Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Snow, stormy sea and His Bloody Project

March 9, 2018

Last week, here in the UK we had what the media were calling “The Beast from the East” (good photos). We have not had sustained snowfall here for about 8 years and the difference this time was that the wind chill was often between -6 and -10 degrees. Around Dunbar, many roads were blocked and delivery lorries could not get through, resulting in a complete absence of milk and bread in the town. Interestingly, from a social point of view, the snow meant that people were not driving their cars, so there was an increase in the number of people walking to the local shops, as opposed to driving to the large supermarket on the edge of town. There was also more social interaction between people walking around, with older people commenting that this was what the High Street used to be like before nearly everybody had a car. My own research into shopping in Dunbar in the 1950s involves interviewing people and many in their 80s and 90s remembered shopping as being – for women mainly – a walking experience. One common misapprehension was that this Siberian type weather was not caused by global warming i.e. global warming was interpreted as the world getting warmer. The fact was that temperatures at the North Pole were above freezing and the cumulative effect of this, plus the direction of the Jet Stream, made it much colder here than normal.

From our back door, the scene looked like this. You can see that the beach is half covered in snow at this moment, but look at the roofs of the houses. The wind was so strong that the snow was continually swept off the roofs. Half an hour later and most of the snow on the beach had been blown away. The sand reappeared and there was only about a yard of snow near the walls.



Snow on the beach in Dunbar (Click to enlarge all photos)

Then the tide came in and what a tide it was. In the photo below, you can see, on the right hand side, the waves crashing over the main wall of Dunbar Harbour in spectacular fashion. This particular wave therefore leapt perhaps 70 feet above sea level. On the left, you can see another leap of spray, this time on to the wall of the East beach. The tide ripped along the side of the wall, covering the road with water. It was mesmerising to watch.


Stormy sea with waves over Dunbar Harbour and the east beach wall

The next photo shows the incoming tide meeting the remains of the snow on the beach. The photo does not do justice to the tremendous strength and noise of the incoming tide. You can hear tide’s roaring on a wee video I made. It’s unedited and a bit shaky, as I get used to my new camera but you’ll get the (ahem) drift.


Incoming tide meets snow on the beach in Dunbar

I’ve just finished reading one of the most original and enthralling novels that I’ve come across for a good while. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel, entitled His Bloody Project is rightly described as “fiendishly readable” by The Guardian reviewer. The book has the appearance of a true crime story, as it purports to be based on 19th century documents found in the Scottish highlands. The main “document” is a lengthy confession by Roddy Macrae, 17 years old, that he killed 3 people in the little village of Culduie – a real place. However, no actual murder was committed there in 1869. The novel gives a fascinating insight to the hard lives of the crofters at this time and Roddy’s confession is littered with local words, for which the author provides a glossary – another sign that this may be a “real” crime story. Words such as croman  and flaughter are used for tools used by crofters. Another telling social aspect of the novel is the attitude of some people, such as the local minister and the Edinburgh reporter at Roddy Macrae’s trial, to the crofters who are seen as uncivilised and prone to violence. The book is neatly divided up into eye-witness accounts, the confession, a section on contemporary views of insanity, the trial and an epilogue. What we see early on is that there are a number of unreliable narrators, including young Macrae. As one reviewer noted, this is not a crime novel, but a novel with a crime as its centrepiece. It’s very well written and a compulsive read. Buy it.



Reading Raymond Chandler and the Lynn Rocks at East Linton

February 14, 2018

Looking through my bookshelves recently, I came across a novel by Raymond Chandler entitled Playback. It’s one of these books I can’t remember buying and at first I assumed that I’d read it, as it’s been on the bookshelves for a long time. It turned out that I had not read it, so I knew I was in for a treat. As an author, Raymond Chandler is better known for the crime novels which were made into films, such as The Big Sleep. The novel I have just read – Playback – was Chandler’s last and some reviewers saw it as his lightest novel in terms of plot. While this may be true, as it’s a simple story of the detective Philip Marlowe seeking out and then protecting Miss Betty Mayfield against evil men who want to exploit her fortune, the Marlowe dialogue shines through. The least successful Chandler novel featuring the wise-cracking Marlowe is still way above most other crime novels, in terms of style. Marlowe is often nowadays seen as not being very PC, in his descriptions of women but these are often insightful, from a woman’s point of view. On the 2nd page of this novel, Marlowe reflects “She wore a white belted raincoat, no hat, a well-cherished head of platinum hair… [and] a pair of blue-grey eyes that looked at me as if I’d said a dirty word”. Marlowe then finds Betty Mayfield coming off a train. Chandler writes “There was nothing to it … the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket”. Throughout the novel, Chandler has Marlowe using the idioms of the time e.g. “He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson”. Another investigator called Noble criticises Marlowe as a detective. Marlowe replies that they might get along if “you didn’t act like you thought you could lick your weight in frogspawn”. “Lick” in this contest means to beat in a fight. There’s a rather sentimental ending to the book but Marlowe’s final words are for a lawyer offering him more work. “I have a suggestion for you Mr Umney. Why don’t you go kiss a duck?” Raymond Chandler may have written his books in the 1950s, but they are still as fresh and stylish as they were then. You can find out more about the green Penguin books here.


Playback by Raymond Chandler (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The bonnie village of East Linton (good photos) is 6 miles (just under 10K) from Dunbar and one of its most historic and enduring features is the Lynn Rocks, which can be seen from the bridge across the River Tyne at the entrance to the village. This bridge was built in the 1500s and transformed East Linton into a staging post on the main roads going west to Edinburgh and east towards the English border. The bridge (photo below) itself is a magnificent structure, with its mixture of red, brown/yellow sandstone blocks.


The bridge at East Linton

The river flows gently under the bridge and then turns into a torrent as it approaches the gully between the rocks, seen below.


Lynn Rocks in East Linton

There’s a drama about rushing water that fascinates us – the movement, the speed, the sound, the ever-changing colours seem to entrance us into gazing, rather than looking, into the gushing water. In the photo below, you can almost feel the movement of the water and there are a million shapes being formed and lasting only for a split second. This image reminded me of some of Ruth Brownlee’s paintings of  not just swirling waves, but swirling skies


Fast flowing water at the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

Once the water passes the gully, all is peaceful. It is as if the water got into a furious argument with the drop in height, fumed and spumed, shouted and screamed, raged and struck out in all directions for a few seconds, and then calmed down, as the in the photo below.


A calming river past the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

If you are ever passing through East Linton e.g. on your way to the famous Preston Mill, then you should stop and walk down to the Lynn Rocks.

Santa delivers, patterned frost and New Year’s Day walks

January 8, 2018

Firstly, a Guid New Year tae ane’ an aw (one and all) and I hope that 2018 brings you love, luck and laughter. There may be a Santa Claus after all, as I duly got the Canon 750D that I asked for. There’s an accompanying CD which I am determined to follow so that I can learn all the settings and use the camera to its best effect. I had my previous camera for 10 years and never got round to checking out all the settings. So this blog has the last photos taken with the now ten year old Canon 1000D. The new camera has a video capacity, so I’m hoping to feature some videos on the blog – another learning curve for me. As an academic, I read much about lifelong learning in relation to school pupils/students and now I’m putting it into practice. Stimulating your brain will not guarantee you a longer life – only luck will do that – but it helps to enhance your life.

Just before Xmas, we had an extended cold spell with some heavy frosts. One morning I went into the conservatory and the roof was covered in a heavily patterned frost – on the outside of course. People of a certain age who have lived in cold(ish) climates may remember looking at, and admiring, frosted windows with delicate patterns on the inside of the windows, in pre-centrally heated, cold houses when they were children. In the photo below, I can see ferns, feathers and seaweed.  The blue colours come from the clear sky above the roof.


Frost patterns on the glass roof


In the second photo, taken from a different part of the roof, there are more surreal images, maybe of as yet undiscovered sea creatures – there do appear to be a lot of tentacles. This might also be what you see through a microscope when examining some form of disease. What do you see?



Frosted pattern on the glass roof

On New Year’s day, we had two walks, the first along to the nearby Dunbar Golf Course on a bright, sunny and relatively mild (for Scotland) morning (7 degrees). The course shone with many shades of green. In the photo below, we were standing behind the tee of the 3rd hole, looking west towards Dunbar Harbour (good photos). Beyond the harbour, the volcanic Bass Rocks looms. The rock is bare in winter but is a brilliant white in summer, due to the influx of 150,000 gannets who pack themselves in to nest.


Dunbar Golf Course, with the harbour and the Bass Rock in the background

In the afternoon, we walked up to the top of Doon Hill with our older son who was down for the New Year. I’ve featured Doon Hill in the summer previously on this blog. By the afternoon, cloud had spread in and rain threatened and there was a distinctly chillier air 600 feet up the hill. There are panoramic 360 degree views from the top and the photo  below shows the view looking north west, with the sandy spit, known as Spike Island, clearly outlined. Spike Island was used by the army as a post WW2 training area and walkers there regularly find bullet shells. On the right hand side of the photo, you can just see the outline of the Bass Rock.


View from Doon Hill to Spike Island and out to sea

On the way down, we passed a dead tree and in the photo below, the tree looks as if it could be replicating the pattern of a lightning flash in the sky. An exhilarating walk but we were glad to descend, as the louring clouds looked threatening and the late afternoon temperature was dropping rapidly. Time to go home and enjoy a glass of good red wine on New Year’s Day.


Dead tree near the top of Doon Hill



Planting bulbs and the East Lothian Banking Company scandal

December 4, 2017

I’ve just finished planting the last of my spring bulbs. Now, for many garden experts, this is a bit late in the day but I like my daffodils and tulips to appear in the Spring as far as possible and not in midwinter, as is happening due to climate change. There’s a certain degree of creativity in planting bulbs, as you know that the combination of what is a rather dull looking object – a daffodil bulb – will combine with the earth to produce firstly a green stem and then a piece of sculpture as the head opens up. Also, you know that when you plant the bulbs and the pansies and polyanthus, a rather bare and forlorn section of the garden – brown earth dotted with plants – will be transformed into an eye-catching and neighbour-praising object looking like this.


Spring garden (click on all photos to enlarge)

So there is a great deal of satisfaction – and anticipation – to be had in planting bulbs and I always feel better when I’ve emptied out the last bulbs from the previously filled old shoe boxes I have in the garage over summer. I’ve completed one task and can look forward to the transformation in the garden in a couple of months, from bare earth to this.


Tulip bulbs in Spring

When you are doing research of any kind – academic or personal – there’s a kind of serendipity that ensures that at some point you will come across material that is not relevant to your current research, but is very interesting. As an academic researcher or PhD supervisor, my advice was to leave this well alone, but with personal research, you have time to meander down some alleyways for a while. Recently, I was interviewing the daughter of the owner of a shop in Dunbar in the 1950s about her youthful memories of the shop and she produced a folder that her parents had left with her. Inside the folder were two nineteenth century Scottish bank notes – not your regular Bank of Scotland or Royal Bank of Scotland notes – but notes from the East Lothian Banking Company.

East Lothian Banking Company One Pound front

One pound note (front) issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

East Lothian Banking Company Five pounds front

Five pound note (front) issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

The bank notes’ design reflected the county of East Lothian’s farming and fishing communities. To the modern eye, these notes look like cheques, where the name of the recipient is to be entered, along with the date. These notes, like other 19th century bank notes, were not circulated as bank notes are now, but were issued from a book of notes. The East Lothian Banking Company was set up in 1810 here in Dunbar and its funds came from local merchants and farmers. The records show that the bank did good business for some years and it appointed William Borthwick a very young man at 22 years old as cashier – the equivalent of chief executive today. Borthwick turned out not only to be relatively inexperienced, but to be an embezzler of the banks’ funds and he took off, probably to America, in 1822 with the bank in serious debt. Thus the scandal of the county bank.

Another interesting feature of the bank notes is that (see below) on the reverse of each note, there appears “Five pence” on the one pound note and “One shilling three pence” on the five pund note, which may have been a tax to be paid, although I’ve found it difficult to find out exactly what this represents. Also, the designs on the back of the two notes are different. One the one pound note “GR IV”, presumably referring to King George IV can be seen. As George IV reigned from 1820 to 1830, this note must have been issued in the last years of the bank’s existence. There’s no reference to royalty on the back of the five pound note. As we approach a (mainly) cash society, these notes are a reminder of different times. It should of course be remembered that very few people in East Lothian society in the early 19th century would ever have seen, never mind handled, a five pound note. This was a rich man’s (and it was men in control then) business.

East Lothian Banking Company One Pound Back

Back of a one pound note issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

East Lothian Banking Company Five Pouds back

Back of a five pound note issued by the East Lothian Banking Company


Called for jury service and Piazza dei Miracoli

November 20, 2017

Note The previous post has been fixed, using Google Chrome, which I am maybe being forced to use for editing?

I was recently called  for jury service at the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh and, although I was not actually selected to serve on the jury, it was a strange experience. Firstly, I arrived at the court to be sent to the Jury Room. Here sat about 50 people, all in a strange environment. Few people spoke to each other and most either checked their mobile phones, read books or stared into space. This was a formal setting, not a social one and it was clear that no-one had any idea how long we would be there, as little information was forthcoming. After an hour, a clerk appeared to tell us that there might be two trials on today and that she would be back in 10 minutes. Half an hour hour later, the clerk reappeared and took us through to court ten, shown here. After another 10 minutes, the phrase “Court rise” was heard and we all – the potential jurors, the court staff and lawyers present – stood up and sat down again. The judge/sheriff talked to one of the lawyers and we could just about her the lawyer say that the trial could not go ahead. The judge thanked us for our attendance and our patience and said that normally, lunch was 1-2pm but there was good news. We all looked up expectantly. The good news was that we could go for lunch early and come back at 2pm as there was definitely another trial to be heard and a jury was needed. This was beginning to appear like the crime novel I’d taken along – too much padding and too little action.

So we all returned at 2pm. Another clerk said that she would be back in 5 minutes to take us through to court 12 for a jury to be selected. One advance in the tale was that there was now only 15 jury members to be selected from the 50 of us and not 2 x 15. The chances of being selected was reduced by 50%. As no-one in the jury room knew how long a trial would last or when we could start making plans again for the next few days, I got the feeling that few people wanted to be selected. 25 minutes later, the clerk took us in to the court and the ballot began. As each name was called out, the picked juror went forward and a collective sigh could be heard amongst the rest of us. Eventually 15 were picked. People started looking at their watches, as in it’s 2.30pm so we’ll be released soon. Hopes were dashed when one juror recognised the accused and was excused. Another selection, another collective sigh. The judge ordered that the clerk read out the charges – sexual assault with details given – again. Then another juror said he could not hear the judge and this man was excused, to whispers amongst the still potential jurors that he might be trying it on. The final selection was made and final sigh of relief uttered, and the great unpicked left the court room and the court. What was interesting was that, by the time the ballot was taking place, I was ready to be picked, having earlier hoped that I could not be. So, an odd day spent in an environment where I had very little control over what I could do, apart from the lunch break.

Edinburgh Sherriff Court (Click on all photos to enlarge)

My pal Roger and I went on our annual trip to a European city to a) see the sights and b) go to a football (aka soccer) match. This year’s holiday started in Pisa, where we stayed 2 nights before going on to Florence to see the game (next blog post). While Pisa is best known for the leaning tower – La Torre Pendente – I think that the other buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli (includes video), the Square of Miracles in English, are more fascinating. There’s no doubting the uniqueness of the Tower but its attraction is mainly because of a mistake. It is, of course, worth seeing.


La Torre Pendente, Pisa

Also within the Piazza, is the magnificent cathedral, seen below. It is famous for its marble exterior, Giovanni Pisano’s intricately carved pulpit (close up photos) and high, vaulted ceilings which are brilliantly decorated. Whether you have religious leanings or not, you cannot fail to appreciate the superb artwork and interior design on display.


Pisa Cathedral

You can also visit the  hugely impressive Battistero (Baptistry), with its high dome and a balcony from which you can look down on the large baptismal font and exquisitely carved pulpit, photo below. The official website refers to the “women’s balcony”, so perhaps women were excluded from the ceremonies below?


Pisa Battistero

My own favourite building in the Piazza was the Camposanto (good photos). This is the cemetery and inside there are many statues to famous university teachers and members of the powerful Medici family. The most fascinating part of this huge complex are the frescoes which line the walls, as in the photo below. Some of the frescoes are still quite fresh looking, even though they date from the 14th century. The frescoes are of course, mainly religious although there are some battle scenes. A common theme in the range of frescoes is the battle between going to heaven or hell, and you can see why 14th century people might be terrified by the depictions of hell, where the devil is seen as eating humans amid  a scene of torture. It was the violence in so many of the frescoes that intrigued me – designed to inspire but also to threaten. As works of art, these are impressive in their range of colour and detail and well worth a visit.


Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa


All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.


In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.


House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.


Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House


Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.


Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens


Heron at the pond near Cliveden House



More Sinead Morrisey poems and Madrid’s magnificent architecture

October 12, 2017

 I have just finished reading Sinead Morrisey’s remarkable book of poems entitled On Balance”. In a previous post, I focused on the first poem in the collection The Millihelen which has been widely praised. For the rest of the book, Morrissey maintains this high standard with telling insights and memorable phrases. In Nativity which is about parents watching children in such a play, has these lines:

“mums and dads on loan from their workaday offices;/ littler brothers and sisters crashed out in pushchairs/ and parked along the aisle like outsize baggage”

The imagery continues later in the poem “… we are left/ with a row of just-licked-by-a cow-looking boys/ in dressing gowns, Mary in a dress, Immanuel/ in his cradle, low-key and ineffable …”.

In Meteor shower, “..and the stars in behind/ shining steady as lighthouses/ and yes, not once but twice/ – there and then there -/ dust on fire at the edge/ of Earth’s flaying atmosphere,/ scoring its signature”. The word “flaying” makes these lines, suggesting chaos. There are a sequence of poems entitled “Whitelessness” which looks at how different scientists might view Greenland. The Geologist finds ” .. the ridges of human teeth:/some early Palaeolithic adolescent caught/ grinning at the moment of death/ in a stone photograph”. The Photographer observes: “The red earth holds up/ a rainbow in its outstretched hands”. As The Geographer studies the earth, “Ridiculously/ overdressed, two musk ox trundle past. / We must sound enormous – / …. but they blank us nevertheless”. These are just a few examples from the book, which rightly won The Forward Prize for Poetry in 2017. It also has a beautiful cover. Get a hold of it if you can, preferably by buying it from the Poetry Book Society.


On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge all photos)

Where to begin with Madrid’s magnificent architecture? I’m concentrating on the older buildings and monuments, but there’s an excellent slide show of modern architecture here (good photos). Our apartment, with its high ceilings and cornices, beautiful parquet flooring in different designs, had two large windows, each with a small balcony which looked across the to Palacio Cibeles. You can sit in the outside bar at the top of the building for 4 euro per person and we enjoyed a glass of wine there one evening, as well as the stunning views across the city, in the photos below. The first photo looks down on the Casa America (good photos) and on to one of the modern art deco influenced buildings behind.


Looking across Madrid from the Palacio Cibeles

The 2nd photo looks down on the extensive army headquarters, known as the Buenavista Palace and we were unfortunate to miss the Changing of the Guard (good photos).


Looking towards the Buenavista Palce and woods from the Palacio Cibeles

Not far from the Palacio Cibeles, you come across one of the many puerta or gates to the city of Madrid. The photos below show the Puerta de Alcala, a magnificent structure ordered to be built by Carlos III, King of Spain in 1778. Carlos was obviously not a man to do things by half and the puerta dominates this part of the city. On the right of the puerta is the Retiro Park, featured here last week.


Puerta de Alcala, Madrid


Top of the Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

Madrid city centre is teeming with stunning buildings, from the apartments on the Gran Via (good photos) – 2 photos below – to the umpteen churches and palaces – too many to mention here. The Gran Via is Madrid’s busiest street, best avoided at weekends.


Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid


Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

The Plaza Major is often described as being at the heart of Madrid and it certainly is beautiful square, comparable in terms of the buildings/apartments, to St Mark’s Square in Venice. Again, if you go at weekends, you might never see the square properly, as there are so many tourists, but go midweek and you’ll be able to appreciate its grandeur to the full.


Plaza Major, Madrid


Plaza Major, Madrid


Trip to Durham: the Cathedral and the Cellar Door restaurant.

September 30, 2017

I forgot to say at the end of the last post that we were off to Madrid for a week, so no more posts for a fortnight. At the beginning of September, we went to Durham for a couple of days. We had been before but only for the day. The cathedral city of Durham (good photos and short video) is in the north east of England, so for us it was only a 2 hr drive. We stayed in a hotel next to the River Wear, a short walk from the city centre. Durham has a famous castle, with a fascinating history but we did not have time to visit as we went to the coast as well. We did go to Durham Cathedral (good photos) and it certainly is an impressive sight, both from the exterior and interior. The first photo below shows part of the outside walls of the cathedral and there is a fascinating array of structures here – the round towers, arched windows and varied stonework. As I  have said here before, it must have been strange for the local inhabitants to see the construction of something so huge on their doorstep, as they worked in the fields. Also, the workmanship is astounding, given that the cathedral would have been build using, by modern standards, fairly basic tools. Imagine being a stonemason working at the top of one of the towers, standing on wooden scaffolding, with no thought given to health and safety.


Part of the exterior from outside the cathedral (Click to enlarge all photos)

The interior of the cathedral has cloisters (good photos) and the next 2 photos show part of the cloisters and more of the cathedral’s exteriors. Cloisters were important to the monks who lived in the cathedral and as you walk along the cloisters, you can see how such an environment would provide a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.


Looking up from the cloisters in Durham Cathedral


Looking across the green from one part of the cloisters to another in Durham Cathedral

We visited the Open Treasures exhibition (good video) which provided a fascinating insight to the lives of the monks, as well as showing some intricately carved stonework from the cathedral and elsewhere, and examples of manuscripts and jewellery. You can’t take photos inside the exhibition or inside the cathedral but you can see some excellent photographs here.

As you leave and pass through the magnificent external doors of the cathedral, you can see the dramatic Sanctuary Knocker (photo below) which could be used in the past by those seeking protection in the cathedral from the law. It looks more frightening than welcoming and maybe it was meant to. My thoughts on seeing it were of masks worn by South American tribes or carvings on totem poles. Whether you are religious or humanist, the cathedral is an inspiring building and well worth a visit.


The Sanctuary Knocker on Durham Cathedral.

One of the highlights of our visit was to the exquisite Cellar Door restaurant and it turned out to be a real treat. It is an exquisitely furnished dining room, as the photo below shows. The service was helpful, attentive and unfussy and customers were made very welcome.


The Cellar Door, Durham dining room

The restaurant offers a varied and interesting menu. For starters, I had the “Courgette flower, yellison goat’s cheese, Yemeni wild flower honey and hazelnuts” and my wife had “Mushrooms on toast – cep parfait, shemeji, girolles, mushroom ketchup and sourdough”. Both looked and tasted exceptional and my wife’s comment was that this was the best mushroom starter that she’d ever had. The courgette flower was delicately cooked in a light batter, with the goat’s cheese inside. For main, I had “Sea trout, avocado, heritage tomato, crab and potato crisps” and this was a generous serving of fish, cooked to perfection, complimented nicely by the light crab meat. My wife had “Scottish halibut, beans, grapes, elderflower and verjus”, and again the fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin. I contacted the restaurant and they gave me permission to download the photos of the restaurant above, one of their desserts and the halibut. For dine dining of this quality, we both thought that the meal was excellent value and would recommend the restaurant to anyone visiting Durham.


Mouth watering dessert from The Cellar Door, Durham


Crispy halibut from the Cellar Door, Durham


The Underground Railroad and cloud formations on the horizon

September 15, 2017

I’ve just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in a good while. Colson Whitehead is a new author to me but on the basis of this book, I’ll be trying more. The Underground Railroad has won many awards, including the famous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel begins on a slave plantation in Georgia with one particularly sadistic brother in charge. The heroine Cora knows that her mother escaped the plantation and abandoned her as a child. Cora has no intention of trying to escape but is persuaded to do so by Caesar. The horrors of slave life – constant hard work, poor conditions and regular beatings – are well described in a series of incidents. Whitehead is an excellent storyteller but, as the Guardian reviewer points out, other novels have covered this ground. What makes this novel unique – and this is no spoiler – is that the author takes the well known escape routes for slaves, known as the underground railroad and transforms it from a series of safe houses into an actual underground railroad, with tracks, stations and locomotives . So we are asked to follow the author’s leap of imagination and this is not difficult as Whitehead is such an accomplished writer. The novel then focuses on both those who seek to help Cora, liberal whites as well as former slaves, and on those who wish to capture Cora and take her back to the plantation. The slave catcher Ridgeway is a key character in the novel and Whitehead manages not to demonise him, despite his gruesome occupation. Ridgeway views the world in an uncomplicated manner “It is what it is” he says e.g. slavery exists and different people make money from it. The novel ends on a hopeful note although the reader does feel that there is no guarantee about Cora’s future. This is a novel which is harrowing at times, but you are driven along by Whitehead’s excellent narrative which often has you on the edge of your seat. The Underground Railroad is a passionate and imaginative novel so go out and buy it immediately. You can hear/download an interesting interview with the author here (left hand column).


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Click to enlarge all photos)


At the end of summer, we often get changeable weather and this is accompanied by a variety of cloud formations in the evening. Last week, looking out from the back of our house, we noticed an interesting light on the sea. Normally, it is when the moon is full and over the sea, or the setting sun casts its light. On both occasions, there is what appears to be  a silver (moon) or a golden (sun) pathway across the water, as in the photo below. In this photo however, the sun was not yet setting and this view looks north, with the sun at this point in the west.


Light across the sea on the east side of Dunbar

So, first the light, then the cloud formation itself in the photo below. This appears to be a nuclear explosion or a volcanic eruption in the sky, and the many shades of blue on display was impressive. There’s a white castle in the middle and monster racing dolphins underneath. Otherwise, it’s a piece of abstract art representing the chaos in the world now, or what the end of our known world (or its beginning) might look like. That’s what I saw, what do you see?


Interesting cloud formation on the horizon, looking north from Dunbar

Turning my attention west to the town of Dunbar itself, there was also an interesting formation of clouds above the town, in the photo below. Here, the clouds are in more anarchic mood, splitting up and diving off in different directions. It was one of these evening when you looked at the clouds, turned round to look north, and when you turned back the shapes had changed, as had the colours. A wonderful sight.


Early evening cloud formation above Dunbar





Brodies Restaurant and Devil’s Porridge Museum

July 27, 2017

We stayed overnight in the border town of Moffat (good photos) after our visit to Dumfries (see below). It’s a very pleasant town with many tourists visiting, often on bus tours. There are good walks around Moffat and, as this guide shows, the walk can be easy or difficult, depending on your mood and/or fitness. We stayed at the excellent Hartfell Guest House  and this proved to be extremely good value for money. We had a large room with superb views, the staff were friendly and helpful and the breakfast offered a range of options in a lovely bay-windowed, high ceilinged room. There is a restaurant attached to the guest house – the Limetree – and this had been highly recommended to us. It was closed on the night we were there.

This turned out to be an opportunity to try another highly-rated restaurant in Moffat and we found that it deserves its reputation. Brodies Restaurant was a real treat and lived up to its award winning status. We booked for dinner. When you arrive in Brodies, you are shown into a large lounge bar – called the gin lounge, with comfortable armchairs. They have an impressive list of gins on offer. They have a menu from which there is plenty to choose and vegetarians are well catered for. We opted to share the “Smoked Mackerel – saffron parisienne potatoes, lemon sorrel, confit of lemon, horseradish shoots, crème fraiche”, which was light and very tasty. For the main course, my wife had “Medallions of Chicken – wild garlic & spinach mousse, wild garlic mushroom en croute, charred carrot”, which was elegantly presented and delicious. My choice was “Local Hill Bred Hogget – tasting plate of Annanwater hogget, wilted greens”. As the photo below, kindly sent to me by Russell from Brodies, the presentation was also impressive. “Hogget” was a new word to me, although I guessed that it was sheep related e.g. little hog? Hogget is a lamb that is more than one years old and according to this article, is very good for you. The helpful waiter told me that it was the tender neck of the hogget, plus a small hogget pie. It was certainly tender and the pie had a light pastry which was filled with meat. The accompanying gravy boat provided the perfect finishing touch to this superb dish.

Brodies Hogget

Hogget dish at Brodies of Moffat (Click to enlarge)


We also shared a pudding aka a dessert. From an intriguingly mouth-watering choice, we opted for “Rhubarb & Custard Tart – almond frangipane, crème fraiche”. It was not only good to look at – see photo below – but was a great combination of the above flavours, plus firm but very tasty strawberries on top. The service was attentive and unrushed and there was a good atmosphere in the restaurant i.e. you could tell that this was a roomful of people appreciating and enjoying high quality food. If you are ever in this part of the world, try this restaurant.

Brodies rhubarb

Rhubarb and custard tart in Brodies of Moffat

Our visit to  Dumfries (good photos) to see my sister and brother in law was supposed to take us back to the bonnie town of Kirkcudbright (pr Kir – coo – brae) (good photos). We arrived in sunshine on the Friday but Saturday was dreich, so we were taken to see the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs. This was a fascinating visit to a museum dedicated mainly to the massive factory – the buildings covered 9 miles from start to finish and had 125 miles of railway within the site. The factory was built during the First World War due to a shortage of munitions and employed 30,000 people, mainly women. Its function was to make cordite for bullets and shells. The finished cordite was sent to munitions factories in strands of various thicknesses. The name of the factory is attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle who, when visiting the factory, noted that the paste produced by combining gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine was “the devil’s porridge” as it was so potentially lethal.

The story becomes more remarkable when you see the photos of the women working in the factory and the almost complete absence of health and safety. The photo below shows the women mixing the gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine by hand. There are no masks or protective clothing here, so it was very dangerous work. The museum tends to underplay this aspect of the story, concentrating on the heroic war work done by the women, who were employed in the absence of men, most of whom had been called up.


Women workers at the Devil’s Porridge factory in WW1

In the next photo, there is some protection for the young woman but, considering that she was working with nitro-glycerine, there is not much. While the guide at the museum told us that the women could make much money from working with these chemicals, as higher wages came with higher risks, there did not seem to be any indication of the long term implications for the women’s health. This aspect is covered more realistically in an excellent article by Bob Holman.


Young woman working in cordite factory in WW1

The story of the factory also alluded to the nationalisation of the pubs in the area and as far as Carlisle, due to the employment (and drinking habits) of 10,000 men from Ireland who built the factory complex in a remarkably short time. The 2 townships of Gretna ( a separate town from Gretna Green, famous as a marriage centre) and Eastriggs were built to house some of the workers, and some of the original buildings are still visible today. This is a little known museum but well worth a visit.