Archive for the ‘Cycling’ Category

Milkman by Anna Burns and poppies at the side of the railway

July 1, 2019

I have just finished reading Anna Burns‘ Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman (good review). It was a controversial winner of the prize as some reviewers did not enjoy the intensity of the book, which features many long paragraphs describing the feelings of an 18 year girl growing up in an unnamed country in the 1970s. There is no doubt that Burns has created a character – whose name we never discover – with a unique voice, relating to family troubles, her relationship with “maybe boyfriend”, her stalking by a local “renouncer” and her reflections on being an unusual late-teenage girl with conflicting feelings about herself, her environment and her family. We are quickly aware that we are in 1970s Northern Ireland, possibly in Belfast, where Burns grew up. There is a universal aspect to this claustrophobic society, where rumour is rife and controls what people think of each other.

It is also a controlled society, with the powerful state on one side, represented by an oppressive army and police force. These forces – we assume them to be the British – harass the girl’s community ( not stated but clearly Catholic) and support the people “over there” (not stated but clearly Protestant) in the city and “over the water”. There is also internal control by the “renouncers of the state” – the IRA – who rule the girl’s home area and mete out severe punishments on suspected informers. The protagonist, only known as “middle sister” or “daughter” or “maybe-girlfriend”, is seen as unusual as she does not conform to unstated and unwritten rules of her community.

The book can be difficult to read at times – it is occasionally repetitive about this closed society – but Burns manages to move the story on and include some dark humour to illuminate a potentially gloomy plot. It is certainly a different kind of novel but one well worth buying. I read it in small chunks and it might be more rewarding to make a more sustained effort to get the best effect.

An intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We seem to have had an extended period of wind from the east this year – and that means cool to cold around here – so I have been cycling in that direction for a while now. The route takes me on the road to the local cement works, where I join a cycle path. At the moment, the countryside is full of growth. The once green barley now has multi-grained heads and has turned slightly yellow, as it sways in the wind. The sprout plants which looked pale, forlorn and unlikely to survive, have now blossomed into more substantial and healthy looking plants, although they still have a lot of growing to do. The potato fields are now in flower as are the fields of peas, which must be profitable this year as there are many more stretches of pea-green to be seen. On the side of the fields, there are scatterings of poppies, some bright red, some pale red and a few purple heads can also be seen.

I stopped my bike on the cycle path next to the railway on one side and the muddy tracks of the cement works on the other, to admire a mass of poppies. In the photo below, you can see that when you get closer, you are looking at more than poppies, as scattered amongst the swaying redheads are a variety of wildflowers and thistles.

Poppies at the side of the cycle track

I last posted on poppies in 2016 and quoted the poet Sujata Bhatt and her poem which describes wild poppies as “a living flame of love” and as “a wildfire / by the roads”. The poet sees “how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” and if you look close at poppies, you see their silk-like heads. I took a video on my phone of the scene and you can see the contrast between “the living flame” of the poppies and the green of the ivy.

Poppies at the side of the tracks near the cement works

One of the photos of a large poppy head in my garden in 2016 was used in that blog post. You can see in the photo below that the petals do have a silky sheen and that the centre piece could be mistaken for some kind of tarantula, either real or mythical.

Inside a poppy head

As I was scrolling through photos of this year, I came across this close up of a tulip head and it has a striking similarity to that of the poppy head, but with a different species of 6 legged creature in the middle. They are both exquisite examples of design in nature which provides inspiration to poets and artists alike.

Tulip head with tarantula centre
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Book on East Lothian and the Longest Day

June 24, 2019

One of the books I was given for my significant birthday in October was East Lothian which contains striking photographs by Liz Hanson and a well written brief history of my home county by Alistair Moffat. It can probably be described as a coffee table book, but it has been up on my little book easel for weeks now, as I (if I remember) turn over a page every day. This means that we see the images and perhaps read some of the text on a regular basis, as opposed to having the book lying about – maybe on a coffee table – and hardly being opened. So, if you have some books – maybe as presents – I urge you to buy an easel, so that you get much more pleasure from books with many photos or paintings in them.

Lavishly illustrated book on the county of East Lothian (Click on all images to enlarge – recommended)

The book covers the major towns in East Lothian, including Dunbar, as well as much of the farmland. East Lothian is known as the garden of Scotland because of its rich red soil, which is ideal for barley, wheat, oats, oil seed rape (canola in Australia), potatoes, peas, beans and turnips (swedes). The famous golf courses in East Lothian are also featured.

Looking towards Bolton

The photo above shows an oil seed rape field at its brightest, next to the hamlet of Bolton (good photos) , near the county town of Haddington. Bolton is best known for its graveyard, where the mother of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, is buried. I cycle through Bolton from time to time and it’s a very pleasant spot.

Bare trees and shadows in Gifford

The photo above is taken in the very attractive (and affluent) village of Gifford (good photos). The trees overlook a walled area, known as the village green, but which may well have been used to graze sheep or hold a sheep market in the past. You can walk round the village, with its mixture of traditional solid sandstone houses (seen in the photo) and more modern housing. There is a river which flows through part of the village and you can overlook the river from 2 bridges in the village. I like the way Liz Hanson has captured the shadows of the winter trees across the green. I have enjoyed this book and it will take its place on the easel again at some point.

On Friday, it was the longest day of the year here. Of course, in Australia – where many of you are – it was the shortest day. The summer solstice occurs when the sun – in summer here – is closest to the equator, as one definition has it. Now, given the size of the earth and that of the sun, we should surely talk about the earth’s equator being closest to the sun. Otherwise, we could be seen as going back to the old beliefs that the sun went round the earth. An article in IB Times states that “The origin of the word ‘solstice’ is derived from the Latin word sōlstitium. It literally translates to ‘the (apparent) standing still of the sun’.” A definition of solstice – a French word – covering both seasons states  “the time of year that seems to never end. The longest days of summer the unending nights of winter”. So our nights are getting shorter, although only by a very small amount of time. A local expression here is “Aye, the nights are fair drawin’ in”.

Sun rays over Dunbar on the longest day of 2019
Red sky and pink sea on the longest day of 2019

I took the two photos above at 22.45pm on 21st June, although the actual solstice took place at 16.54pm. To the naked eye, it was lighter than in the photos, but the sky was an intriguing mixture of shapes and colours, both of which were changing all the time. In a matter of a couple of minutes, clouds changed their shapes e.g. became more elongated, and colours both deepened – red – and brightened – pink. The second photo shows the reflection of the sky in the sea, which took on a light pink colour, like looking at a tasty bottle of Provence rosé.

I took this video twenty minutes earlier and it is something we can return to in the winter, when there will be more than eight hours less light on the shortest day of the year.

Lambs at Deuchrie Dodd and Belhaven Bridge at this time of year

April 18, 2019

As noted earlier, this “weekly” blog will be less frequent while I am writing a new local history book.

I was out on my bike last week cycling past the village of Stenton which was featured on the blog recently. The blackthorn bushes (good photos) are now in full blossom on the road out of the village going west towards Pressmennan Lake, and passing Ruchlaw Mains West farm (good photo), where there’s a steep hill. It is one of these deceptive hills in that you think you are at the top when you see the sign to Pressmennan Wood and lake (good photos), but there is a nasty further climb as you veer right. It is always a relief to get to the top and look over the rolling fields. After another short climb, I came across two fields that were strewn with sheep and very young lambs. The sun was on the fields and it was an entrancing rural sight, like something out of the Far from the Madding Crowd book and film.

The first photo shows the sheep and lambs scattered across this field and in the back ground is Traprain Law (good photos). The ewes were very aware of my presence even although they were not close to the fence surrounding the field. the lambs meanwhile seemed more intent on suckling than looking at this passing photographer.

Field of sheep with Traprain Law in the background (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The next photo was taken in the field opposite, which is at the bottom of a hill and beyond the sheep, you can see the foot of the hill which is extensively covered in gorse bushes. The gorse at this time of year provides a welcome splash of yellow, but it is an invasive species and needs to be controlled. Close up, while the yellow flowers of the gorse are attractive, it is still a very thorny and aggressive pant. The other noticeable aspect of this photo is the numbers on the back of the sheep and each lamb is also numbered, to link it to its mother. Presumably this is for the shepherd who finds a stray lamb and who can reunite it with its mother. Alternatively, it may be that East Lothian has numerate sheep.

Numbered sheep and lambs at Deuchrie Dodd

The bridge at Belhaven Beach has been widely photographed and has featured on the blog more than once. I have tended to take photos of the beach in September, when the setting sun shines over and under the bridge. Last week, we went for a short postprandial walk along the beach when the tide was just going out. The bridge, when the tide is in, is referred to as the bridge to nowhere, and you can see why in the photo below. The bridge is surrounded by water and on the horizon to the right, looking distinctly snail-like, is the Bass Rock on which 150,000 gannets will soon be living.

The bridge to nowhere at Belhaven Beach

The next photo was taken as we passed the bridge, walking along the beach towards the south and you can see the line of the concrete path to the bridge just appearing as a line to the left of the right hand base of the bridge.

Retreating tide at Belhaven beach

When we returned only a few minutes later, the path could be clearly seen, so the tide was going out very quickly. In this photo, the reflection of the bridge is quite clear, but to the naked eye it was just a shimmer in the water, as the bridge reinvented itself upside down in the evening tide.

The reappearing path at Belhaven Bridge

The final photo shows the sun coming under the bridge and this is a wonderful sight, as if the water is being turned into molten gold, which if it solidified would make a solid gold pathway under the bridge. The origins of the bridge are currently being investigated by the local history society.

Evening sun under Belhaven Bridge

Bia Bistrot restaurant and cycling against the wind

March 18, 2019

We’ve now been twice to the excellent Bia Bistrot restaurant in Edinburgh. The name is intriguing and its origins lie in the background of the owners and chefs. Roisin (pr Rosheen) is Irish and she provides the Bia which is Irish Gaelic for food. Matthias is French and Bistrot is a French form of bistro. Their philosophy is to provide customers with “good food in a bistro atmosphere” and they certainly do that. The restaurant is situated just off Holy Corner in Edinburgh’s Morningside area. The name Holy Corner originates from the 4 churches which are situated on or near the crossroads on Morningside Road. So to the food in Bia Bistrot. Forget about good food which the restaurant offers, this is very high quality food at very reasonable prices, especially at lunch time. There is a daily set menu at lunch time which offers customers 2 courses for £10 and 3 courses for £12. Given the location of the restaurant – Morningside is often seen as quite posh – and the quality of the food, this is amazing value. On our last visit, 2 out of the four of us choose this menu and were not disappointed. One of the dishes which is not on the regular menu but is part of the daily specials from time to time, is (photo below) Gressingham duck terrine & raspberry dressing. This is a dish that looks good when it is laid in front of you but it’s when you taste it that its appeal rises from good to superb. Sometimes when you go to good restaurants, the lunch menu is cheaper but the portions can be meagre. This is certainly not the case with Bia Bistrot.


An attractive and tasty starter in Bia Bistrot (Click on all photos to enlarge)

I chose a dish off the main menu, the Cod fillet, saffron potatoes, crayfish and chorizo bisque and the dish itself matches your expectations when you read the ingredients. It’s also wonderful to look at as in the photo below – enlarge for best effect. There’s a lot of talk these days about food porn i.e. people taking more time to photograph their food and sending it out via social media, than it takes to eat the food. In this restaurant, the eating is the real reward as you enjoy a delicious combination of fresh ingredients. The photos were sent to me by Matthias. The service in Bia Bistrot is friendly, attentive but not intrusive and the food is of a very high quality. Everyone we know who has gone to the restaurant sings its praises, so if you are in the area, be sure to book ahead.

Attractive and delicious cod dish at Bia Bistrot

For the past 2 weeks, we’ve had strong to gale force winds almost every day and the early spring flowers such as the crocuses in a previous post, have been battered relentlessly. As far as cycling goes, I left my lighter road bike in the garage and went out on my mountain bike, which is heavier but more stable in the wind. There is lots of advice on the web about cycling against the wind e.g. here but much of it is stating the obvious, such as checking the direction and strength of the wind before you go out. Cycling against the wind comes in two forms. The most straightforward – and the hardest – is cycling into the wind. When you are having to cycle down a hill just to keep going, it’s you and the bike against the wind – a battle that one of you is going to win. There’s no time to look at the brilliant green of the emerging crops in the fields in spring around Dunbar or to admire the freshness and shiny undulations in a newly ploughed field. The second form is not as hard but can be the most dangerous. This is when the wind is coming at you from the side. There is a steep hill going down to Pitcox farm and the “big hoose (house)” (good photo), and this can be an exhilarating ride, but in very strong winds there is a need to anticipate the gaps in the hedges which line the fields, as the wind surges through and can knock you across the road. There are also two joys of cycling against the wind. The first is that you can hear the wind coming against you but also you can hear it whooshing through the trees at the road side. The poet Longfellow wrote
I hear the wind among the trees
Playing celestial symphonies;
I see the branches downward bent,
Like keys of some great instrument.

A new word to me is Psithurism which is the sound of the wind through the trees – the P is silent and it is obviously onomatopoeic, as when you pronounce each syllable slowly, you can hear the wind. The second joy is at the turning point in the cycle ride and you get what my pal John calls “a blaw hame (blow home)”. This your reward for the previous struggle against the wind and you can hurtle along the road with impunity.

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus and crocuses in Stenton

February 26, 2019

A delay in the blog due to visiting rellies, local history talk and a grand day out with my former (but never old) classmates Tam and Nigel. I’ve just finished reading the latest Poetry Book Society Choice, Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance. The young poet Raymond Antrobus is described as British-Jamaican and part of the book is an elegy to his late father. The other distinguishing feature of this remarkably assured debut collection is Antrobus’ reflections on his experience as a child and young adult who was deaf at birth. The first poem is Echo and begins “My ear amps whistle as if singing/ to Echo, Goddess of Noise,/ the ravelled knot of tongues,/ of blaring birds, consonant crumbs/ of dull doorbells, sounds swamped/ in my misty hearing aid tubes”. It is obviously impossible for a person with normal hearing to imagine being deaf, but these lines gives us a vivid description of what it might be like. Antrobus’ precision with words e.g. “ravelled knot”, “consonant crumbs” or “misty” makes you read the lines again, to get the full effect. Part of the book is an anguished cry about what he calls the d/Deaf experience and how deaf children have been treated unequally because of their difference i.e. not disability e.g. “I call you out… for assessing / deaf students on what they can’t say / instead of what they can”. The title of the book The Perseverance refers to the name of the pub the poet’s father used to leave him outside as a child and “watch him disappear / into smoke and laughter”. His father tells him “There’s no such thing as too much laughter” after visiting the pub, but the poet notes that this may be true, “unless you’re my mother without my father”. The father may be flawed (and who is not?) but is mostly a loving and patient father, especially when reading to his deaf son. Antrobus has a wonderful facility for creating emotion with words. Referring to his father’s late dementia, he thanks the syndrome for bringing back memories of the past to his father, such as the dance halls he enjoyed. “When his sleeping face / was a scrunched tissue / wet with babbling, / you came, unravelling a joy / making him euphoric” and he asks dementia to ” do your gentle magic / but make me unafraid / of what is / disappearing”. Antrobus is a young poet and his second collection will be expectantly awaited.


A remarkable debut collection from an outstanding poet (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The previous post featured snowdrops, and as Monday follows Sunday, the crocuses follow the snowdrops with a blaze of colour, as if determined to outshine their plain green and white predecessors. Out on the bike, I often cycle through the bonnie village of Stenton which is about 6 miles/ 10K from Dunbar, away from the coast to the foot of the hills. There are two extensive groups of crocus in the village. The first photo shows the spread of different colours in the flowers, with a stone cottage in the background and the church spire just above the cottage.

Crocuses in Stenton village

The next photo shows the spread of crocuses beneath The Tron – a wooden beam with an iron crossbar and hooks on either end. This device was historically used to weigh bulk items such as wool and grain in the markets which used to be held in the village. The word tron is derived from the French word for balance – more information here.

Crocuses beneath the Tron in Stenton village

I took a number of close-up shots of the crocuses – you can also refer to croci as crocus is a Latin word, albeit derived from the Greek krokos – to get a better view of their strength of colour along with the delicacy of their flower heads. The first photo shows two groups of crocuses, one yellow and one purple. They complement each other and are shown off to good effect by the green of the grass beneath them. When the crocuses first start to appear, it is their own greenery – hiding the emergent flowers – which shows first and they can be hard to spot. Then, all of a sudden it seems, there is a huge outbreak of colour.

A choir of yellow and purple crocuses

On closer inspection, in the photo below, you can see the bright orange stigma reaching out to attract the bees and other pollinators. What is more attractive is the David Hockney like lines inside the flower. These thin and thicker purple lines resemble images of trees in winter. Walking past this group of crocuses, you might never see these patterns.

Patterns inside the crocus flower heads in Stenton

In the next photo – of one crocus – the lines are even more delicate and the sun shining on part of the flower head adds to it beautiful shape and patterns.

I then went along to the village green to see the other natural display – another outburst of colours on the grass and between the trees. The final photo shows the sweep of the crocuses, the colour enhanced by the bare trees, and the solid stone cottages, of which there are many in this very attractive East Lothian village.

Crocuses on the village green in Stenton

Lucy Newton exhibition and back to Wagga Wagga

January 8, 2019

We recently visited Lucy Newton‘s superb exhibition of wildlife paintings at Waterston House, Aberlady. The exhibition runs until 16 January and it really is worth a visit. I last reviewed Lucy Newton’s work on the blog in 2017 and I did wonder if this new exhibition could be a as good as the previous one. The new exhibition is not just as good but better than the previous one, with the artist’s intelligence, skills and brilliant technique on show to even greater effect. Lucy Newton kindly sent me examples of her work.

The first portrait below is an exquisite depiction of a curlew – my favourite bird – which I regularly watch through my scope on the rocks near our house. The actual painting is much more effective in terms of the quality of the bird’s features and background, but I do like the way the artist has portrayed the elegance of the curlew with its long beak, strong upright stance and delicate colours in its plumage. There is a slight haughtiness but not arrogance in the curlew – it knows that it is bigger than other birds and can delve further under the rocks than the others also. I recently watched a curlew twist its head and push its beak under a rock. The beak emerged with a good sized crab wriggling in it. The curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab in the air, opened its beak and swallowed the crab whole.

Curlew by Lucy Newton (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is of a grey wagtail and again, this reproduction of the work does not do it full justice. The colours of the wagtail immediately catch your eye, the delicate greys and the striking yellow contrasting very well with the more Impressionist depiction of the rocks behind. The detail in the bird’s feathers is very impressive and Lucy Newton captures the tense awareness of the bird – ever alert to what might be happening in its environment. The artist catches the softer elements of the wagtail’s plumage, but also the sharp lines of its beak, legs and tail to very good effect. I looked at this painting for quite a while, forever noticing some new detail.

Grey wagtail by Lucy Newton

The third example from the exhibition is of a red squirrel and here Lucy Newton’s artistry shines out. Look at the bristling tail of the squirrel, its soft ears and nose and very keen eye. Again the sharp portrait of the animal contrasts with the softer background of the tree trunk, with its gnarled features and lichens, which are so softly painted that you feel that if you reached out, they would be delicate to your touch. Few artists have the ability to draw and paint the squirrel’s fur in such beautiful detail, but Lucy Newton has the imagination, skill and remarkable technique to produce such an outstanding piece of art. Get to see this exhibition if you possibly can. Unsurprisingly, many of the paintings had been sold.

Red squirrel by Lucy Newton

In the 2000s, we lived in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga for 3 years, when I worked at Charles Sturt University. I then taught from my home in Dunbar for another 6 years, going back to Wagga (as the locals call it) for 6 weeks every year. We returned to see many friends at Wagga Wagga Road Runners on our recent visit to Australia and stayed with our very good friends Paul and Sonya – superb hosts. The Murrumbidgee River (good photos) flows through Wagga Wagga – designated as an inland city – and there are some lovely walks along the river close to the centre of town. The photo below shows some of the beautiful gum trees along the riverside. The gum trees of course shed their bark, not their leaves and then they reveal smooth trunks. I like the reflections in this photo – of the trees, the riverbank and the cow on the far side.

Gum trees on the Murrumbidgee in Wagga Wagga

One of the remarkable features of the river at dusk is the arrival of very excited and very loud sulphur crested cockatoos – photo below. If you check the link and scroll down to Calls, you will hear the screeching noise these birds make. Imagine the racket you will hear if you go down to the river at dusk and maybe 200 birds arrive to roost, but not before they produce a deafening cacophony. They are attractive looking birds with their distinctive yellow crest and white plumage and will land quite close to you.

Sulphur crested cockatoo

We also made a nostalgic visit to the Pomingalarna Reserve (good photos) to walk around one of the many tracks. When we arrived in Australia we quickly discovered that you cannot run (my wife) nor cycle (me) in most country areas as you can in Scotland, so you need to go to designated areas. The reserve is well known as the home of two mobs of kangaroos and it is unusual for a visitor to the park – runner, cyclist or walker – not to see a kangaroo. We only saw some of these amazing animals from a distance, as the photo below shows, but we did see a large group bounding across the grass and into the forest – a fascinating sight. The second photo is from 2011 and shows the kangaroos on the golf course at the entrance to Pomingalarna. When conditions are very dry, the kangaroos will venture on to the course to find water. Note the flag on the green in the background.

Pomingalarna is a very interesting and attractive part of Wagga Wagga as it features a wide variety of trees, animals and birds, so it is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

 

Kangaroos at Pomingalarna

“Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” and Whakarewarewa Maori village

January 1, 2019

At the moment, on my little easel in the room where I write, there is a book which one of my sons gave me for my birthday this year. It is (cover below) entitled “Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” by Michael Blann. Each day, I turn over the page and see and read about some of the stunning looking, but often exhausting (for cyclists) roads, often with multiple bends, leading into the mountains. The book covers the mountain climbs in Le Tour de France but also the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d’Italia and Swiss and Austrian cycle races. There are many beautiful photographs in the book of the landscapes through which the cyclists pass at various times of the year, so the photos can appeal to those interested in cycling but also to those who have no interest, but enjoy seeing very different mountain views in European countries.

M Blann’s superb book (click on all photos to enlarge)

I picked out two photos from the book to show contrasting views of the mountain climbs. The first view (below) shows the twisting route on the Luz Ardiden which is an HC climb – the toughest on Le Tour. HC means hors categorie i.e. beyond categorisation. This area is in the Haute (High) Pyrennees and the climb lasts 13.1K with some very steep parts included. The website notes that the descent from the top is the best of all descents in Le Tour. As you can see in the photo, the 25 hairpin bends would make this quite a spectacle on Le Tour with riders either straining every sinew to get to the top or risking a crash coming down the road at top speed, which can mean well over 100kph for the top riders. When you look at the enlarged photo and follow the bends, it can be quite hard to stop your eyes drifting down the side of the mountain. There is a building – looks like a house in the middle of the bottom 3rd of the picture. The house must have amazing views but, even in a car, this would be dizzying ascent to get home.

Luz Ardiden in the south of France

The second photo (below) is by way of contrast to the first photo and many of the views we get on the TV coverage of Le Tour – the castles, the forests, the fields of barley or sunflowers. This view shows that cyclists have to traverse some parts of the mountains which are not viewed as picturesque. This route is part of Le Cols des Champs  and is called the grey shale summit. As you can see in the top left of the photo, the areas is mixed and there are some very attractive parts of this ride on Le Tour. While this part of the race may look uninteresting because of the road going through what may be a disused shale mine, there is still a fascination in the potentially vertiginous descent in which the riders are engaged. There is also a stark beauty in the layering of the shale on the slopes.

Le Col des Champs – the grey shale summit

From France to New Zealand and a complete contrast in landscape. On our trip to the north island of New Zealand, we visited the town of Rotorua which is famous for its geysers. Our aim was to see the Maori village of Whakarewarewa (good video). The village’s name is pronounced Foka -rewa-rewa as our guide told us and she also gave us the full name of the village- in the photo below. The village is still owned and inhabited by local Maori people. On the tour, we were given the history of the village which dates back 300 years to a gathering of troops by a chief named Wahiao and the full name refers to this conflict between tribes.

Maori village in Rotorua

The photo below shows part of the village, which was built on geothermal land so the people could benefit from heat generated. The guide explained that this was potentially dangerous as a new geyser could erupt under any house. There were early warning signs and some houses had to be moved. It is a strange sensation when you first look across the houses, but as you walk through the village, you soon become accustomed to this new, steamy environment. What you do notice at the end of the tour, is that your feet are deliciously warm.

Whakarewarewa village – steam rising from geysers

The next photo below looks across one of the larger pools in the village. While it looks inviting – and the smell of sulphur was not very strong here – you could not bathe in these waters because of the temperature of the water and geysers which shot up at irregular intervals. There is an attractive reflection of the bushes and the houses in the water and you can see some of the more modern houses above the water. The village is a mixture of traditional bungalows and recently built 3-storey houses.
The “most volatile” of the geysers according to the map we were given is called Korotiotio which means grumpy old man and the temperatures can reach 120 degrees Celsius.

One of the larger pools in Whakarewarewa

At the end of the tour, there was a performance by Maori singers Te Pakira and the show included the traditional Haka war dance, some Maori songs and a demonstration of Maori stick games. Sometimes when you watch so-called “cultural” performances, you have the feeling that either you are patronising the performers or they are patronising you. However, there were no such feelings amongst our audience as this appeared to be a reasonably genuine recreation of Maori songs, dances and war dances. It was a lively and colourful performance as you see in the photo below.

Whakarewarewa performance

This was an excellent visit – educational, informative, entertaining and reasonably priced. If you are in the Rotorua area, you should not miss this. You can get an even better flavour of the village and the performance in this video.

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Benjamin Black’s intriguing historical novel Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is the well-known pen name of award-winning Irish writer John Banville and in this novel, which could be described as crime fiction also, we get a mixture of the lyrical writing of Banville and the more playful writing of Black. The novel begins “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane” – a good crime novel starts with a body. Further on we read “Such stars there were! – like a hoard of jewels strewn across a dome of taut black silk” and this is more Banville than  Black. I got the impression that Black/Banville was having fun in creating the characters in this novel. Firstly , there is the protagonist Christian Stern, a by turns over-confident and fearful young man who comes to Prague in 1599 and finds a dead body in the street. Stern is fortunate that the emperor Rudolf II, whose dead mistress Stern has found, sees the new arrival as an omen for good and adopts Stern as his protégé. He also demands that Stern finds out how murdered the young woman. Secondly, there is the lascivious seductress Caterina  Sardo with whom Stern has a torrid affair. Stern quickly finds out the machinations of Rudolf’s court and discovers that he can trust no-one, including Sardo – a partly comic character. The city of Prague in winter is another character in the novel – this is really a novel with (no spoiler here) more than one murder, rather than a crime novel – and Black gives a detailed account of the abject poverty and  lush richness at both ends of the social spectrum. For those hoping for a fast-moving plot, this is not for you. The author’s plot is meandering but gets there in the end. What you remember is not so much whodunit but where it was done, who was involved and what will happen to Christian Stern, who at times has a seemingly precarious existence. Black/Banville is always worth reading for the quality of the prose and the laconic wit. Highly recommended.

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Benjamin Black’s engrossing historical novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A recent Food Programme podcast caught my ears to good effect. The topic was seeds and the programme covered a range of different aspects of the grain which humans have used over the millennia for food and drink. The programme begins with an interview with Noel Kingsbury, the author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding who states that today’s “natural” foods which people increasing seek out, are in fact the results of “selective breeding and hybridisation over thousands of years”, although that does not make them less healthy than processed food. Another interviewee notes that legislation has meant that many varieties of seeds are now privately owned and that some “traditional” seed varieties are not covered and cannot be sold. One organisation trying to preserve seed varieties in the UK is the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organics in Ryton, Coventry and the work of the library, which encourages people to grow and swap unusual varieties of vegetables, is discussed in the programme. There are now a range of programmes across the world which seek to preserve seed varieties threatened with extinction and some of these programmes research the quality of wheat and barley seeds before giving them to farmers to grow. I found this a fascinating programme, so give it a go. This issue of the Food Programme coincides with harvest time here in East Lothian and it is a real pleasure to cycle around the countryside past fields where the farmers have left bales to stand and be admired. I think that it should be compulsory for farmers to do this, as an aesthetic contribution to the countryside, rather than removing the bales immediately. This year, I have noticed more square bales, such as these taken at St Abbs head recently.

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Square bales, farm buildings and sheep in the field at St Abbs Head

 

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Horses, trees, square bales and hills at St Abbs Head

Finally, a photo of round bales first featured here in 2014. This was a field of barley from which beer is made and in Dunbar we have our own Belhaven Brewery, the oldest in Scotland.

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

The end of Le Tour and Aamanns 1921 restaurant in Copenhagen

August 1, 2018

No blog last week as we were on our travels in Denmark and Sweden. After 3 weeks of often gruelling cycling across the whole of France, Le Tour De France ended in Paris, with the Welshman Geraint Thomas emerging as the victor. As an amateur cyclist, with a medium-range road bike, I am at first in awe of these cyclists, then perhaps slightly less in awe of them as they are a) young men and b) professional cyclists. It is on the mountain stages however, that my admiration rises, given the speed at which they cycle up the sometimes vertiginous slopes. The modern-day cyclists of course, have superb equipment in terms of bikes, helmets and racing gear. The event itself is also much bigger than it used to be. On holiday in France a few years ago, I picked up this postcard  (below) of Le Tour. Looking at the cars, my guess is that it may be from the 1960s. There are a number of interesting aspects to this photo. Firstly, none of the riders are wearing helmets and secondly, there are no crowds lining the route. What has not changed is the mountain roads ahead up which the riders have to climb, but the riders in this picture would have had heavier, less streamlined  bikes, with fewer gears. Today’s Tour participants might go faster, have more back up in the form of masseurs, physios etc but are they stronger and relatively fitter?

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Le Tour de France from the 1960s? (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Le Tour is inspiring for cyclists, so when I tackle a biggish hill tomorrow, maybe I should imagine that I am “G” (Geraint Thomas) heading towards a stage win at the top of the hill and retaining the yellow jersey. One thing that “G” and I do have in common is a yellow jersey, although his is better known than my Bicycle Wagga Wagga top below.

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Bicycle Wagga Wagga cycling top

On the early highlights of our trip to Denmark was the Aamanns  1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen. The interior of the restaurant – see photo on website – is very well designed with lighting partly provided by two wooden circles above you. The chairs are Scandinavian in design and are extremely comfortable. This is very much a Danish restaurant, specialising in smørrebrød and other dishes which have unusual combinations of ingredients and look absolutely wonderful. For dinner, we chose selections from the menu and my first selection (Shown below) was “Pan fried plaice with hand-peeled shrimps, pickled tomatoes and mayonnaise”. Now this looked an interesting dish on the menu, but it was when it was put on to the table in front of me (by one of the very helpful and informative staff) that the visual impact of the dish was felt. The topping included flower petals and the slice of hot lemon on the side added to both the flavour and the presentation. It was mouth-wateringly delicious.

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Plaice and prawn smorrebrod from Aamanns restaurant in Copenhagen

I then had the “Ravioli with Krystal Karl cheese, mushrooms, hazelnuts and summer truffles”. Each dish was carefully introduced and for this dish, one of the sous chefs came out and grated the truffle over my dish, explaining how the dish was made. A shared dish was “Braendende kaerlighed” in Danish and consisted of potato compote, gooseberries, sorrel, onion and bacon. Again the presentation was excellent (as shown below) with the extra touch of the colourful flower heads enhancing its beauty. It almost seemed a shame to eat it, but we did and the depth of flavour was superb.

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Potato compote dish from Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

At the end of the meal, we were treated to a sample of the restaurant’s homemade schnapps. The bottles line the shelves and on the counter (photo below) you can see the jars of maturing liqueurs. I often find schnapps rather harsh, but this was smooth and fruity. The charming young sous chef Laura Melodie Trillot came out to explain how they made their food and exchanged ideas amongst the staff. You can see some of Laura’s intriguing and colourful photos of the restaurant dishes here. This restaurant is not cheap but the value and quality is of the highest standard. If you are in Copenhagen/Kobenhavn – and can afford it – then definitely put this restaurant to the top of  your list.

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Maturing schnapps at Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

Deon Meyer’s Icarus and bike stop at Oldhamstocks

June 8, 2018

I’ve just finished Deon Meyer’s excellent novel Icarus. Now the fact that this book is about a group of policemen trying to figure out who killed a man in Cape Town means that it will be categorised as a crime novel. If it is to be so categorised, then it should be classified as a superior crime novel. In Icarus, the protagonist is the troubled Benny Griessel, whose problems with alcohol affect both his working and social life. There are many troubled detectives around e.g. Ian Rankin’s Rebus, but Meyer’s detailed characterisation is well beyond the scope of most crime novelists. The author also presents, in a subtle fashion, South African society with its many racial and economic stresses. We also get an intriguing picture of different areas of Cape Town and the surrounding wine areas. The plot revolves around the murder of Ernst Richter, an entrepreneur who has set up a business which provides alibis for errant husbands (mainly) and wives. On the face of it, the company is very successful although we slowly come to see that this is not the case. Meyer maintains an excellent pace, with careful plotting and, like many other crime novelists, he does not lose his nerve at the end of the novel and go for a melodramatic conclusion. There is an unexpected twist right at the end of the book which is hard to see coming, and the reader is led up quite a few garden paths by the author. There is also humour in the book and some interesting detail on the development of the South African wine trade, as well as the more usual strains between different police departments. I will certainly return to this author and I encourage you to try out one of his books.

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Icarus by Deon Meyer (Click to enlarge all photos)

I am gradually getting back to some kind of bike fitness, mainly through a series of rides up the hills near Dunbar. We’ve had an easterly air flow – thanks to the Jet Stream unfortunately getting stuck to the west of the UK – for about 4 weeks now. So I have been heading east – I always go against the wind at the start of my bike ride – on a 24 mile (39K) route which takes in a fair few hills. The route takes me on a countryside route to Cockburnspath (good photos) and up the hill to the turning which takes you on to the Abbey St Bathans (good photos) road. If you continue on this road, then there are some serious hills on the way to and from Abbey St Bathans, but I turn off on the undulating road leading to Oldhamstocks, where I usually stop for a drink and a liquorice or treacle toffee.

I returned there yesterday with my proper camera, as the mobile camera was not effective on my bike ride. One of the features of the countryside around Dunbar at the moment is the hawthorn blossom which is also known as May blossom. The Scots equivalent of the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out” is “Ne’er cast a cloot till May is oot”. The meaning of this saying is that you should not discard any winter clothes until the May blossom appears i.e. not until the month of May ends. Due to the cold Spring we had here, the hawthorn blossom has not emerged in full until June this year, but what a show it now provides on countryside hedgerows and trees. In the first photo below, the cascading white blossoms can be seen and they are enhanced by the sun. The blossom totally transforms the tree from what one journalist wrote “In winter it [hawthorn bush] is a dour barrier of bare thorns”, into “the creamy curds of May blossom”. There is a deliciousness about the look of the tree, as if it had been decorated with tiny balls of ice cream and dusted with icing sugar.

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Hawthorn tree is full blossom

On closer inspection – in the photo below – you can see the individual flowers that contribute to this mass display, with their delicate petals and thin stamens reaching out to capture the sun and attract the insects. It reminded me of something divers see on coral reefs and you can imagine the hawthorn flowers dancing with the flow of the water on the seabed.

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Close-up of May blossom

This stop – and it is a bus stop also – is also interesting for the signposts in the photo below. No metrication here – I had cycled two and half miles from Cockburnspath, which is known locally as Co’path and is pronounced Co-burnspath. Below this, it should read Duns (good photos), an attractive border town which is 12 very hilly miles away. To the right, one mile ahead is Stottencleugh – cleugh is pronounced clue – ch (as in German Ich). In Scots, a cleugh is a narrow gorge and there is one near the farm of Stottencleugh. Below Stottencleugh, Cocklaw is signposted as one and a half miles away and it is a farm at the bottom of a very steep hill. This is a popular walking area (good photos). The larger signpost below points to Woollands ,which is a farmhouse set in extensive grounds on a hill and has magnificent views.

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Oldhamstocks signposts

After my stop, I followed the sign pointing up the big hill towards Innerwick and its normally hidden castle ruin. There is one last steep, winding hill you need to get up – to The Brunt farmhouse and steading  and from there it’s downhill and back to Dunbar.