Archive for the ‘beaches’ Category

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home and the National Gallery of Ireland

October 11, 2018

I have just finished Peter Carey’s remarkable novel A Long Way From Home which features two very distinct voices of the main characters in the book. Peter Carey is one of Australia’s best known novelists and has won the Man Booker Prize twice, once with his truly original novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, which featured the remarkable voice of the semi-literate Kelly. In the current book, there are two distinct voices which dominate the book in alternate chapters. The first voice is of the feisty and diminutive (in height only) Irene Bobs who gets married to her car salesman husband Titch. Irene is determined to succeed and has refined humorous descriptions of events and people down to a fine art, for example in her dealings with her rascally father in law Dan. The second voice is of Willie Bachhuber, a very intelligent and thoughtful teacher, who is accident prone in life and love. He is dismissed for hanging a pupil, the son of a local villain, upside down outside a classroom window. He moves next door to the Bobs family and ends up being a navigator for their car in the famous Australian Redex Trial, a hair-raising race around Australia in the 1950s. You can get a flavour of the race in the video below.

This is the adventure story part of the book but the novel is much more than a rip-roaring tale. The family tensions within the Bobs family deal with love and emotion. The other major part of the novel deals with Australia’s history of ill-treatment (and earlier genocide) of the aboriginal peoples who once owned all the land. The story of Willie Bachhuber and his family background is often moving but never sentimental, and his teaching of aboriginal children – and learning from them – is inspirational. Carey carefully intertwines the stories of his characters, both white people and aboriginal “blackfellahs”, a term used by both races. This compulsive novel is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching and contains Carey’s often poetic but always immaculately structured sentences. Some examples: “Mrs Bobs piloted with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors left, right and centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating”. “Clover was about my own age, tall and slender as a flooded gum”. “Doctor Battery [an aboriginal man] sang softly, with sufficient authority, it seemed, to lift the sun up from the sand, suck the shadows out across the plain”. Go out and buy this novel and the voices of the two main characters will remain with you for a long time.

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Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The final experience of our trip to Dublin was a visit to the impressive National Gallery of Ireland which has an excellent range of Irish artists, as  well as works of the more famous such as Monet, Vermeer and Turner (click on links for examples of their work). My main aim was to learn more – and see examples of – Irish painting and portraiture, and I was not disappointed. The first painting which really caught my eye is The Sunshade by William Leech. The colours in the painting range from vivid to subtle and the sunlight on the woman’s top contrasts with the shadows created by the umbrella. The woman’s top veers from green at the top to bright yellow at the bottom. There is delicacy everywhere in this most attractive painting – in the fine lines of the umbrella, in the woman’s elegant neck and in her fine hands. What is she thinking as she stares into space and her fingers touch on the umbrella’s handle? I think that the artist would leave that for us as individuals to interpret.

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The Sunshade by William Leech

The second work of art is Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph Malachy Kavanagh. The information beside painting – done in 1895 – tells us that collecting seaweed on beaches near Dublin “for food, medicine and fertiliser” was a common practice, as it was elsewhere in Europe. There is so much to admire in this painting – the doleful horses waiting patiently to haul the ever-heightening load of seaweed; the ominous dark clouds, which may be moving away from their lighter and fluffier counterparts – or approaching them; the wet sand with puddles reflecting the wheels and the horses’ feet; the waves which make little impact on the shore; and the man who is busy collecting the seaweed in his rough clothes, with a tear in his waistcoat at the back. Part of the scene echoes Philip Larkin’s lines in To the Sea – “the small, hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. As I live by the sea, paintings of beaches always intrigue me and this painting was no exception.

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Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph M Kavanagh

The final painting is by Sir John Lavery (many examples) some of whose works I have seen in the National Gallery of Scotland (example)The one I have chosen from Dublin is Return from Market, painted in France, as was the Leech example above. This impressionist work shows a mother and daughter returning from the market in a small rowing boat, although the girl is using the oar like a punt. This is quite a large painting, so you can stand back and admire the gentle reflections of the woods and the boat on the water. The leaves at the top and the beautiful water lilies at the bottom of the painting give the work a calming and perhaps dream-like quality. It is a rustic and timeless scene. I like the way the artist captures the serenity of the water lilies, just as they are about to be swept aside by the boat.

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Return from Market by John Lavery

The National Gallery of Ireland is in an impressive, modern building. The lay-out can be confusing but the staff were friendly, helpful and informative. It was a pleasure to visit.

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The Ice and the Guardian Country Diary at Barns Ness

May 16, 2018

I’ve just finished reading The Ice (Guardian review) by Laline Paull. The book comes with high praise on its cover – “An important and powerful novel … strikingly prescient” according to The Independent. The novel is set in the (not too distant?) future as the Arctic ice has melted and opened up new shipping lanes, and it focuses on the friendship between relatively poor boy made rich Sean Cawson and the more wealthy radical environmentalist Tom Harding. After Tom’s death in an Arctic cave, his body disappears but is resurrected – still frozen – by a glacier calving. Much of the book is set during the inquest into Tom’s death and this is intersected with flashbacks to the scene where Tom died. Throughout the book, the reader is given more and more insight into what happened, so there is a tension as more details are released. Who is telling the whole truth? In the background, a luxury lodge has been developed in the Arctic circle and again, Paull gives details about possible uses – legal and illegal/immoral – of this lodge. For four fifths of the book, I thought that this was a well written novel which highlighted key aspects of climate change and its effects on our planet. Unlike the Guardian reviewer, I thought that the final part was overly dramatic, with the author desperate to have a multi-faceted conclusion. The descriptions of the Arctic environment provide an interesting and at times beautiful background to the story. A range of key issues relating to climate change are highlighted in the book but the author does not preach. The book also raises issues relating to capitalism, international trade and possible arms trading. I would not praise this book as highly as several reviewers have, so you will have to judge for yourself. I would urge people to buy it and read it, as it is well plotted, with some good characterisation.

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The Ice by Laline Paull (Click on all photos to enlarge)

I featured the Guardian’s Country Diary recently on this blog here but I am returning to it now as the subject of the diary on 5th May was Barns Ness, which is about 2 miles from my house. The lighthouse (photo below) is the outstanding man-made structure at Barns Ness but the coastal environment is what firstly interests the writer.

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

As with all the Diary entries, this one is very well written e.g. “The pools themselves seem empty on first approach, but after a minute’s silent watch they come to life: periwinkles inching almost imperceptibly along, shore crabs sidling from under rocks with a suspicious air, and – best of all – tiny hermit crabs in their pilfered shells, peeking shyly out, antennae waving”. There’s poetry in here, with crabs having “a suspicious air” and the hermit crabs’ “pilfered shells”. This entry is by Cal Flyn and you can see all her Diary contributions here. Not far from the lighthouse is the Whitesands beach (good photo) and on clear sunny days, the beach almost looks white, so pale is the sand. The author comments on the limestone pavements (my photo below) which lie at the east end of the beach. These are a rich source of fossils and when you walk across their pockmarked surfaces, it is like looking down on a huge archipelago from a plane.

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Limestone pavement at Whitesands Beach

Flyn notes that she stayed at the cottages next to the lighthouse and ironically, the haar – known to us as a sea mist but originally (see link) an easterly wind – came in while they were exploring. It was only when the lighthouse loomed out of the mist that they knew they were home. Flyn comments “Who knew we’d need a lighthouse to navigate the land?”. The cottages can be seen in my photo below. If you are ever in the area, Barns Ness is a great place for walking, with an ever changing shoreline. At this time of year, you can hear the skylarks singing joyously above you, although they may be hard to spot.

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Barns Ness cottages and lighthouse

Rocks at St Abbs and Wildlife Photography exhibition

April 4, 2018

Another trip to St Abbs Head (good photos) on one of the few sunny days we’ve had recently. It was still very cold on the day we went and the wind from the southwest was distinctly chilly. We left the car near the information centre, café and gallery and walked up to the top of the cliffs. There is a circular walk (good photos) of 4 miles (6.25k) which we’ve done many times over the years. You can start the walk on the east or west side and you choose the direction according to the wind. As we were only doing a short walk, we went on the path at the east side and you pass the farm buildings and the horse field, with its practice arena, before you come to the edge of the cliffs.

As you walk up the path, you are quickly above quite vertiginous cliffs but you get a superb view of the rock formations below you, as in the photo below. You can find out much more about these formations here. This source notes that the rocks have been “locally weathered to a characteristic yellow colour” which you can see below. On the rocks on the right hand side, you can see the newly arrived kittiwake nests.

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Cliffs and rock formations at St Abbs Head (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the next photo, taken from the path just above the harbour, you are looking across the harbour to the clifftop walk and the steep cliffs. You can see extensive white patches on the Cliffside, but there is no bird life there at the moment. Soon this will be packed with guillemots, hundreds of which pack the narrow ledges to make their nests. When these charming birds arrive, there will be a cacophony of noise as they jostle for position on the rocks and appear to have endless disputes with their neighbours. You can listen to an example of the guillemots’ disputatious calls here. The boats on the harbour side will be in the water during the late spring and summer months, taking people out on trips around the coast and taking divers out to explore the clear waters near St Abbs Head. Over the wall from the boats, you can see the tide marks on the rocks, with the lighter shades on view indicating that the photo was taken when the tide was fairly well out.

I took some wee videos while on the walk and I’ve added a narration and uploaded the combined videos to Youtube. I’m still at the early stages of video and I have to buy a tripod, as bits of the video are still too shaky.adding narration is a step forward. You can see the video – click on full screen for best effect – here. The post has been delayed as I worked out how upload effectively.

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Looking over to the clifftop walk from St Abbs Head harbour

I recently went to a fabulous exhibition of wildlife photography in the National Museum of Scotland. You do have to buy a ticket for this exhibition, which is on loan from the Natural History Museum in London, but it is well worth it. If you go to the exhibition website and scroll down to Inside the Exhibition, you will see that you enter a darkened room with the photographs lit up on the walls. This is slightly disconcerting at first but you soon appreciate the effect it has in making the photographs stand out more. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is a global competition, with over 50,000 exhibits in 2018, so what you are seeing is some of the best wildlife photography around. You need to go slowly around the exhibition as you are confronted with a succession of absolutely stunning photos, each quite different, but the precision and the clarity of the works on display is breathtaking. I contacted the Museum – by email and phone – to get permission to show the 2 examples below, with no reply. I am assuming that as I am advertising the exhibition and only showing 2 examples – both available on the exhibition website – that I am not contravening the spirit of copyright law here.

The first photo I selected is an intimate portrayal of a bear family by Marco Urso (includes many examples of his work) from Italy. You really can see the anticipation of the title in the young bears’ eyes and the delicate colours of the salmon enhance the photograph. The quality of the photo so high that you can see the drips of water coming off the bears’ skins and off the salmon.

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Anticipation by Marco Urso

The second photo was a winner in its category and shows an arctic fox which has stolen a snow goose egg on Wrangel Island (more superb photos) in Russia. The photographer Sergey Gorshkov spent many days trying to capture this exquisite portrait of the fox with its loot in its mouth. The eyes of the fox are captivating and you find yourself staring into its eyes, seeing the determination of the animal to deliver food to its family. The detail of the fox’s fur is amazingly clear and the white fur almost melting into the white snow gives an impression of how cold it might be. If you get a chance to see this exhibition anywhere in the world, do not pass it up. The exhibition also highlights the dangers faced by the environment across the world and the animals who live there. Some of the photos e.g. of hunted rhinos, are quite upsetting. Overall, the memory of this exhibition is of looking in wonder at the photos and appreciating the technical quality and artistry of the photographers.

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Arctic treasure by Sergey Gorshkov

Snow, stormy sea and His Bloody Project

March 9, 2018

Last week, here in the UK we had what the media were calling “The Beast from the East” (good photos). We have not had sustained snowfall here for about 8 years and the difference this time was that the wind chill was often between -6 and -10 degrees. Around Dunbar, many roads were blocked and delivery lorries could not get through, resulting in a complete absence of milk and bread in the town. Interestingly, from a social point of view, the snow meant that people were not driving their cars, so there was an increase in the number of people walking to the local shops, as opposed to driving to the large supermarket on the edge of town. There was also more social interaction between people walking around, with older people commenting that this was what the High Street used to be like before nearly everybody had a car. My own research into shopping in Dunbar in the 1950s involves interviewing people and many in their 80s and 90s remembered shopping as being – for women mainly – a walking experience. One common misapprehension was that this Siberian type weather was not caused by global warming i.e. global warming was interpreted as the world getting warmer. The fact was that temperatures at the North Pole were above freezing and the cumulative effect of this, plus the direction of the Jet Stream, made it much colder here than normal.

From our back door, the scene looked like this. You can see that the beach is half covered in snow at this moment, but look at the roofs of the houses. The wind was so strong that the snow was continually swept off the roofs. Half an hour later and most of the snow on the beach had been blown away. The sand reappeared and there was only about a yard of snow near the walls.

 

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Snow on the beach in Dunbar (Click to enlarge all photos)

Then the tide came in and what a tide it was. In the photo below, you can see, on the right hand side, the waves crashing over the main wall of Dunbar Harbour in spectacular fashion. This particular wave therefore leapt perhaps 70 feet above sea level. On the left, you can see another leap of spray, this time on to the wall of the East beach. The tide ripped along the side of the wall, covering the road with water. It was mesmerising to watch.

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Stormy sea with waves over Dunbar Harbour and the east beach wall

The next photo shows the incoming tide meeting the remains of the snow on the beach. The photo does not do justice to the tremendous strength and noise of the incoming tide. You can hear tide’s roaring on a wee video I made. It’s unedited and a bit shaky, as I get used to my new camera but you’ll get the (ahem) drift.

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Incoming tide meets snow on the beach in Dunbar

I’ve just finished reading one of the most original and enthralling novels that I’ve come across for a good while. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel, entitled His Bloody Project is rightly described as “fiendishly readable” by The Guardian reviewer. The book has the appearance of a true crime story, as it purports to be based on 19th century documents found in the Scottish highlands. The main “document” is a lengthy confession by Roddy Macrae, 17 years old, that he killed 3 people in the little village of Culduie – a real place. However, no actual murder was committed there in 1869. The novel gives a fascinating insight to the hard lives of the crofters at this time and Roddy’s confession is littered with local words, for which the author provides a glossary – another sign that this may be a “real” crime story. Words such as croman  and flaughter are used for tools used by crofters. Another telling social aspect of the novel is the attitude of some people, such as the local minister and the Edinburgh reporter at Roddy Macrae’s trial, to the crofters who are seen as uncivilised and prone to violence. The book is neatly divided up into eye-witness accounts, the confession, a section on contemporary views of insanity, the trial and an epilogue. What we see early on is that there are a number of unreliable narrators, including young Macrae. As one reviewer noted, this is not a crime novel, but a novel with a crime as its centrepiece. It’s very well written and a compulsive read. Buy it.

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Scottish Birds cover and last post for 2017

December 25, 2017

Through the post recently came the latest copy of Scottish Birds which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC). I was struck by the front and back covers which I think are possibly the most attractive of the year. The journal contains articles on in-depth research on birds in Scotland – their numbers, their habitat and trends in population. There are also shorter articles on rare sightings of visiting birds. I have to admit that I don’t read the research articles in full, but I particularly enjoy the photographs of birds which accompany the articles. I don’t count myself as a birder as I don’t do any serious bird watching. Please don’t use the term twitcher for bird watchers as this is regarded as pejorative, a bit like referring to serious runners as joggers or The Inuit as Eskimos. I’ve been given permission to scan and use the covers by the good people who run SOC. The front cover below shows a water pipit which was photographed at Skateraw, which is along the coast from Dunbar and on one of my mountain bike cycling routes in the winter. The article on this bird stated that is has a “prominent pale supercilium”  – unfamiliar terminology to me. Looking it up, supercilium (good illustrations) is “also commonly referred to as “eyebrow” — is a stripe which starts above the bird’s loral area (area between beak and eyes), continuing above the eye, and finishing somewhere towards the rear of the bird’s head”. Loral area is more new terminology. The scanned photo is not as clear as the journal cover photo, but you can see that this is a strikingly attractive bird, with its sharp beak which has a lightning streak of yellow, its pale plumage neatly folded to keep out the rain, its blacksmith crafted legs and feet, and black snooker ball eye.

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Scottish Birds front cover (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The back cover has this photo of a Spotted Crake, captured at Doonfoot, near Ayr. This bird has the wonderful scientific name of Porzana, Porzana and there is a short video of the bird at this location here. While the spotted crake does not (I think) have the elegance of the water pipit, as it has a patchwork-looking foliage, it does have a fascinating beak, with what looks like a small boat on the upper part. As with the pipit, the spotted crake’s eye is prominent and alert to food in the water. Of course, the bird’s reflection and the reflection of the reeds by the water add much to this well composed photo.

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Scottish Birds back cover

This is the last post of 2017 as your blogger is taking a rest over the New Year, to return reinvigorated in early 2018. So where did 2017 go? Or 2007 or 1997 or ….? In a flash is the answer. Looking back on my extensive range of photos for 2017 and earlier blog posts, I recall the colours and reflections in a rockpool at Seacliff Beach on New year’s Day.

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Vibrant colours and reflections at Seacliff Beach

In May, it was the smooth lines of the tattie dreels that drew my attention. Soon after, the first sign of green shaws appeared and before we knew it, September was well under way and the tattie machine was lifting the crop. This field is now a vibrant green, with the spring wheat coming through.

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Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

In September, the Tour of Britain came our way again and I was up Redstone Rig with my cycling pals – and many other cyclists – to see the peloton approach the big hill, with the rolling country side of East Lothian in the background.

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Peloton at the top of Redstone Rig

Then I blinked and it was December and Seafield Pond was frozen over on a very bright, sunny and freezing cold day.

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Seafield Pond frozen over

 

If my letter to Santa has been received and the white bearded reindeer driver is in a good mood, I may return with a brand new DLSR camera, with a video function. I’m off to leave out carrots for the reindeer and a large dram of Bunnahabhain for the man. I wish you all the very best for the festive season and a Guid New Year when it comes.

Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.

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Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?

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Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.

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West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.

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West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.

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Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.

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Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.

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Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

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

 

 

Carol Barrett exhibition and Wagga Beach

April 3, 2017

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

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

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Sulphur Crested Cockatoo by Carol Barrett (Click to enlarge)

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

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Blue Winged Kookaburra by Carol Barrett

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

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Laughing Kookaburras in the Western Sydney suburbs

 

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

 

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Laughing Kookaburra at Wagga Beach

 

Falling Awake and birds at Belhaven Pond

March 3, 2017

The Poetry Book Society Choice for Autumn 2016 was Alice Oswald’s  new book – Falling Awake. This is an astonishing book of poems and has won some literary prizes. In the book, Oswald is not just close to nature, but inside it, and she demonstrates how elements of nature are interlinked, and how nature affects our lives , but also has a life of its own. The first poem A Short Story of Falling begins “It is the story of the falling rain/ to turn into a leaf and fall again/ it is the secret of a summer shower/ to steal the light and hide it in a flower”. These dramatic images – a shower stealing the light – continue in all the poems. In Fox, the narrator hears ” a cough” in her sleep and it is ” a fox in her fox-fur/ stepping across/ the grass in her black gloves/ [which] barked at my house”. In other poems, we hear of a badger “still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted” being “hard at work/ with the living shovel of himself”. In “A Rushed Account of the Dew”, there’s an amazing image of water on a plant, as the poet imagines the dew “descend/ out of the dawn’s mind”, and affix “a liquid cufflink” on to a leaf. In Shadow, the poet describes the shadow as having ” a flesh parachute of a human opening above it” – as you see, there’s a vivid imagination at work here. There are many more images of falling in the subsequent poems. I’m only half way through the book and will return to it in the blog. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that “I cannot think of any poet who is more watchful or with a greater sense of gravity”.

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“Falling Awake” by Alice Oswald

This week, we’ve had cold, but very bright days, especially in the morning. Having cycled past Seafield Pond (good photos) on Monday and seen a gathering of ducks on the grass verge, I ventured back there on foot on Tuesday – in the morning sunlight. The ducks were gone, but over the wall on Belhaven Beach, there was a scattering of seagulls, some oystercatchers and curlews, but also 2 little egrets (photos, video and bird call). As I got my camera ready, there was a sudden squawking, a brief flurry of wings by both birds, and one took off for the pond. I managed to get two photos of the constantly moving little egret. They are not the clearest of photos and maybe, I should have used a sports setting on my camera. However, they do show the elegance of this bird, with its long beak, tiny eye and large yellow feet, which help them to steady themselves on the slippery sand below the water.

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Little Egret on Belhaven Beach (Click to enlarge)

In second photo, I like the shimmering reflection of the bird’s body in the water, its shadow (with flesh parachute of a bird opening above it, as Oswald might have put it) and the corrugated sand.

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Little Egret and reflection on Belhaven Beach

While the egrets and oystercatchers are nervous birds and will fly off if you get anywhere near them, the swans on Seafield Pond simply float towards you. OK – they are looking for food, but I also think that swans are narcissistic birds. They glide toward you, inviting you to photograph their haughty serenity. They move slowly, like elegant models on a catwalk, then dip their heads in the water. The first photo shows 2 swans coming towards the bank, where I’m standing at the water’s edge. There are other birds, such as coots, but these have swum away in panic and have hidden behind the tall reeds (2nd photo). See the causal elegance here, with the swans more interested in their own reflections than the presence of a would-be photographer.

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Elegant swans at Seafield Pond

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Coots behind the reeds at Seafield Pond

The first swan pushed its head under water a few times and after several attempts, I managed to get a shot with water dripping from its beak. Look at the perfect outline of its body, the giraffe like neck and its body like a small iceberg. You can watch swans all day.

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Swan with dripping beak at SeafieldPond

Whales stranding and The Store

February 13, 2017

Just before I went to bed the other night, I got an email from my brother-in-law in New Zealand to tell me that there had been a huge stranding of pilot whales at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. This is of particular interest to me, as many of you will know, as I wrote a book about a mass stranding which took place at Thorntonloch, near my home town of Dunbar in 1950.

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My book on the whales at Thorntonloch

One of the things I noticed about the above email was that, when I clicked on the link I’d been sent, I saw that the news was only 20 minutes old – and it included video footage of the stranding. This got me thinking. If my brother-in-law Jim had been in New Zealand in 1950 and wanted to tell me about this mass stranding, how would he do it? His only option then would have been to write me a letter, which I would have received maybe a few weeks later, given that there would have been a very limited air mail service at that time. In my book, I analysed the social aspects of the stranding in 1950, including communications. In 1950, most people heard about the whales locally and most often by word of mouth. There was no television in Scotland then and of course, no internet.

When I was nearing completion of my book, I wanted to refer to recent strandings and did a search for that. Spookily, I found a report of a mass stranding which had happened four hours earlier – also at Farewell Spit and I included this photo from there in the book.

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Mass stranding at Farewell spit in 2015

At Thorntonloch, there is a lovely stretch of beach and it is a very peaceful place to go for a walk. Farewell Spit is next to Golden Bay – another beautiful spot – so it is ironic that these attractive and peaceful beaches were – and continue to be – the scenes of such dramatic carnage, as hundreds of whales died when they stranded as a group. There was some better news overnight, with reports that 200 whales had been re-floated at Farewell Spit after a third mass stranding in as many days.

On Tuesday evening, I’m giving another talk to Dunbar and District History Society (new website imminent), of which I am a committee member. I’ve been looking at the social history of Dunbar (where I’ve lived for 60% of my life) in the early 1950s. I started with the whales at Thorntonloch and went on to look at rationing, new council houses and entertainment. I’ve now moved on to shops and shopping. On Tuesday, I’ll be concentrating on The Store, which is what the Co-operative shops were called at that time in this part of Scotland, although not elsewhere. The talk will start with an overview of the SCWS (Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society) which provided the hundreds of Co-op shops across Scotland with most of their goods to sell. The Co-op was the largest retail  organisation in the UK at that time, with over 40% of the non-independent trade.

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SCWS in 1950

This was a time before supermarkets had arrived in any numbers in the UK and the Co-op shops offered an attractive dividend to its customers, most of whom were shareholders – on a very small scale. It was also a time of rationing, so goods were restricted in availability, and of retail price maintenance i.e. prices of good were fixed, no matter where you bought them. The Co-op factory in Glasgow was a huge enterprise and the next two photos show some of the work done there.

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Women sew on buttons in the Shieldhall factory

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Women making rock in the Shieldhall factory

I’ll also be including interviews I did with local people who worked in The Store in the early 1950s. A very interesting interview I did was with Jimmy Combe, a very sprightly 84 year old, who began working for The Store as an apprentice grocer in 1947, aged 14. In the early 1950s, being a grocer was to be recognised as a skilled tradesman, like a plumber or joiner/carpenter. Jimmy went to night school in Edinburgh to do exams in a range of subjects, including bookkeeping and salesmanship, as well as subjects related to departments such as butchery, grocery and dry goods. An advert for such classes is shown below.

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Co-operative education in the 1950s

My talk will then look at the introduction of self-service in the mid to late 1950s. This move – accelerated by new technology and the end of rationing – in many ways deskilled the workforce and was the beginning of the end for the apprentice grocer. Before self-service, everyone was served individually, with all goods behind the counter.