Archive for the ‘Cycling’ Category

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.


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.


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



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.


Frosted leaves in November (Click to enlarge


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”.


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.


The Pitcox to Stenton Road


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.


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.


Trees and shadows at Pitcox House


Late autumn trees and the woes of cycling

November 22, 2016

When I came back from my cycle this morning, having passed a field of frozen sprout plants standing motionless in the field, their now yellow lower leaves stuck to the ground, and also having gone past an exquisitely coloured avenue of trees and roadside leaves at Bowerhouse (local pronunciation Boorhoose), my intention was to add to my photos of late autumn trees and early frosts here. This plan was thwarted as the wind from the east got up and the rain arrived, meaning leaden skies and rising temperatures. A walk last week through Lochend Woods in Dunbar (about 1K from our house) was particularly enjoyable because of the variety of colours in the trees and on the floor of the woods – a hundred shades of yellow, brown and green. So I went back with my camera.

The first photo is of rose hips. I have now learned that you can make rose hip syrup although it looks like it might be too sweet for me. Also, rose hips can be cultivated from sophisticated garden roses and not just the dog roses you get in the wild. I like the contrast between the bright red of the hips and the leaves, which are in various stages of maturity i.e. from green to pale yellow.


Rose hips in Lochend Woods (Click to enlarge)

The next photo takes in a range of trees. In this photo, I like the way the leaves contrast with the dark trunks of the trees. The erect trunks draw your eye up and down the photo and when you look closer, many of the trunks are not straight but bent at various angles, and they are of various girths. The sun on the woods here actually makes some of the trunks look darker than they are.


Autumnal trees in Lochend Woods

Contrast this photo with the one above. In this photo, the sunlight is making the tree trunks lighter and the trees take on the look of gum trees in Australia. This photo is deceiving as you might think that it was taken on a very hot day if you only look at the shining trees. I also like the shadows on the ground which are extensions of the trees and often lead your eye from one tree to another.


Sunlight on trees in Lochend Woods

I also liked this photo. Firstly, there is the startling colour of the yellow leaves, made paler by the sun and they show off the smooth tree trunk behind. Secondly, there is the real sense of height and I think the photo makes these trees look taller than they actually are. There are many lines to follow in this photo – up, down, to the right and left and back again.


Autumnal trees in Lochend Woods

On the way home, at a house on the edge of the woods, I passed this copper beech hedge, shown in close-up below. This is purely accidental on my part but when I look at this photo, I have the impression that the leaves are in motion and are falling although they are not. Also, the shadows of the leaves appear to increase the number of leaves on show. The colours and leaf patterns are fascinating the more you look.


Copper beech hedge leaves in autumn

So to cycling, at least last Friday’s cycle. There are some days you go on a bike and no matter how flat the road or how light the wind, it’s a struggle. It was a very cold but bright morning and I was well rugged up in my winter gear. One thing about late Autumn/winter cycling is that it takes a long time to get ready. In the summer, on go the shorts and top and shoes and helmet and half finger covered gloves – and off you go. At this time of year, it’s top and shorts and leggings and another top and a jacket and head cover like a monk’s cowl and a buff and a helmet and shoes and overshoes, which are tight and hard to get on. 5 minutes later – off you go. I was about a mile into the bike ride on Friday and started to feel my legs heavy and my back sore. Now, in these situations, to what extent your legs and back are  actually sore is open to question. What happens is that your mind takes over. Then there’s the good angel and the bad angel. The bad angel says “Well, you were going for 20 miles (32.4K) but, hey if you turn at 6 miles, who’s going to know?”. The good angel says “Who will know? YOU will know! Are you  a man or a mouse? Forget 6 miles pal, 10 is the turning point – if not further”. The nearer I get to the 6 mile mark, the voices get louder. Which one will win? I nearly turn at the roundabout at 6 miles but keep going and – this always happens – once I’m on my way, my legs are lighter and my back is not sore. What you need to do when cycling on these kind of days is to detach your mind from your body and just let your legs take over. On these days, there much more sense in your legs than in your weak and complaining brain.


Back on the bike and Seacliff Harbour

June 26, 2016

Now that I’m fully recovered from my fall 13 weeks ago, I was allowed back on my bike this week, with warnings a) not to fall off and b) not to go too far. My first cycle was a very flat 14.5 miles/24K circuit to the nearby village of East Linton (good photos) and back. There was a bit of a head wind but not too strong and I certainly felt good to be cycling along the road again. This is a great time of year to be cycling through East Lothian’s countryside, passing still-green fields of barley, wheat and potatoes, as well as ever green fields of sprouts, cabbages and cauliflower. The rapeseed (canola) fields have lost their vibrant yellow flowers as the seeds have formed and they take on a lifeless look after a while. My second cycle was slightly shorter but included some hills. After my 3 month lay off, the hills have suddenly got steeper and I struggled a bit to get up them. These “hills” will be reclassified as “inclines” when I’m a bit fitter and ready to go up real hills. Today was cycle number three this week and I extended it to 20 miles although it’s flat apart from a couple of hills near the 10 mile mark. One is reasonably steep but I cycled up at a good pace, so my two previous cycles have helped. Here are some of the fields I passed this week.


Field of barley with Dunbar in the background


Field of sprouts near Easter Broomhouse Cottages, Dunbar


Field of potatoes near Dunbar

We took our Australian visitors to the very attractive but not all that well-known beach and harbour at Seacliff Beach (good photos) which is not far from North Berwick (good photos). We parked the car at Auld Hame farm and walked a mile down the road and through the trees. As we walked Tantallon Castle stood proud on the cliffs to our left, dominating the countryside in front of it. This castle is now looked after by Historic Environment Scotland and is well worth a visit. Much of the castle’s impressive 12ft outer wall is still well-preserved and you can climb the ramparts to get a panoramic view. This view would have made it very easy for the castle’s owners the Douglas Family to see any enemies approaching. The castle’s back is to the sea from where it would be very difficult to attack. At Seacliff Beach, there is a wide semi-circle of beach on which families were playing and having picnics in the sunshine. At the end of the beach, the rocks take over and as you approach the rocks, you can see what appears to be a metal structure but it’s not clear what this is. Unless you know what you’ll see next, you will be surprised to see that there is a tiny harbour and the metal structure is an old wheel for loading and unloading creels and boxes of fish from boats.


Loading wheel at Seacliff Harbour

Next to the harbour is a large knoll which people climb to get views across the North Sea. A feature of this view is St Baldred’s Boat which turns out to be not a boat, nor the cross-topped stone structure seen in the photo below, but an outcrop of rocks which was viewed as dangerous. St Baldred is believed to have lived near Seacliff for a time.


St Baldred’s Boat beyond Seacliff

Another view of the knoll looks towards Tantallon Castle and on the day we were there, the haar (sea mist) was coming in and gave the castle the eerie look in the photo below. If you’re in this area, check out Seacliff Beach and harbour where there is lots of room for the few people who find the beach.


Tantallon Castle from Seacliff Harbour

Winter cycling and broccoli and Stilton soup

March 5, 2016

It occurred to me the other day that I had not mentioned cycling for quite a while on this blog. In the winter, while the mileage goes down, the regular bike rides on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday still take place. Winter cycling is obviously very similar to summer cycling insofar as I go on similar routes, but there are differences. The first difference is in clothing. In the summer, I put on my cycling top, shorts and shoes and off I go. In the winter, I have 3 thicker, but breathable tops and my winter jacket. I also have a skullcap to protect my ears and a snood for my neck. This means that it takes me longer just to get going. It also means that you have extra weight on the bike AND because it’s so cold, you use up much more energy, so you need to extend more effort to go the same distance as in the summer. My pals and I also go on our mountain bikes more in the winter and it’s very enjoyable, as you get off the road and face the challenges of rocky tracks, mud and ice at times. One of our routes when there’s an east wind is out past the Whitesands beach and on to Barns Ness Lighthouse.(good photos). On our last ride there, the track next to the beach was flooded, so we cycled along the beach itself. It’s OK on hard sand but you have to get off now and then when you hit soft sand or slippery rocks.


Whitesands Beach near Dunbar


Barns Ness Lighthouse

On Saturday, I went through part of the Dunglass Estate and on towards the village of Oldhamstocks. This is a good cycling route for mountain bikes (good photos). At one point, I was at the top of a hill, going along tractor tracks in a grassy field and I approached a flock of sheep about 50 yards from me. They stared intently, then one or two stirred and as I got nearer, as one they ran about 20 yards down the hill, turned and stared at me again. What came to my mind was the sheep in Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy’s wonderful novel and also a well known film from the 1960s (video trailer) and more recently. Did my sheep wonder why Gabriel Oak from the novel was on a bike? It was a beautiful morning, with the  sun coming through the clouds and in the next field below, a tractor was ploughing, followed by a flock of feasting seagulls. This reminds me that I must buy a video camera for my bike – I’ve been meaning to do this for years.

To misquote an old adage, of the making of soup there is no end. I thought I’d try something different this week and it was the leftover broccoli in the fridge that reminded me that I’d never made broccoli and Stilton soup, something I’ve enjoyed in restaurants over the years. So, on to a well-known search engine and after a browse of different recipes, I settled on the BBC Good Food recipe as it had a variety of ingredients and was healthier than others e.g. the ones suggesting double cream. It’s easy to make. I sweated a finely chopped large onion, a celery stick and a medium sized leek and added a teaspoonful dried mixed herbs, then added a chopped (and soaked) large potato. I stirred this around for a minute and then added 2 heads of roughly chopped broccoli. I added a litre of stock – ham stock cubes for me but you choose your stock – and let it simmer for about 25 minutes, until the potato was soft. I then mashed it down with my potato masher and used my hand held blender to make it smooth. The recipe suggests 140g of Stilton cheese but when I measured this out, it was too much cheese. I added 85g of the cheese and this turned out to be to our satisfaction as the cheese does not over power the broccoli flavour. We had the soup today with a lovely loaf from Bostock Bakery in North Berwick.


Bostock Bakery loaf


Broccoli and Stilton soup with fresh bread

While the soup looks (and was) very tasty, any good chef would have told me to properly clean the plate before serving.


Tour of Britain, The McManus and Verdant Works

September 18, 2015

Last week, the Tour of Britain cycle race passed through East Lothian as part of Stage 4. My two cycling pals and I had hoped to cycle up to Redstone Rig (video), a high point in the Lammermuir Hills, where points were being awarded for the King of the Mountains contest, but one was injured, so we went by car. On a sunny day i.e. the day before and the day after, there are spectacular views across the hills and out to the North Sea from Redstone Rig but on the day of the race, it was dull and a cold east wind meant that spectators had to be well rugged up. We could see the riders approach from the west, as police motor cars and motor cycles sped up the hill past us.

Tour of Britain 2015

Tour of Britain 2015

The leading group passed up, followed by the main peloton soon afterwards. As amateur cyclists, we were glad to see that even some of the professionals were finding the Rig a difficult proposition although their speed was still much faster than ours. Getting up Redstone Rig is an achievement in itself for me – it’s a bit easier for my two much fitter pals. It was a lively occasion with many local cyclists in the crowd and it was a real treat to see the race so close up and, because of the steep climb, at a slower speed. After the peloton, the team cars came by with spare bikes on the top and we amateurs looked on enviously at these superb – and very costly – bikes.

Peloton at Redstone Rig in the Tour of Britain

Peloton at Redstone Rig in the Tour of Britain

Team cars at the Tour of Britain

Team cars at the Tour of Britain

We spent a couple of days in the town of Carnoustie (good photos) with a very good offer at the Carnoustie Golf Hotel. On the firs afternoon, we had a very pleasant walk around Monikie (pr Mon-ee-ki) Country Park. The sun came out and the clouds reflected in the water, as in the photo below, taken on my phone.

Monikie Country Park

Monikie Country Park

The following day was a complete contrast with constant rain and a cool easterly breeze. We set off by train to Dundee (good photos), the historic city by the River Tay. We went to the tourist information service in the city square and a very helpful young man told us what we should visit. The tourist office is next to the magnificent Caird Hall which even on a wet day – photo below – looked impressive.

Caird Hall, Dundee

Caird Hall, Dundee

Our first visit was to the equally grand McManus galleries and museum which has a range of galleries which relate to the history of Dundee as well as contemporary and historic art. We focused on the Victoria gallery. Two paintings particularly caught our eye. The first was John Lavery’s depiction of a hospital ward at the start of World War One, entitled The First Wounded. There are many stories in this painting. At the forefront a nurse in a formal, starched uniform is tending to a soldier’s arm, while in the bed behind, another soldier with a head wound looks in pain. Next to the bed, a man casually reads the paper and smokes a pipe. Today of course, you would not see smoking inside a hospital and indeed you rarely see a man smoking a pipe any more. In the background, a one legged soldier on crutches makes his way down the ward while another soldier, perhaps also having lost a leg is in a wheelchair. The painting superbly contrasts the calm, cleanliness and brightness (the sun reflecting the windows on the floor) of the ward with what must have been the chaos, dirt and dreariness of the battlefield.

The First Wounded by John Lavery

The First Wounded by John Lavery

The second painting was The Blackbird Song by Edward Hornel. This is a much different and more romantic topic and painting, with the three young girls listening to the blackbird and surrounded by flowers and trees. The detail is magnificently drawn and there is a dreamlike quality to the painting, an image of innocence and perfection.

The Blackbird Song by Edward Hornel

The Blackbird Song by Edward Hornel

After lunch, we walked – still with umbrellas up – to the Verdant Works a museum telling the history of the jute industry in Dundee. This is a fascinating visit with a helpful guide at the start and then a tour of the museum which features photos of jute plantations in India. I have to admit that I had always thought that jute was a material, but it is a plant which grows to about ten feet tall in India/Bangladesh and the fibres are processed to make sacking, ropes and carpets. The jute industry employed thousands of people – men, women and children – in horrendous conditions in the 19th century when the process was mechanised and huge factories were built. For the owners this was very profitable but for the workers it meant hard work, no health and safety and short life spans. Some good images of the machines can be seen here – the harsh lighting made it difficult to take photos in the museum.

Dunbar harbour (again) and Abbey St Bathans

August 25, 2015

There’s a biblical saying indicating (roughly) that there is no end to the making of books and there is no end to me taking photographs of my local harbour, which has featured a few times on this blog e.g. here and here. One reason for this is that the light is never exactly the same at Dunbar harbour, the tide is never at exactly the same height and the boats and yachts in the harbour are never exactly in the same place. These most recent photos were taken on a cloudy evening although there was enough light from the west to illuminate the water and enable the reflections to appear. The sounds of the harbour are always changing and the most significant recent change has been a dramatic decrease in sound as the calls of the kittiwakes no longer pierce the evening calm. The birds which nested on the castle walls ( see my photos) since April have gone back out to sea until next year.

Dunbar harbour on a cloudy evening

Dunbar harbour on a cloudy evening

Reflections in Dunbar harbour

Reflections in Dunbar harbour

Creels, yachts and castle ruins at Dunbar Harbour

Creels, yachts and castle ruins at Dunbar Harbour

It’s been a good few years since we ventured to Abbey St Bathans. From Dunbar, this is a pleasant drive – and a hard cycle run because of the many hills encountered. There are some nice walks from where you park near the bridge which is part of the route on the Southern Upland Way, a popular walking route.

Southern Upland Way signpost

Southern Upland Way signpost

The fast flowing Whiteadder (pr Whittader) River flows through this hamlet and there is a swinging bridge upstream which was built by the Gurkas in 1987. The church (good photos) is famous for being built on the site of a 12th century abbey.  Nowadays, there is a trout farm and a restaurant/gallery along the road from the church.  Over the road is an extensive sawmill – an unusual sight in the 21st century – but it gladdens the eye to see the piles of tree trunks sculpturally assembled across the mill yard. There is also always a lovely smell from the drying logs.

Whiteadder River at Abbey St Bathans

Whiteadder River at Abbey St Bathans

Sawmill at Abbey St Bathans

Sawmill at Abbey St Bathans


The Beautiful Librarians, Le Tour ends and sweet peas

July 28, 2015

I’ve just finished reading The Poetry Book Society’s Choice –  The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O’Brien a professor at Newcastle University and well established British poet. For me, an educator of librarians in universities in Scotland and Australia for 34 years, the title was alluring, of course. As a member of the Poetry Book Society, I get sent 4 books a year – not chosen by me. O’Brien’s book is a mixture of what might be nostalgia and class consciousness “Scattered comrades now remember: someone stole the staffroom tin/ Where we collected for the miners, for the strike they couldn’t win”  and comic interludes such as in Old Lads at the Ramshill Hotel “.. these wobbly suitors with their grease-grey quiffs/ And suits that are older than they are”. The title poem, superbly analysed by Carol Rumens is also a nostalgic look back to when O’Brien was a student. The poem begins “The beautiful librarians are dead,/ The fairly recent graduates who sat/ Like Françoise Hardy’s shampooed sisters/ With cardigans across their shoulders/ On quiet evenings at the issue desk,/Stamping books and never looking up/ At where I stood in adoration”. The reference to Francoise Hardy is very meaningful to me because, as a teenager, I was lovestruck by Ms Hardy’s stunning looks and vertigo inducing French voice, such as in the song All Over the World. Some of the poems in this collection appeared to be very clever but lacked depth, while others were superb – try it for yourself.

The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O'Brien

The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O’Brien

So, another Tour de France has come to an end. Three weeks of aching ascents and death-defying descents has thrilled millions of people across the globe and not just cycling enthusiasts. My cycling pal John maintains that even watching the cyclists go up some the high climbs such as La Croix de Fer (video) makes his legs feel sore. It was great to have a British winner again in Chris Froome and there were many exciting finishes. I’ve been wearing my Guardian cycling T Shirts recently but I was surprised – and shocked – at so many people not knowing what the third word in the slogan (photo below) originally was. As ever, I’ve promised my self that I’ll do more hills from now on, inspired by the teams on Le Tour. I would advise you to watch this space, but …..

Le Tour de France T shirt

Le Tour de France T shirt

My wife’s running partner brought us a beautiful bunch of sweet peas freshly cut from her garden. These flowers not only have soft but attractive colours but they also have a lovely perfume. These delicate flowers do not last very long but make a lasting impression as in the photos below, and some of the pinks were replicated in a rose I saw in a garden only yesterday.

Jar of sweet peas

Jar of sweet peas

Sweet peas close up

Sweet peas close up

Rose with burgeoning buds

Rose with burgeoning buds

Making minestrone, Sapiens and the honeysuckle is out

May 31, 2015

I’ve been growing basil from seed in wee pots on two windowsills and there are now large leaves on both sets of plants. Basil is very easy to grow and very nutritious, with some websites claiming a huge range of benefits, which I would need to verify from other sites before believing all the claims. So, what to cook with the fresh basil? A simple search will give many suggestions but I opted for minestrone soup. There are more minestrone soup recipes online and in cookery books than there are heads on my basil plants. What they all have in common is vegetables, tomatoes and pasta – after that, it’s up to the individual. My soup, which is fairly thick and chunky consists of:

1 large leek

1 large dirty carrot

Half of a medium sized turnip (called swede outside Scotland)

2 stalks of celery

1 clove of garlic

Basil and oregano – a mixture of dried and fresh

1 tin of tomatoes

A good squeeze of tomato puree

1 litre of stock – I used a ham stock cube and a vegetable stock cube but purists might want to make their own stock

1 mug of pasta

It involves a lot of therapeutic slicing, unless you use a food processor. I like to slice the leeks and garlic finely and then slice the celery, carrots and turnip into small cubes. I sweat the leeks and garlic in margarine, having added the herbs to them, then add the rest of the vegetables. I give this a good stir for one minute and add the tomatoes and the stock, then the pasta and the puree. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down and it should cook in about 20 minutes – try the turnip to make sure. I find that it’s best to cook it one day and eat it the next day, as this deepens the flavour. It looks good with a couple of basil leaves on top – see photo below – and tastes wonderful – add some freshly grated parmesan to enhance the flavour further.

Minestrone soup

Minestrone soup

Out on my trusty Forme Longcliffe the other day, I listened (safely i.e. I could hear traffic at a distance behind me) to Start the Week which included a range of guests, but the most intriguing for me was the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, Yuval Noah Harari.  The author tells us that there were many species of what we call human but only homo sapiens survived, mainly due to this species’ cognitive abilities. Harari argues that our society has developed through storytelling and myth and that many of the things that people believe in e.g. money, are in fact based on shared myths. Money works because we trust each other and believe for example that a £20 note (worthless in itself) can justifiably buy us 2 bottles of Rioja. He also argued that many of the revolutions that have been seen as hugely progressive – e.g. the agricultural and industrial revolutions – were, for most people, regressive as they lost previous freedoms which they enjoyed in small communities, as they were forced to join large communities (in towns and later cities) and become subservient. Harari is often controversial and many people may find some of his arguments overly simplistic, but he raises many interesting questions in his book.

In my garden, the honeysuckle is now showing its vibrant array of colours and shapes. As the photos below show, a close up look at honeysuckle flowers could be mistaken for underwater sea plants, with their display of tentacles, or something from science fiction, e.g. other world creatures landing on earth, having a look at the strange and very unsophisticated humans – and having a real good laugh.

Honeysuckle flowers

Honeysuckle flowers

Honeysuckle flowers

Honeysuckle flowers

Edmundbyers, stone walls and Barter’s Books

March 30, 2015

A bit late with this blog post as we have family here from Dubai. Two weeks ago, we went to the north of England to catch up with a couple we  first met in Wagga Wagga, as they both went to Wagga Wagga Road Runners. They had a cottage in the County Durham village of Edmundbyers. The village is set in beautiful countryside and the Derwent Water is nearby. It’s a great place for running, walking and cycling and we had an enjoyable walk up Muggleswick Common, from which you get a grand view across the rolling hills, down to the village and across to the Derwent Water. One of the fabulous features of this part of the country is the dry stone walls, which were built to separate land and to keep sheep enclosed. Many visitors to the north of England are amazed by the length, width and depth of these walls, and today there does not seem a particular reason for having such extensive walls, which would cost a fortune to build today. One of the answers to this is that, when the walls were constructed by the stonemasons, probably in the 18th and 19th centuries, both the materials for the walls – slate stone around here – and labour were cheap and plentiful. If you look closely at the walls, you can see how intricately built they are, with two outside layers of smooth stone and rougher stone in the middle. Building these walls is an art as well as a craft. The photos below show the village of Edmundbyers, some of the stone walls and fishermen sheltering from a very cold wind on our walk at the Derwent Water.

Edmundbyers, County Durham

Edmundbyers, County Durham

Dry stone wall

Dry stone wall

Derwent Water

Derwent Water

Within the village of Edmundbyers, we visited the 12th century church and, passing one of the houses, I noticed a plaque on the walls which read Cross Peels (photo below). I looked this up and peels, which look like oars on this plaque, are tools used by bakers to put bread into and take bread out of an oven.

Cross Peels

Cross Peels

On our way back to Dunbar, we stopped in the historic town of Alnwick, very well known for its castle and extensive gardens (good photos). We have visited these sites before and if you are in the area, they are certainly worth going to. On this visit to Alnwick, we went to Barter’s Bookshop (interesting video on this site), which is housed in the old railway station. There is a café next to the bookshop and it serves meals, coffees, teas and cakes in the old waiting rooms, including a ladies’ waiting room and first, second and third class waiting rooms. It’s likely that those who used the first class waiting room would be appalled that the hoi polloi can now use the same room. The bookshop has a wide range of second-hand books, some of which are valuable and at the entrance, there is a model railway which winds it way along the tracks above the customers’ heads. The photos show the main bookshop and the railway.

Barter's Books, Alnwick

Barter’s Books, Alnwick

Model railway in Barter's Books

Model railway in Barter’s Books