday from working away encapsulate a boy’s wonder and admiration superbly. I mentioned my favourite quote from Ford’s books in the last blog post and I included it in a question I asked at the session. My question was “In one of your novels, Frank Bascombe [protagonist of 4 Ford novels] refers to ‘the normal, applauseless life of us all’. Do you think that this applies to your parents’ lives?”. Richard Ford agreed that it did and added that this did not mean that they did not have mostly happy, full and successful lives. I met the author briefly as we all left the tent and I told him that it was my favourite quote from his work. “It’s one of my favourite quotes also” he said, patting me on the shoulder “thank you for reminding me of it”. My new claim to fame. The not too clear photo below, taken on my phone, shows Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

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Richard Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark (Click to enlarge all photos)

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Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents

It’s now late summer and as I write, today (31 August) is the last official day of summer in the UK. Many of the flowers in my garden are now at their peak or e.g. the lobelia are showing signs of fatigue, with fading colours and drooping stems. In this photo, you can see the lobelia struggling to match the burgeoning of the gladioli and geraniums.

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Plants on our decking

At our back door, from late spring we have an ever expanding hydrangea which is now covered in large pink flower heads and I captured a close-up of this one just after a rain shower. The bunches of 4 petalled flowers nestle into each other to form a perfect ball and the petals are like little fans, ready to protect the delicate centre at any time. The flowers’ pink colours develop and change over weeks, from pale pink to brighter pink and then back to pale, almost pallid pink as late autumn and cold nights take their toll. This is a much admired plant.

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Close up of hydrangea ball

At the front of the house this year, we have three different colours in the gazania plants I bought in the spring. The one shown below has intriguing shades of purple, yellow, brown and white. It is a celebratory plant which opens in full sunshine and might be yelling out how wonderful it is to be alive. I like the cluster of Sydney Opera House type petals which brandish their bright colours in contrast to the more reticent yellow of the centre.

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Gazania daybreak

One of the welcoming appearances in the past few days have been brightly coloured butterflies which feed on the gazanias. The first one I managed to photograph was a peacock butterfly  shown below. Butterflies are like bees – playful. They wait until you think you have a perfect photo and just as you are about to click, off they flit and land on a nearby flower. The markings on the seemingly ragged wings are surreal and multi-coloured, spread out from the slim, curved body with its twin antennae constantly checking the environment. In this photo, there is a lovely contrast between the realist flower heads and the surreal marking on the butterfly.

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Peacock butterfly

The second one is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. I find this one more restrained in its colours than the peacock. I love the symmetry of this butterfly. If you (metaphorically) sliced it in half and folded it over, there would a perfect match. The colours appear to have been daubed on to the wings and the body shaped from a mould. The twisted hat-pin antennae are both a warning to the butterfly of approaching danger and a warning to potential predators. So we now have new arrivals to join the bees which are still feeding on the lavender but having to work harder, as the lavender is fading also.

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Small tortoiseshell utterfly