Archive for the ‘countryside’ Category

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

 

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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

 

 

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

A recent exhibition (now closed) at Waterston House in Aberlady featured the intriguing work of wildlife artist Paul Bartlett. I was rather late in contacting Paul Bartlett, but he kindly sent me two examples of his work to use in this blog. He uses a mixture of media, in particular collage and papier mache with acrylic paints. From a distance, the works look like paintings but as you approach, you see the often stunning effects of the use of different media together. For example, in the first work below, it’s not clear that this is not a “normal” painting i.e. using only paint. Oystercatchers are a very familiar sight on the rocks near our house and I often watch them through my scope, as they poke with intent at limpets on the rocks. Once the limpet has been eased off the rock, the oystercatcher will scoop out of the flesh and dip this tasty ( I assume) snack in a rockpool before eating it. They are also very disputatious birds and you can hear them often before you see them. The ones in the picture below look at ease with the world and Bartlett captures their orange beaks and legs very well, although his aim is not to reproduce a copy of an oystercatcher. This is a representation of the bird and its seaside environment, which is cleverly depicted by the blues and greens in the background and the various colours of seaweed, sand and rocks beneath their feet. When you see the actual picture, the effects of the mixed media enhance the quality of the colours and the flowing shapes in the birds’ feathers.

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The Roost by Paul Bartlett

The second work shown here depicts a shoal of rainbow trout swimming determinedly upstream to spawn. You can see the determination in the eyes of the fish, intent on one purpose only. It looks a glum business but maybe in real life, this is an exhilarating process for the fish, in their communal venture. Rainbow trout have the intriguing official name Oncorhynchus mykiss  which comes for the Greek for hooked snout, with mykiss being a name the fish are given in Russia. A romantic fish? As with the oystercatchers above, the colours in this work are very impressive and you find yourself going from fish to fish to see the multitude of colours on display. This work is so detailed that it must have taken the artist a long time to create and paint. There is also great motion in the work and when you look away and look back, you think that another group of trout have swum into the picture. Bartlett’s work will shortly be seen at the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival, so if you can get  to see his work there or in the future, don’t miss it, as you will be very impressed.

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Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

On our trip to Bordeaux, we took the train to the lovely village of St Emilion, famous for its surrounding vineyards and world famous chateaux, which produce superb wines. There’s a distinct classification of the wines, with Premier Grand Cru Classe A deemed to be the best and of course this is the most expensive. For example, a bottle of Chateau Ausone from 2011 can set you back £835. I did buy a bottle of wine in one of the many wine shops in St Emilion but it was a Grand Cru and not a Classe A. Would I know that the Chateau Ausone 2011 was worth over £800 if I tasted it? I doubt it but give me a few free lessons and tastings and I will learn quickly.

The village itself is charming – once you get there. When we got off the train, we and the other passengers looked around to see vineyards all around us, which was a bit perplexing. We then saw a sign saying that the village of St Emilion was a 20 min walk – we did it in 15 min in 28 degrees and sunshine. You walk up cobbled streets past the old houses and the never ending succession of wine shops. It’s a steep climb but at the top you get great views across the village. We climbed the church tower to see the two views in the photos below.

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

The village is over looked by the huge Monolithic Church (includes short video) originally built in the 12th century. The church is so-called because the hillside was excavated and the church built upon the catacombs to form one building. It’s a very impressive sight as the photos below show. In the first photo, you can see the magnificent carvings on the entrances as well as on the bell-tower and your eye is taken from the older, rounded parts of the church up to the bell-tower. The 2nd photo shows how the church was built to dominate the village and to remind the population of the power of the church, as well as being a tribute to Saint Emilion, an 8th century hermit.

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

A final note on Bordeaux. There are some excellent restaurants in the city and the three most memorable are shown in the business cards below. From the right, Chez Dupont (good photos)was a real find on our first night in Bordeaux. The hotel suggested the Rue Notre Dame, where you’ll find a number of good restaurants away from the city centre and Chez Dupont provided us with an excellent meal, the sea bream being delicious. Near the river, but not on the quayside, the Restaurant Au Bouchons de Chartrons was another great find. We had swordfish with vegetables served in neatly tied plastic, see through bag. This method is known as sous vide and is popular in France. The third restaurant Paul’s Place proved to be more than just a restaurant. On leaving the Chez Dupont, we passed Paul’s Place and saw that on the Saturday evening, there was a singer performing Bob Dylan songs, so we booked a table. This turned out to be a great evening, with Andy Jefferies playing a range of early Bob Dylan songs – and singing them very well – accompanied by a slide show of Dylan photos and video. The food in Paul’s Place is rustic, very tasty and extremely good value for money. The co-owner Paul is a friendly and welcoming host, formerly of Cambridge. The restaurant has bohemian (but fascinating) décor e.g. the ceiling is papered with the front pages of the Times Literary Supplement. This restaurant is certainly worth a visit.

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Bordeaux restaurants

Smooth tattie dreels and bluebells

May 3, 2017

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

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

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

 

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Tattie dreels and the Lammermuir Hills

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

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Bluebells beneath trees at Foxlake Woods

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Bluebells and trees in the sun at Foxlake Woods

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

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Bluebell close up

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

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Bluebell close up, showing pale cream anthers

Visit to Glamis Castle and Promotion!

April 24, 2017

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

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

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

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Trees at Glamis Castle

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

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Pleached alley of beech at Glamis Castle

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

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Glamis Castle front

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

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The three witches outside Glamis Castle

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

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

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My season ticket

 

 

Tigh Na Leigh and their orchids

April 18, 2017

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

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Egg tree at Tigh Na Leigh (Click to enlarge)

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

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Log fire at Tigh Na Leigh

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

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Double baked “smokie” soufflé at Tigh Na Leigh

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

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The pond at Tigh Na Leigh

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

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Orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

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

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

 

Carol Barrett exhibition and Wagga Beach

April 3, 2017

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

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

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Sulphur Crested Cockatoo by Carol Barrett (Click to enlarge)

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

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Blue Winged Kookaburra by Carol Barrett

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

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Laughing Kookaburras in the Western Sydney suburbs

 

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

 

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Laughing Kookaburra at Wagga Beach

 

Back on my bike, John Clare podcast and crocuses

February 23, 2017

I had my first cycle on Saturday after being off the bike for 5.5 weeks with very painful sciatica i.e. intermittently, you get a sharp pain in your side and shooting pains going down your leg – and this can happen during the day or night. Okay, it’s a fairly minor complaint but it’s very annoying and frustrating, particularly with the knowledge that cycling will make it worse. When you look up sciatica on the web, the first thing your told by all the websites I looked at is: There is no cure for sciatica. You just have to wait until it calms down and do warm up and warm down exercises before cycling. So, on the bike – tentatively. When you come back to cycling, especially when you get older, there is a change in the environment. What used to be inclines are back to hills, and what used to be small hills are now biggish hills and as for the big hills – forget about them for a while. However, I know that after a few longer cycle rides, the inclines will return to their former status, as will the little hills and the big hills can be conquered – maybe at a painfully slow rate at first.

On Saturday’s bike ride and on today’s, it was refreshing to be out looking at the countryside again, passing clumps of snowdrops now at their peak and also emergent crocus and the odd daffodil in flower. Plus, many of the fields are going green again, while others, newly ploughed, have a sheen on the turned earth which the sun catches. So it was appropriate today that, while on the bike, I listened (safely, able to hear traffic behind me) to a podcast from Melvyn Bragg’s educative and informative series In Our Time on Radio 4. This podcast ( you can listen from anywhere in the world) was on the poet John Clare  and there was a fascinating discussion by three academic experts on Clare’s childhood. He was brought up in relative poverty in the village of Helpston in Northamptonshire, where his father worked on a local farm. Clare left school at 11 and was introduced to poetry by fellow farm labourer, who showed Clare a book of poems about landscape. Clare was published in his 20s and was marketed as a poor farm labourer (a la Robert Burns in Scotland) with a gift for poetry. The podcast reveals how Clare became a poet of the countryside – from the countryside’s and its animals’ point of view i.e. Clare on his walks delved into elements such as the Nightingale’s Nest. As one of the panel observed, Clare did not observe the rural landscape “from over a 5-barred gate” as other rural poets did, but included details – such as the composition of the nightingale’s nest. Clare’s fame did not last and he ended up in a lunatic asylum, but he still wrote poems which have endured until today, later in his life. Clare’s style fell out of fashion but there has been a revival of interest in Clare by poets such as Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, who admired Clare’s use of local dialect words. I would recommend this podcast to everyone, not just those interested in poetry.

We are two-thirds of the way through February and the crocus flowers have added a welcome splash of early Spring colour across the UK. Here in Dunbar, the local council have planted hundreds of crocus around the town. The photos that follow are from the council-planted crop just up the road from my house. It was very windy when I took the photos but the sun was out and the crocus glittered and swayed in the wind, which is not cold today. Tomorrow, however, the temperatures are to plummet and we may get gales and snow, which means a battering  for these attractive but flimsy flowers. In this photo, I like the combination of colours, yellow, purple and different shades of green.

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Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

In the next photo, a close-up (difficult to do in the wind), the crocus appear to be reaching up to the sun and opening their flowers to ingest the sun’s rays.

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Close up of crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

In the final photo, which includes both yellow and purple flowers, the crocus are like open-mouthed choir boys, singing at the top of their voices.

Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

John Clare refers to the crocus in some of his poems, such as this from Early Spring “The Spring is come, and Spring flowers coming too, The crocus, patty kay, the rich hearts’ ease;”. The patty kay is the hepatica flower and the photo below is included under the Creative Commons licence.

Hepatica flower

Hepatica flower

 

 

Ditchling Beacon and Ditchling village

January 25, 2017

During our trip to London, we ventured south from Thames Ditton, where our rellies stay, to the village of Ditchling, an hour’s drive away. Before going into the village, we headed up the steep hill, passing a few cyclists straining hard, to Ditchling Beacon (good photos). This historical site – a hill fort was found by archaeologists – has 360 degrees views across Sussex. On the day we visited, we could see the sea behind Brighton to the south but we couldn’t see the coast of France. The Beacon is on the South Downs and you can see for miles across the rolling countryside. The Downs are made mainly of chalk and it was a new experience for us to walk on the creamy coloured clay. It had been snowing the previous day and there were quite large – but headless – snowmen to be seen next the icy path. The bitterly cold wind ensured that we didn’t stay long as, unlike the groups of walkers we saw, we were not dressed for the conditions. The photos show part of the Beacon and the snow still lying there.

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Ditchling Beacon paths

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Snow on Ditchling Beacon

The village of Ditchling has a long history and there are some very attractive Tudor-style houses in the main street. Our first stop was to the jewellers  Pruden and Smith where my sister in law wanted to buy a necklace. I wouldn’t normally stop for long in a “goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewellers” but we were given a short tour of the workshop below the main shop. What you find here is a small space which features a few work desks,  but also on display are the tools of the craftsmen and craftswomen who make the jewellery. The first photo shows a dazzling range of tools and it’s interesting to reflect that these tools, some of which are quite powerful, are instrumental in producing such delicate jewellery (see shop website for examples), along with the combination of the well-honed skills and artistic talents of those making the jewellery.

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Silversmiths’ tools in Ditchling

The second photo shows some of the older equipment used to roll out the silver and gold into which a variety of precious stones would be inserted. There was also an admirable display of jewellery on display in the cabinets. So an interesting visit to the shop and an excellent insight into the extensive and delicate work that goes into producing the rings, necklaces and bracelets.

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Rolling and printing equipment in the Pruden and Smith workshop in Ditchling

Our next stop was Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft which featured work by Eric Gill, whom I knew as a famous typographer from the 1920s and 1930s. Some of Gill’s typography is on display and I’d like to have seem more. I learned that Gill was also an accomplished sculpture and one of his works, with its beautiful flowing lines and delicate depiction of the woman’s face, is shown below.

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Eric Gill sculpture in Ditchling Museum

Also on display were examples from the Kelmscott Press founded by William Morris. There was an example of an old press, along with typefaces on display and you could see how intricate a task it was to put in letters individually – and upside down – to make a page of a book or newspaper.

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Printing press at Ditchling Museum

We had an excellent lunch at The Bull pub in the village. The pub has some very good examples of local beer from its own Bedlam Brewery. The food was impressive and I had a very tasty venison pie with chestnut mash and broccoli. It rained on and off on our stay in Ditchling but we managed a walk around this very attractive village, which is well worth a visit.

Frosty days and Pitcox farm

November 29, 2016

Last week, we had a series of very frosty days in Dunbar. When you get frosts in November, there are always gloom merchants around who see this as a sign of a bad winter to come. Likewise, if you get a comparatively warm day in November, there will always be someone in the street saying “Aye, we’ll peye (pay) for this!”. This view of life of course, sees the world in simplistic terms, for every gain ( a sunny day), there will be pain ( a frosty day). We optimists argue that you should enjoy both sunny and frosty days – if you can. I was out cycling last week on 2 of the frosty days and I took my camera on the second one. Unlike last week, both these cycle rides were very enjoyable – sunny days, with big Australian clear blue skies, on my mountain bike and hitting the occasional thick patches of ice en route in the countryside. The thick tyres on this bike mean that you can crunch through icy puddles on the road. The key thing is never to touch your brakes on the ice, as you inevitably end up lying on the said ice and looking up to the big sky, and feeling an ever-growing pain in your knee.

I stopped the bike at Pitcox Farm, of which more later. On the roadside, the fallen leaves had been highlighted by the 3 days of frost. I took these close up photos and looking at them when enlarged, I’m sure we may see different things. What do I see? What strikes me most are the patterns on the leaves, some like splayed fingers, others like branch lines of a metro system, some like a child’s drawing of a tree and others like protruding veins, which are white, unlike their varicose counterparts. There are also twigs, leading your eye from line to line.

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Frosted leaves in November (Click to enlarge

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Frosted leaves in November

Back home, I went out to the back of the house to catch the thick frost on the beach. There looks like a confrontation in the photo below. The frost has marched out from the stone wall towards the incoming tide and the two armies are separated by the Independent Republic of Sand, upon which the sun shines. The tide receded, the frost stayed put and then it was completely annihilated by the invisible Thaw. The following day, there was high tide and the jubilant sea laughed its way up to the wall. There’s a lovely image in Amy Lowell’s poem The Hoar Frost, with these lines: “And when I came into my garden,/My silken outer-garment/ Trailed over withered leaves”.

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Frosted East Beach in Dunbar

Back to Pitcox Farm, which usually makes an appearance here in late January, early February when the first snowdrops for miles around can be seen. The farm, with its impressive house and farm cottages is 4.5 miles (7.2K) from Dunbar and you get there on quiet country roads. I was on my way back when I took the photos here – of where I’d come from and the road down to the cross roads.

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The Pitcox to Stenton Road

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Approaching the Pitcox crossroads

At the place in the photo above, the roadside was frost-filled, the leaves static, the air cold and my breath steamy. At the bottom of the road, just past the crossroads sign, the sun was out and the frost had been banished, with the leaves enjoying the temporary heat, as in this photo, which appears to contain unknown stick insects.

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Autumn leaves in the sun

There were also magnificent shadows cast by the now leafless trees in the garden of Pitcox House. In this photo, the shadows look animated as if engaged in mid morning tree shadow aerobics and the trees themselves stretch out as far as they can.

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Trees and shadows at Pitcox House