Archive for the ‘Dunbar’ Category

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

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Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

All the winners of the Man Booker Prize come with lavish reviews from across the world. Most of the Booker winners which I have read have deserved much praise, but often I’ve found that some of the reviews are a little too praiseworthy. I have just finished George Saunders’ astonishing novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This books deserves all the praise it can get. Having said that, there is a leap of the imagination to be done when reading this novel. Most of the science fiction and fantasy novels I have read have been disappointing, as I’m unwilling or unable to make this leap. Saunders’ novel – his first as he is globally recognised as a fine short story writer – begins with a ghost/spirit speaking from a place where bodies are stored and recounting how he died. The OED defines bardo as ” (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death”. So the story is set in a type of bardo, as Saunders does not define this space as being related to any specific religion.

The main story then emerges and it is a sad and often poignant account of the death of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. Willie is still in his sick-box, which is the termed used for coffin by the multitude of ghosts/spirits, who describe the place they are in and how macabre and often dangerous it can be. Lincoln, worn down by the civil war in which casualties are increasing dramatically, visit his dead son and there appears to be historical evidence of this, although we are not sure. Saunders appears to be quoting from books and articles about Lincoln, his son and his distraught wife, but there is no bibliography at the end of the book. This does not matter as the novel is convincingly and at times vivaciously written, and the reader is carried along. Just when you think Saunders is dwelling too long on one aspect of the story, he continues another part. The book also focuses on aspects of society at this time – the civil war, race issues and class differences – but never in a didactic way. It is at times a very funny book, with some bawdy exchanges, and there are aspects of the surreal as the ghosts/spirits try to survive attacks. The main memory of this book will be Lincoln and his son. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a compulsive novel. Go out and buy it.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

On our visit to Copenhagen, we went to see the collections in the Danish National Art Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst). I have to admit to knowing nothing about Danish art, so the walk around the extensive gallery was a learning experience as well as an aesthetic one. The gallery is an impressive stone building and has recently added a beautiful extension at the back. The extension (photo below) is much more open to the light than the existing structure and has walkways leading to the new exhibition spaces.

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The Danish National Gallery’s extension

The gallery has a wide range of paintings and installations ranging  from the 13th to the 21st centuries. I was particularly attracted to the late 19th and early 20th century paintings and include a selection below. Firstly, a painting by Theodor Philipsen of Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm. The national gallery regard Philipsen as an innovator in his time, especially in relation to light and colour and state that he was Danish impressionist, focusing on his nation’s countryside. This is a dramatic painting when you see it and your eyes are drawn to the movement of the cattle, but especially to the effect of the light on cattle’s bodies and the shadows cast. The painter catches the variety of colours of the cattle and the brightness of the sky in the sunshine. Saltholm is an island in the Oresund (famous for its bridge), the strait between Denmark and Sweden.

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Long shadows. Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm by Theodor Philipsen

The second painting is by Laurits Andersen Ring and depicts a labourer working in the fields at harvest time. The painting is simply called Harvest and represents the hard work done by farm workers in the fields at this time. Again there is movement in the painting and your eye is drawn to the swirl of the hay as the man turns it into a stook. The metal tool is obviously designed for this purpose and we can see that the man has to be strong to wield such a tool. The sun on the uncut barley behind the worker turns part of the crop’s top white and the light shines directly on part of the emerging stook. The man’s clothes are ragged but there are many shades of blue in his top. As the gallery notes, this is a monumental painting and it takes centre stage on one of the gallery walls. I liked it for its boldness and vigour. It is harvest time around here at the moment, so this painting was very timely.

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Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

The final painting here attracted my attention because of its size, its colours, its characters and also because it resonates with my local environment in Dunbar. Michael Ancher’s painting The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes  is a large painting which dominates the room in which it is hung. The gallery notes that it has a photographic quality and like the Harvest painting above, this is an active scene. Your eyes are drawn up the line of men preparing to launch the lifeboat, but having to pull it through the dunes – not an easy task, even with the horses at the front. The men are talking and maybe discussing the rescue about to take place and the man on the far right is calling back – for more assistance? Launching and rowing a lifeboat in these times was a hazardous task for these volunteer fisherman, but Ancher portrays these ordinary men – heroes to some – as calm and purposeful. What adds to the potential danger is the snow on the dunes and we can just see the crashing winter waves above the dunes. We have a lifeboat here in Dunbar and some old photos show men hauling the non-mechanised boat over the beach.

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Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

If you are in Copenhagen, the national gallery has paintings to suit all tastes and it is a very relaxed space in which to wander about and select what you want to see.

A Walk down to Cove Harbour and different skies

June 26, 2018

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we drove the 8.6 miles (14K) to the tiny hamlet of Cove (good photos) where a few cottages overlook the sea in a beautiful setting – on a summer’s day. We walked down the steep path to the secluded little harbour. Cove is one of these places that you would not come across by accident, as it is off the main road. As you walk down the path, to your left, you can see the steep sandstone cliffs. This area is well-known for its geology and the upper old red sandstone was observed in this area by James Hutton, known as the founder of modern geology. Further down the path, you look out to the sea and on the shore are what look like man-made structures but are “shales and thin coals” according to one geology source. You then walk through a narrow – and on a sunny day, very dark – tunnel from which you emerge to see the small harbour at Cove – photo below.

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Cove harbour at low tide (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the harbour are a couple of small creel boats and some small leisure craft. The harbour is well protected by the sea wall and just to the left of the wall above, there is a natural wall of limestone and sandstone, with a variety of colours in it. If you look very closely at the sandstone, you can see tiny fossils – perhaps from millions of years ago. In the photo below, you can see the intricate patterns which the wind, rain, frost and sea have formed over the millenia. This was here long before the harbour was built and you wonder who was the first human to touch this stone.

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Intricately patterned sandstone

This is an intriguing and very peaceful walk on a day when the strong winds and high tides are absent. I did a video of the walk and you can see the wide range of rock formations on the cliffs, the shore and near the harbour.

 

Recently, within one week, we had a thunderstorm on one day and a calm day, followed by an impressive sunset on another day. The day of the thunderstorm produced a truly threatening sky. The photo below looks towards the horizon from our house. The sky appeared to have twisted itself into a fury from the top of the photo, down to what looked like a clenched fist, ready to punch the horizon. The large tanker parked out there, is dwarfed by this natural phenomenon and is being drenched in rain. What the photo does not show is the constantly shifting shape of the clouds, which slowly writhed and reformed as you watched it. It was so mesmerizing that I must have watched it for 5 minutes, as it very, very slowly moved eastwards along the horizon.

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Thunderstorm on the horizon

Two days later, the storm was a mere memory. The sky was clear and the sea returned to a calm blue for most of the day. I’ve taken many photos of the sunsets in Dunbar and very few of them look the same. On the evening of the photo below, the clouds appeared to be falling towards the sea, taking on a range of colours as they slowly drifted across the sky. To the left, the white clouds take on the shape of a fish skeleton and are sometimes known as mackerel skies. My memory from primary 7 at school is that our excellent teacher Miss Murray, called them haddock clouds or skies and they are a sign of good weather to come. Sure enough, the next day was sunny and cloudless.

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Clouds illuminated by the setting sun over Dunbar

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.

Historic photos of the harbour and flowering honeysuckle

May 31, 2018

Having substituted local history research for my previous academic research since I retired, I have been fascinated by some of the material which has been given to me – some of it by former school pals, some by a girlfriend from my teenage years, and some by people on the Lost Dunbar Facebook site, of which I am a member. I joined the site to get material for my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. This is the only site to which I make a contribution, despite many requests from potential friends, some of whom are close relatives. I know that many people get joy from posting on Facebook, but it is not for me. One of my present roles is to maintain the website of Dunbar and District History Society. Interestingly, when I designed the site, with the help of a student from Dunbar Grammar School – my alma mater – I was told that websites were rather old-fashioned and that Facebook sites were much more popular – because of their interactivity. Given that the Lost Dunbar site already provides a local history forum for Dunbar in the form of photographs posted and commented on, there was no point in creating another one. What I have done, is post some photos on Lost Dunbar and directed people to see and read more on the History Society website. The site statistics show that this has been a success.

I recently posted two photographs of Dunbar Harbour (good photos) i.e. the main or Victoria Harbour, built in the 1830s. This succeeded the original Cromwell Harbour or Old Harbour as it became known. The first photo is of women – and a solitary man – gutting, basketing and barrelling a huge mound of herring. The photo is probably taken in the 1920s, when the herring fishing was at its peak on the east coast of Scotland. This was very hard work, with the women – both young and old – spending long hours gutting the fish. The smell must have been terrible and the work was done in all weathers. The women and girls who did this job are often affectionately – and rather patronisingly – called fisher lassies. Gutting the herring was done with very sharp knives and accidents were common. There was no health and safety restrictions in those days. In the photo, the women are mainly sitting on upturned baskets and the herring would be transferred from the baskets behind the women to the barrels you can see to the left. Packing a barrel was a skilled job as the fish had to be layered correctly. This must have been a socially off-putting task as, given the washing facilities available to these women in the 1920s, it must have been impossible to get rid of the smell of fish off their bodies. While the fisher lassies are celebrated in song (video), these women were clearly exploited, given the filthy conditions and the low wages.

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Gutting and barrelling herring at Dunbar Harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second photo was probably taken in the late 19th or early 20th century. It comes from a book entitled Views of Dunbar which was published by W Black of 126 High Street, Dunbar which is now the John Muir Birthplace. There is no date inside and no indication of where the photos originated. The photos in the book may have been based on a series of postcards of Dunbar, which were common in this period. It is certainly a fascinating scene and it was entitled The New Harbour, as the Victoria Harbour may well have still been called at the time. In the foreground, you can see the traveller/gypsy caravans. These were known as vardos and came in a range of designs. In the harbour, there is a boat with a funnel. Local experts tell me that this was not a fishing boat, as there are no letters or numbers on the boat. It is likely to be a trading vessel e.g. a tattie boat, carrying potatoes up and down the coast. Behind the boat, you can see the buildings of the Battery Hospital which was built in the 1860s as an isolation hospital for those with contagious diseases. The Battery has recently been transformed and I posted a feature on this here. You can see more historic photos of Dunbar harbour on the Dunbar and District History Society  Resources section for April and May 2018.

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Dunbar Harbour in the 1890s/1900s

May is the colourful month, with a succession of plants and bulbs producing brilliant displays. Just as the daffodils give way to the tulips, and the pansies and polyanthus start to lose their stature and beauty, the honeysuckle in my garden provides a startling new burst of colour. My honeysuckle  – proper name Lonicera – has profited from my extensive pruning last autumn and there are many more flowers this year than last. The name Lonicera was given to the honeysuckle in honour of the 16th century botanist Adam Lonicer. The name of the plant comes from the ability insects to suck honey from the plant i.e. the le at the end is a diminutive. Thus the bees do not suckle (as in breastfeeding in humans and animals) but take the pollen from the plant.

I took photos of the honeysuckle flowers on two consecutive days – one sunny, one rainy. The first photo shows the brilliant purple flower with its white extension – the female part of the flower – and the antenna which contain the honey/pollen of which the bees are so fond. What I particularly liked about this photo is the shadow of the flower below, which resembles a wheel-like contraption.

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Honeysuckle flower and its shadow

In the second photo, I managed to capture a bee feeding on the elongated white and yellow extension from the flower. The bee gives a magnificent display of gently stroking the very thin elements and hovering in the air.  Note also the shadows in this photo and the great range of colours on show.

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Bee feeding on a honeysuckle flower

Seeing the wings reminded me of Richard Thomson’s great song “Beeswing” – below.

 

The next two photos were taken the next day, after a short period of rain. In the first photo, the close-up of the flower captures the tiny droplets of water that have clung to the plant. On looking at it again, I though that it appeared to have been affected by frost – or dipped in some sugary substance.

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Honeysuckle flower head after the rain

The second photo shows both the flowers and the leaves with the raindrops still on them. I like the wide variety of shapes here, with the purple and white flowers appearing to be reaching out or displaying their wares to passing bees. I went out to the same spot and hour later and the plants were completely dry, having shed the water or absorbed it or let it evaporate in the late afternoon sunshine. We have not had the usual strong westerly winds this month, so the honeysuckle display goes on, with more flowers emerging fully each day, compensating for those which are past their prime and starting to wither. The poem The Wild Honeysuckle begins “Fair flower, that dost so comely grow” and I could not agree more.

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Rain splashed honeysuckle

Walk up the country and book podcasts

May 24, 2018

On a recent walk, we left the car at Wester Broomhouse, a farm at the top of a hill from which you can look back over the town of Dunbar. We then walked past Oswald Dean, scene of the first Battle of Dunbar in 1296 and on up towards the foot of Doon Hill, scene of the second Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Doon Hill is also famous for its Dark Age Settlement (good photos) which is worth visiting if you are near Dunbar. Unlike on New Year’s Day  (blog post) our walk did not take us to the summit of the hill, but we walked around the base of the hill and back to Spott Farm.

From the base of the hill, we looked down newly planted tattie (potato) fields. In the first photo below, you can see the elegant, flowing dreels (rows) of potatoes. In Scotland, if someone gets lost or takes a wrong turn or is looking in the wrong place, we might say that s/he is “up the wrong dreel”. I love seeing the smooth bare dreels, as in a short time, little green shaws will start to emerge, grow large and the field will be a mass of green. The brown dreels are like newly-formed and unpainted pottery, admirable in themselves. At the end of the field, you can see the group of houses known as The Doonery and one still has the large chimney, which would have formerly been part of the farm buildings here. When some farm machinery was steam-driven, chimneys were needed. To the right of and above The Doonery, before the sea, is my home town of Dunbar. To the above left, you can see Belhaven Bay (good photos) and the Bass Rock on the other side of the Firth of Forth.

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Looking towards Dunbar and Belhaven Bay from the foot of Doon Hill (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second photo below, you can see how the farmer has planted groups of tattie dreels side by side. I like the juxtaposition of the dreels going in different directions. I’m sure that there is a practical reason for the farmer doing this e.g. to increase the productivity of the field, but I like to impose some aesthetic quality on to the farmer and imagine that s/he might have seen the artistry in these patterns. The little hump that you can see in the middle/right of the photo, above the dreels and the green fields beyond, is North Berwick Law (good photos).

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Dreels in two directions

Later in our walk, we went through Spott Farm (good photos) which is a  very well maintained farm , with a beautiful clock below a turret on one of the buildings, as well as the magnificent Spott House, with the present façade done in the 1830s. We then went back down past the Doonery, and on the road towards Oswald Dean (known locally as Oasie Dean), we could firstly smell and then see the extensive clumps of wild garlic.

In the first photo below, you can see the emerging flowers which shoot up from the mass of green leaves on the wild garlic plants. Intriguingly, the photo also captures the shadows of the flowers on some of the leaves. Here is a joyous burst of brilliant white amongst the plethora of lush green leaves. The flowers have delicate white petals and thin stems, which are of a more delicate green than the leaves. If you look closely at the middle of the photo, you can see a spider – an industrious web maker seeking live prey which might venture into the garlic.

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Wild garlic leaves and flowers

The second photo is a close-up of the spider and the wild garlic flower. Look how the flower head seems to mimic the spider’s legs and how silk-like the nascent web is. When the garlic flowers are fully open, there are swathes of green and white lining the countryside road verges and that, along with the hawthorn bushes and trees breaking into white, transforms the previously dull road edges into rivers of dazzling white.

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Spider and wild garlic

While out on my bike, I listen to downloaded podcasts. I make sure that I can hear the traffic OK while I am listening. So far, my main podcast has been the BBC Radio 4’s Books and Authors. This is made up of two programmes – Open Book which features the mellifluous tones of Mariella Frostrup – and A Good Read which is presented by Harriet Gilbert. The programmes feature new books by a range of authors, as well as two guests discussing books which they recommend to others. More recently, I have been listening to interviews with authors on the The Guardian’s Books Podcast and soon I will be listening to an episode featuring the newly announced winner of the Man International Booker Prize Olga Tokarczuk. The 3rd book podcast certainly worth listening to is from The Free Library of Philadelphia and it features insightful interviews with contemporary authors such as Jesmyn Ward. Another podcast which I found recently is the Irish Times Books Podcast and I enjoyed the interview with Irish writer Adrian McKinty, who was talking about his new novel Rain Dogs which I will buy and read soon.

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A final podcast but not related to books is Death in Ice Valley. This is a fascinating series of podcasts – I have only listened to the first two so far – about the mysterious death of a woman who was found in a remote valley near Bergen in the 1970s. The two reporters look back on the evidence and slowly provide more clues as to who the woman might be and how (or whether) she was murdered. I am hooked, so another episode tomorrow as I tackle some steepish hills on my bike.

 

 

The Ice and the Guardian Country Diary at Barns Ness

May 16, 2018

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

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

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

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

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

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Limestone pavement at Whitesands Beach

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

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Barns Ness cottages and lighthouse

Guardian Country Diary and spring flowers

April 30, 2018

I read the Guardian’s Country Diary most days, because of the quality of the writing about the rural environment. A recent one particularly caught my eye as it featured wild primroses, which can be seen on slopes near streams not far from Dunbar. The author of this piece is regular contributor Phil Gates. Like the other contributors to the Country Diary, Gates has an enviable lyrical flow to his writing e.g. “Had I not strayed from the footpath around the fields and explored its slopes, I might never have stumbled across a hidden, wild population of wild primroses”. Although primroses in the wild have the name primula vulgaris, there is nothing vulgar about these pretty flowers, especially in the wild setting of this article (see photos). Gates notes that primroses hybridised with the cowslip to produce the ancestor of the modern primulas, which are “now mainstays of municipal spring bedding schemes everywhere”. Gates also comments that the occurrence of wild primroses which are not yellow but salmon-pink, may be the result of cross-pollination with garden primulas. The Country Diary is a short read – like a poem – but it often provides welcome relief from the litany of heinous crimes reported in The Guardian.

The article provides a nice link with spring flowers now at their peak in my garden. I plant a few hundred bulbs in the autumn and intersperse them with polyanthus and pansies. When I do this, the ground or pot looks fairly bare and interesting. So the contrast with what can be seen now is amazing, as in the photo below, where the proliferation of flowers is added to by the reflection on the glass of the balustrade.

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Spring flowers on the decking (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The polyanthus have prospered this year. They are bigger, with brighter flowers, greener leaves and longer stems. What exactly caused this success is unknown to me but it is presumably some combination of the right amounts of rain and sun. Taking a close look at the plant, as in the photo below, shows their wonderful structure as well as the vibrant colour. You can see how pollinating insects such as bees are drawn invitingly to the centre of the flower by the flowing lines, which become more colourful as they approach the nectar pot.

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Close up of a yellow polyanthus

I have different varieties of primula in the pots and I prefer the yellow one above to the dual coloured type below, although they are still attractive. This version may attract the pollinators more directly because of the yellow heart of the flower might be seen as more enticing because of the contrast with the pale purple.

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Dual coloured polyanthus flowers

The other stars of the spring flower collection at the moment – I will leave the daffodils and tulips for another day – are the pansies, which have also been quite prolific this spring. There is a multiplicity of different pansies which you can buy and grow from seed and you can see a selection (with photos) here. Taking a close-up look at the pansy – in the two photos below – you see similar lines to the polyanthus but the heart of the flower is much more bold and it is as if a butterfly or moth has been painted on the flower. Again, this is a bold statement by the flowers, as in “Come and see what is on offer here”. The flowers are obviously in competition to attract the insects and this bravura show of colour reminds me of some birds which emphasise the colours of their plumage to attract a mate.  The second flower below is particularly attractive I think as the imposed butterfly or moth takes up almost the whole leaf of the flower. Pansies last much longer than daffodils or tulips, so the joy to be had from seeing them as I open the curtains in the morning is equally extended.

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Yellow pansy in the spring garden

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Pansy in the spring garden

Trip to New Lanark: Textiles exhibition and the Falls of Clyde

April 23, 2018

In Dunbar, it was a day when you could hardly see more than 10 metres ahead of you, as a thick haar had descended over the town. We decided to go on a trip, hoping to get away from the gloom. Unfortunately, as we went past the Pentland Hills on our road west, we hit even thicker fog, which lasted until we were near the town of Biggar (good photos – no fog). We were on our way to the village of New Lanark, the key feature of which is the huge mill complex developed by Robert Owen in the early 19th century into what he regarded as a “model community”. We will revisit the mills later in the year to do the tour but our visit this time was to see an excellent exhibition entitled “Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol” (good video).

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New Lanark textiles exhibition (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The exhibition provides the visitor with over 200 items, covering the period 1910 to 1976, so there is a lot to take in as you walk round. It’s one of these exhibitions that I think you need to find what catches your eye, as spending some time  on each exhibit would be both very time-consuming and visually overwhelming. There are of course many very famous names here such as Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso but many other artists are featured also. What follows is a small selection of wearable textiles and textile furnishings which were also in the exhibition.

The first item is a headscarf designed by the British artist Graham Sutherland. The card next to the textile notes that this was included in a V&A exhibition in 1946 entitled Britain Can Make It. I liked the interconnectedness of the abstract painting and your eye is drawn down the lines to a myriad of shapes. It reminded me of what a medical scientist might see under a microscope when looking at cells that have gone haywire inside someone’s blood.

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Headscarf by Graham Sutherland

The second headscarf is “Ballerine” by Salvador Dali. I am not normally a fan of Dali’s work but I did like the whirling motion of the ballerina figure and the spinning tops/ballerina figures that are on either side and below. This is a very colourful scarf and the background to the ballerina gives an impression of musical notation and perhaps debris being blown in a strong wind. Today, this headscarf would be more likely to be worn as a neck scarf. In the 1950s, it was fashionable for women to wear head scarves.

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Headscarf by Salvador Dali

The final item I chose for the blog – from the many photos I took – is Crystalline Image by the British painter Alan Reynolds. The information beside this piece of furnishing textile reads “Jacquard-woven cotton and rayon. Edinburgh Weavers, Carlisle 1961”. You can see an interesting video on Jacquard weaving here. The repeated camouflage image was intriguing and it reminded me of a building in Federation Square in Melbourne and you can see images of this building – very controversial when it was built – here. I also liked the road-like lines on which the abstract – yet tent-like – figures sit. This was a brilliant exhibition which is touring the country, so get to see it if you can.

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Crystalline Image by Alan Reynolds

The mills taken over by Robert Owen were built next to, and driven by the River Clyde and the Falls of Clyde (good photos) flow beside the mill complex. There is a very pleasant walk up the side of the Falls and we did part of it. There is a fascination in rushing water, as in the photo below which is taken from the side of one of the mills. It is a combination of the power of the water which cuts a swathe through the surrounding – and static – trees, the noise of the water and the repetition, as if the same water is being pumped back round the corner, only to appear again.

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Falls of Clyde

On the walk itself, you look down on to the falls and get a much closer look at the rapids, as in the photo below. The branches on the trees overlooking the river are just coming into bud. It will be very scenic in the autumn, with the trees in their full colour, so we plan to return then.

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The Falls of Clyde

Looking back on to the river and the mill complex in the photo below, you can see that it was dull and misty in New Lanark as elsewhere, but also how the river diverts ( or may have been diverted?) towards the mills. Near one of the mills in the photo is a large wheel which was driven by the water and produced the energy to enable the mills to work and produce the textiles.

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Falls of Clyde and New Lanark mills

Crocuses in the snow and Rita Bradd’s poems

March 26, 2018

In many towns and villages in East Lothian at this time of year, the crocuses – planted by East Lothian Council – have emerged, bringing a welcome splash of colour as you walk or drive into the areas. I’ve featured local crocus spreads on the blog before e.g. here. I was biding my time this year until we got the full display of these welcome early spring flowers, but sometimes you have to take an opportunity to photograph something that you are pretty sure will not be there if you come back tomorrow. Recently, we had a brief covering of snow in  Dunbar and we were driving through the next village of West Barns when I saw the crocuses on their bed of snow. It was a bitterly cold day but I got out of the car to capture the scene.

Firstly, the orange crocuses, making a brave show of themselves in the snow. You’ll see in all the photos that the crocuses are keeping their flowers firmly shut. These may be delicate little flowers but they are not daft enough to open up on a freezing cold day in March.

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Crocuses in the snow at West Barns (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Then the white crocuses. It may be that there are more of these plants to come but, as you see in the photo below, the white specimens on show sit by themselves and not in small groups as the orange ones above. Are these more individualistic flowers which like to display their beauty – see the delicate purple lines below the flower heads – on their own, with no competition from others? A search for “crocus” on the RHS  website   produces 695 different types of crocus on 70 pages, so identifying the ones shown here would be a large task – but do not let me stop you.

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White crocuses at West Barns

The purple crocuses below appear at first sight to be of a uniform colour. However, when you look closely, they are all individually marked. Searching for “purple crocus” on the same site reveals the delightfully named crocus tommasinianus, although it is not clear that the ones below fall into this category. The other feature of all the photos is of course the greenery attached to the stem of the plants and this is also very attractive. The sharp leaves are partly hidden by the snow but they reminded me of the wooden stakes that used to be used in medieval battles to trap advancing cavalry and impale the horses on the partially hidden wooden spikes. I cycled past the same spot a day later and the temperature had risen by a few degrees, melting all the snow. Some of the crocuses had opened up, but not many.

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Purple crocuses at West Barns

I have to admit some interest in reviewing Rita Bradd’s book of poems entitled Salt and Soil. Rita is, like me, from Dunbar and lives near the town. Her husband Alan was in my class in school. I am thanked in the Acknowledgements for my advice on publication. I will hope to be as objective as I can. This is a poetry pamphlet – 15 poems in total. In the title poem, there is an intriguing image of photographers on the rocks by the sea “They’re fishing for life at the edge of the world”. There are some fine lyrical lines in many of the poems, such as “Dawn sneaks her breath into seams/ that constrict the day’s fresh garment” from Day Break or “When the North Sea finished throwing up/ over Siccar point..” from Salt of the Earth, My Mother. Not all the poems are successful but there is enough in this wee book to make you appreciate the poet’s obvious talents. Rita Bradd may well not end up as a Poetry Book Society Choice author but very few poets do. If you would like to buy the book, you can order it here.

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Salt and Soil – poems by Rita Bradd