Archive for the ‘castles’ Category

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

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Dirleton Castle and gardens

July 21, 2017

The attractive village of Dirleton (pr Dirril – ton) lies 15 miles (25K) along the coast from Dunbar. I’ve featured the village on the blog before – here. We’ve been to Dirleton many times and I’ve cycled through village but we had never been to the magnificent castle and exquisite gardens before. The castle and gardens are now owned and maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. After you pay at the entrance, immediately on your left is a stone gazebo (1st photo), which houses a small museum and from which you get a very good view (2nd photo) of the gardens which stretch out around an extensive lawn.

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Gazebo at Dirleton Castle (Click to enlarge)

 

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Dirleton Castle gardens

There are hundreds of different plants in the gardens and there was a brilliant range of colour in the shrubs on the day we visited. Many of the shrubs had flowers which contrasted well with the green leaves, such as this feathery specimen, whose name I didn’t know, but should have noted as there are many signs in the garden denoting the plants. Our good friend Sandra enlightened me as to the name- Astilbe.

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Flowering Astilbe at Dirleton Castle Gardens

I also took some close up photos, firstly of a thistle, and with its purple, pineapple-like, studded  head and dancing arms, it has a look-at-me appearance to attract the bees.

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Thistle in Dirleton Castle Gardens

I managed to capture a close-up of a bee on a thistle, in the photo below. This bee, with its gossamer wings and delicate colours on its hairy body, must have stopped for a second to allow me to capture it so well. I was going to crop more of the background but I like the surreal look of the flower head, as if parts of it are trying to fly off or are whirling like a dervish.

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Bee on a flower in Dirleton Castle gardens

You can walk around the gardens many times and always see something different – a newly seen peachy rose or a startlingly purple poppy, of which there are many varieties in the garden, such as the one below. I noticed this on the way back from the castle and was struck by its dark purple interior, the yellow starfish centre and the curving pale purple of the petals, parts of which were white in the sunlight. The gardens are strikingly beautiful collectively and individually and form a wonderful start to the visit.

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Purple poppy at Dirleton Castle gardens

The castle itself is only partly visible from the village green but once you turn the corner at the end of the gardens, it looms into view above you. As a show of strength and power, and architectural skill, the castle cannot but impress. What first strikes you is the thickness of the walls, designed to keep out the enemy and keep in the heat. As the photo shows, the walls were about 6ft in width and, given that some were built in the 1200s, they are still in remarkably good condition. Working on castle walls in those days was often a perilous occupation, with little thought to health and safety.

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Stone walls at Dirleton Castle

For the aristocratic families which owned the castle over the centuries, the de Vaux, the Halyburtons, the Ruthvens and the Nisbets, this was mainly a place of refuge where they could rule the lands around them and impress their guests with the huge dining hall aka the Great Hall. The 1st photo below is of one of the guide boards at the castle shows an impression of the hall with its high, ornately beamed ceiling. The 2nd  photo shows the remains of the hall as seen today. When you stand in the hall, you get an idea of just how big this space was and how many people might be entertained. Less fortunate were those who worked as servants in the castle, with the searing heats of the kitchens below and the cold, cramped accommodation in winter.

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Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

 

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The Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

There is much to see in this well preserved castle and there are many informative guides in the different rooms. The final photo shows the castle from the newly formed gardens which border the castle. The trees in the foreground are well established and you can see their height by the man captured in the far right corner. The castle imposes itself on the landscape above, another show-off, just like the thistle above. For another blogging cyclist’s view and photos of the castle and gardens, see here.

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Dirleton Castle from the west

Lucy Newton exhibition and walking up to Arthur’s seat

July 5, 2017

At Waterston House in Aberlady, the current exhibition (until 26 July) is by well known wildlife artist Lucy Newton. I reviewed Lucy’s last exhibition at SOC here almost exactly 2 years ago. If you had asked me in 2015 whether the then exhibition could be surpassed in quality, I would have doubted it, but along comes Lucy Newton in 2017 and produces an even more stunning exhibition than the last one. I again requested two images for the blog and Lucy kindly sent me four. The first one on view below is Brown Hare and I found the detail of the animal’s fur amazingly delicate, especially the whiskers around the mouth. You have a feeling from the hare’s eye that it is sensing something – danger perhaps and getting ready to run. The alert hare looks comfortable in her/his environment – sprigs of heather  and maybe snow? You can see how the hare might blend in nicely and use the heather as camouflage. I occasionally see hares while out cycling and the hare will often stop on the road, look at you from a distance, as if daring you to catch it. As soon as you get anywhere near it, the hare speeds down the road and disappears through a hedge. Even Chris Froome would not catch a hare.

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Brown Hare by Lucy Newton (Click to enlarge)

Choosing the 2nd photo of Lucy Newton’s work was difficult. There is a superb painting of a woodpecker on a moss laden tree, in which the moss and the bark flow down the trunk, and contrast with the vibrant colours of the bird. I chose the painting below of a barn owl in flight. You can see in the photo below that there is an energetic sense of movement about this piece of art. It is more stunning at the exhibition itself, as when you first see it, there is a fleeting feeling that the owl might really be in flight. In the background to the bird here, the series of abstract shapes also suggest movement to me and they reflect the swish of the bird’s wings, which are drawn with such detail that you see and feel action in the depiction of flight. This is an exhibition not to be missed if you are in the area.

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Barn Owl in Flight by Lucy Newton

My good friend an ex-colleague from Charles Sturt University Bob Pymm visited us recently from Australia. Unlike the rest of June in Dunbar, it was a gloriously sunny and warm weekend, with a flat calm sea. On the Monday, we got the train up to Edinburgh and walked up Arthur’s Seat (good photos). We walked from the Scottish Parliament along part of Holyrood Park (good photos in Gallery) and then up the direct route. It’s quite a climb up the rough steps and there are some parts where the scree is slippery. However, you get great views of the city as you climb higher. The first photo looks over to Fife, with eastern part of the city in view.

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View from half way up to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

In the 2nd photo, Edinburgh Castle (good photos) is prominent on the right of the photo, with the spire of St Giles’ Cathedral half obscured by the Salisbury Crags. At the very top of Arthur’s Seat, there were crowds of visiting tourists, many of them young people, and we heard many languages going up and down the track. Edinburgh is now a very cosmopolitan city all the year round an there is great pleasure to be had in seeing so many people from different nations enjoying this outdoor environment.

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View across Edinburgh city centre from near the top of Arthur’s Seat

Going back to town, for lunch in the famous World’s End pub with its range of Belhaven beer, brewed here in Dunbar, we walked around the back of the Scottish Parliament, with its exquisite use of wood outside the offices of the MSPs. The photos below show firstly the wide view of the so-called “think pods” in the offices. In theory, these were designed to help the members as they contemplated developing policies to help the Scottish people. More cynical views see the pods as places where plots are hatched against the opposition.

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“Think pods” at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

The second photos shows a closer view of the pods and their external wooden facades. The pods are elegantly designed and the wooden poles, set at angles to become an abstract feature, add to the aesthetic quality of the building’s exterior.

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“Think pods” and wooden facades at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

 

 

Dunbar Battery redeveloped

June 22, 2017

Following the award of a grant of £700,000, Dunbar Harbour Trust has been instrumental in transforming part of the harbour site. The Battery has a long history, being built in 1781 as a fort to defend the existing Cromwell Harbour from attack by American privateers and also from a possible French invasion. In the 1870s, the Battery became an isolation hospital and at the start of the First World War, the hospital was taken over by the Red Cross and revamped. In the 1930s, it was the site of housing for a time but this was abandoned when the roof blew off. Until this year, the Battery has been an open space for visitors to look out from its walls out to sea or back to the south and the Lammermuir Hills. The Battery  (good photos) has now been transformed into an amphitheatre and coastal garden, with areas for public art. I took my trusty camera along to take a personal look. When you go through the stone arch, what first catches your eye is the wooden seating which is part of the new amphitheatre.

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Seating in the amphitheatre at the Dunbar Battery (click to enlarge)

On closer inspection, you see that on the lovely wooden steps, there are the names from the Shipping Forecast which can be heard on Radio 4. There’s an excellent video available on why people love the Shipping Forecast. The forecast has a lyrical quality to it, as many of the names could be from a poem – North Utsire, (pr Ootseeri) South Utsire, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger. As the Battery is next to the sea, this was an inspiring idea. The Shipping Forecast is also a poem by Seamus Heaney from his Glanmore Sonnets and you can hear Heaney reading the poem here  – a wonderful experience.

The public art on display at the moment is The Sea Cubes by Scottish artist Donald Urquhart.  In the photos below, you can see the steel cubes on display and a close up of one of the fossils engraved into the cubes. The cubes are attractive to look at and people of all ages can use their imagination to decide what they look like – ice cubes which have floated down from the North Pole or steel mirrors which have landed from space? They are a very peaceful sight. When you look closely at the intricate nature of the engraved fossils, you can see the complex structure of these fairly basic creatures. This one also reminded me of a map of an archipelago, with a thousand islands.

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Sea Cubes by Donald Urquhart at the Dunbar Battery

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Fossil engraving on a Sea Cube by Donald Urquhart

The Coastal Garden section is also very interesting and pleasant on the eye. The photo below shows the pebbles, the wooden blocks and the range of plants which can survive in the harsh seaside conditions. The plants include sea pinks (aka thrift), red valerian and Caradonna Meadow Sage. It will be interesting to see the plants develop and spread and bring more colour to the site in the future.

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Coastal garden at the Dunbar Battery

As you leave the Battery, you see Dunbar Harbour and Dunbar Castle through the archway as in the photo below. I’ve featured Dunbar Harbour on this blog a few times and it is an ever-changing view, as the light differs or there are different boats in the harbour. The 1st photo shows the magnificent stone wall and arch which gives solidity to the entrance and frames the harbour very well. After you walk down the slope from the battery, you are on the harbour quayside and you are looking across the harbour to the castle, as in the 2nd photo below. This is the view on a calm summer evening at the harbour. In October, the small yachts are taken out for the winter as the winter tides turn the harbour into a turbulent rush of water.

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Dunbar Harbour and Dunbar Castle from the Battery.

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Dunbar harbour from near the Battery

Visit to Glamis Castle and Promotion!

April 24, 2017

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

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

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

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Trees at Glamis Castle

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

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Pleached alley of beech at Glamis Castle

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

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Glamis Castle front

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

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The three witches outside Glamis Castle

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

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

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My season ticket

 

 

Redhouse Castle, walls and daffodils, and honeywort

April 11, 2017

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

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Redhouse Castle., East Lothian (Click to enlarge)

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

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Entrance to Redhouse Castle, East Lothian

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

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Doorway into Redhouse Castle, with the Laing family arms

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

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The Sammels/Herring all and Spring flowers

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

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The Herring wall with a variety of daffodils

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

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Honeywort in my garden

 

Auld Year’s Night and A Walk on New Year’s Day

January 7, 2017

We had Australian friends staying over New Year. They arrived on 31st December which is known locally as Auld Year’s Day. This expression is, I think, restricted to the south eastern part of Scotland, while other parts use the term Hogmanay, the meaning of which is disputed, but it may be Scandinavian or Flemish. The term New Year’s Eve is used in other parts of Britain. Until the 1950s, New Year was the major festive event in Scotland, with people still working on Xmas Day. Bringing in the New Year in Scotland is seen as attractive by people across the world, as the cosmopolitan crowd in Edinburgh’s Princes Street on Auld Year’s Night will testify. Dunbar Running Club organise a short run on Auld Year’s Night at 7pm and my wife Val and our visitors took part, while I helped with timing. The race is known as the Black Bun Run after the tradition of giving people whisky and black bun to bring in the New Year, to ensure that people would have enough to drink and eat for the following year. I was the (non-running) President of  Dunbar Running Club for 14 years and the local paper, the East Lothian Courier would print my reports of the race – known then as The Auld Year’s Night Race, until one year the paper’s reporter used the headline Black Bun Run a Success. Thereafter, we used this title for the race. After the race, we joined the other runners (23 in total) in the nearby Masons Arms pub, for a pint of Belhaven Best ale, which is brewed just around the corner at Belhaven Brewery. Back home, we had a meal – a tasty Beef’n Beer (photo below) and brought the New Year in with rather less traditional champagne and red wine.

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Beef’n Beer done in Le Creuset pan (Click to enlarge)

On New Year’s Day, we took our friends on one of our favourite walks – to Seacliff Beach (good photos). We parked the car about a mile away from the beach. As you leave the car, just past the farm buildings, you get a magnificent view of Tantallon Castle (good photos)  and the Bass Rock and the view is enhanced (photo below) with the foreground of the emergent spring wheat’s subtle green.

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Tantallon Castle and the Bass Rock

You walk down a fairly muddy path to get to the beach but you are rewarded with a view of a long stretch of sandy beach to the right and left. We went left towards the tiny harbour – claimed to be the UK’s smallest – where there was quite a swell here with the white sea caressing the rocks.

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Swell at Seacliff Beach

On the harbourside, you can still see the remains of old iron winding gear, which, with the backdrop of Tantallon Castle (see below) makes for an intriguing view.

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Winding gear at Seacliff and Tantallon Castle

We walked back along the east side of the beach and up the sandy slope to the path/road where cars can exit. At the top of the hill, you pass under an archway and when you look back, the Bass Rock is framed by the archway. The photo below was taken on a frosty afternoon a few years ago.

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Arch at Seacliff Beach

As you walk back past the farm buildings at Seacliff Farm, you pass many horses as there’s a riding school there. I managed to catch one horse having a feed and another peering at me through the bare hawthorn hedge (see below). So, an excellent walk on a bright, sunny if cold day gave us an exhilarating start to 2017.

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Horse feeding at Seacliff

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Horse through a hawthorn hedge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harbour reflections and making Minestrone

December 14, 2016

I took my camera for a walk along to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) last week. The day was so wind free that the water in the harbour hardly moved and the wee boats, which are usually swaying gently to an unheard waltz tune on the accordion, were statuesque. It’s very unusual not to have any kind of wind in Dunbar and at one point, it looked as if the sea had given up coming into the harbour, as the water appeared – very briefly – to be motionless. Then a gentle ripple spread from the entrance to the harbour across to the boats.

The two photos below are taken at the east end of the harbour and the perfect reflection in the 1st photo shows how calm the water became. There’s a hint of movement in the water in the 2nd photo and the wee boat looks isolated. This is because all the small yachts that lie in the harbour in the summer have been removed for safety. I like the way the harbour walls are reflected in the water in the 2nd photo.

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

The next 2 photos are taken at the castle end of the harbour. In the first photo, the reflections look as if they might come from an impressionist painting e.g. the squiggly lines in the castle walls’ reflection. It was a cold day but the colours in the boats and in the fish boxes on the quayside inserted a warm feature into this walker’s experience. In the both photos, the castle ruins still show the white patches left by the nesting kittiwakes, who visited in the summer. The kittiwakes have featured on this blog more than once e.g. here. In the 2nd photo, the wider angle shows the castle ruins and the narrow entrance to the harbour. Another unusual feature of this visit to the harbour was the absence of birds on the water, as you often get small groups of eider duck. On this RSPB site, you can listen to the gurgling, whoo-hooing of the eider duck, and you can usually hear this from the harbourside.

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Fishing boats near Dunbar Castle

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Reflections of the ruins of Dunbar Castle

Having made lentil and vegetable, tomato and lentil, and parsnip and pear soup recently, I thought that it must be the turn of minestrone. The term minestrone comes from the Latin minestra meaning soup with pasta (and/or other ingredients) and one as a suffix meaning large, thus giving us a soup with big vegetables. The soup is mentioned in a cookbook by Apicus (the whole book from Project Gutenberg here) published in 30CE, so it has ancient traditions. You could spend the rest of your life looking at the myriad of minestrone recipes on the web i.e. almost anything goes as long as you have vegetables and pasta in it. Almost all recipes include tomatoes. Today, my minestrone has a large leek, 3 stalks of celery, diced turnip (aka swede) and carrot, dried basil and oregano, a tin of tomatoes, 2 tbs tomatoes puree and a litre of chicken stock. I put a little oil in the bottom of my large soup pan and added the basil and oregano. I then sweated the leeks and celery, and added the turnip and carrot until it looks like this:

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Sweating the vegetables in the making of minestrone

I then added the tomatoes, tomato puree and broken spaghetti, brought it  to the boil and simmered it for c20 minutes. I always find that you should never eat minestrone soup right away – let the flavours develop for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight. You can then have a colourful, tasty and winter warming soup which served up will look something like this photo from last year. Have it for lunch with crusty bread and if you are lucky like me, go for a walk along to the harbour with your camera afterwards.

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A plate of minestrone soup with basil leaves

Huntly Castle and Mac the Mandarin

November 1, 2016

On a recent family trip, we stayed at the delightful Craigellachie Hotel which boasts the world’s best whisky bar. The Quaich (good photos) has over 900 malt whiskies and at this time of year, you can sit by an enchanting log fire with your favourite malt. I tried a Bruichladdich 1998 which was superb. My wife’s home town of Huntly (good photos) is a half hour drive away, so we went for walk around the town and down memory lane – to where my wife used to live and where she went to primary school. We were joined by our son, daughter in law and 3 grandchildren at Huntly Castle (good photos) and we bought tickets and went inside this very impressive edifice.

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Huntly Castle exterior (Click on photo to enlarge)

Inside the castle, there are many useful panels explaining the use of the various rooms. There are three floors to the castle and from the top, you can see the commanding view that the Earls of Huntly had. They could see enemies approaching from all sides of the castle, which also has outer and inner moats. The castle is build of rough stone but is no less attractive for that, with the huge round tower and some elegantly designed windows on the top floor. The autumnal trees next to the castle helped to highlight its features as shown below. The castle sits next to the River Deveron which was clear and fast flowing on our visit and reflected the autumn colours in the trees – see photo.

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Huntly Castle and autumn trees

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River Deveron near Huntly Castle

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds which I receive as part of my membership of the estimable Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, there is an article by Harry Scott entitled Mac the Mandarin. The article tells of how this mandarin drake was seen by Harry Scott in Aberdeen and on investigation, he discovered that the bird had been ringed in Norway and also found out that few mandarin have been known to travel between countries. So, an interesting tale but what brought this bird to my attention was its superb appearance. I emailed Harry and he kindly sent me two of his photos to use here.

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Mandarin drake – photo by Harry Scott.

The photo above is superb not just for its colours but the reflections of the bird in the water. The mandarin to me seems to be composed of a set of shapes and patterns, each with an elegant colour – pink, yellow, green, blue, brown, white and black. It’s patchwork quilt of a bird but none the less attractive for that. The distorted reflections of the mandarin and the  trees in the river give the photo a surreal element and there is a sense of serenity about this almost magical bird as it glides effortless through the water.

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Mandarin drake – photo by Harry Scott

The second photo has the same elements of the first and when I saw it, I thought that it would make a great subject for a Lisa Hooper print. Lisa’s birds tend to have shapes of solid colour as well as flowing lines denoting the shape of the bird and the sections of feathers. It would be interesting to see how Lisa, as a printmaker, would represent the beard like flow of brown feathers at  the side of the bird’s head. Mac the Mandarin  – the name given to the bird by Harry Scott – is certainly an autumnal visitor as some of its colours can be seen in the leaves and trees at this time of year, as well as in the stones in the Deveron River photo above.

 

Milan (2) and my gladioli

October 23, 2016

One of the most striking historical places to visit in Milan is the Sforza Castle. It has very impressive battlements, huge moats and you get a real sense of the builders of this castle wanting to show the strength of their power as well as their aesthetic design. There were numerous drawbridges around the castle walls and you can see the remains of them quite clearly. The castle has many museums but on our visit, we found that notice saying that the museums were open from 9am to 5.30pm meant nothing as the ticket office was closed at 1.30pm! It is still an experience to walk around the walls and the numerous courtyards in the castle.

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Drawbridge at the entrance to Sforza Castle

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Inside the walls of the Sforza Castle

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The clock tower in the Sforza Castle

The history of the castle is long and complicated, from the original castle to the marvellous extensions built by Francesco Sforza Duke of Milan, to the foreign occupation including that of Napoleon.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Milan was obviously a major victory for the French emperor and there is an interesting legacy to Napoleon’s time in Milan. Far from wanting to be seen as a conqueror, Napoleon built a very impressive arch not far from Sforza Castle which portrays him as a peacemaker. The arch, set at the end of the beautiful grounds of Sempione Park, (good photos) is a stunning piece of architecture seen from a distance, and close up the detailed sculptures, smooth arches and commanding figures on the top are fascinating. It takes quite a time to see all the parts of the arch.

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Napoleon’s Arch of Peace, Milan

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The top of Napoleon’s Arch of Peace in Milan

One of Milan’s worldwide claims to being of cultural importance is of course the La Scala Theatre. The front of La Scala is, by Milan’s architectural standards, fairly plain but the inside is much more impressive. On the day of our visit, the theatre itself was closed as there was a rehearsal of the ballet Giselle (click on videos), but we could see the rehearsal through a little window, thus the lack of clarity in this photo. There is an extensive museum inside the theatre which contains many busts of composers, paintings of famous singers and musical instruments, such as Liszt’s piano, shown below. The La Scala visit was entertaining and educational and we watched a superb video of Riccardo Muti the famous conductor.

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Giselle rehearsal in La Scala, Milan

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Liszt’s piano in the La Scala Museum, Milan

Earlier this year, I came across an online offer for 150 gladioli bulbs for only £10 – it was a clearance as the bulbs should have been planted earlier if people had wanted summer gladioli. I prefer my gladioli to come out in the early to mid autumn, as they give an outstanding display of colour and texture when most of the other plants are starting to fade. Gladioli are also known as sword lilies because of their sword like structure and a flowering sword is a nice image – used to appeal to the aesthetic and not to violence. I like the variety of shapes and patterns of colour in gladioli, especially when you look close up. In this photo, the swirls of pink in the flowers are complimented by the deeper pink veins in some petals and the white of the stamen.

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Close up of gladiolus flower

I also like to photograph the gladioli after it has been raining as the raindrops appear to enhance the range of subtle colours and the more prominent stamens as in this photo. The stamens look like the tentacles of a creature reaching out from inside the flower to capture an unsuspecting passing fly.

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Gladiolus after the rain

Against the background of what was a hugely enthusiastic incoming tide, the gladioli and the fuchsia became even more attractive to the eye.

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Gladioli, fuchsia and rushing tide