Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Meeting Richard Ford and summer flowers

September 1, 2017

As a follow up to last week’s blog on the Edinburgh International book Festival, I struck lucky on the last day of the festival. I looked up to see who was on and, to my surprise and delight, Richard Ford was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. There was a Sold Out sign next to the listing but there was advice to check for returns on the day. I did so – by phone and email – and got a ticket for the afternoon session, which started at 3.15. By 2.30, people were queuing up, eager to get good seats. I am not queuer, so I waited in the bookshop tent – reading part of Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, of which more below. My luck continued as I was one of the last people in the tented theatre but, when I asked a young man if there were seats up the back, he removed a Reserved sign from a seat 4 rows from the front and gave me that one. Ms Wark talked to Richard Ford about contemporary USA and they covered a range of aspects, including of course Donald Trump. Ford is a wonderful writer but also a highly articulate and amusing speaker and he had some caustic comments on the current president, as well as on the weaker side of the USA press and on race relations.

The writer was then asked about his latest book, which is his recollections of his mother and father. It is entitled Between Them – Remembering My Parents and you can hear the author reading the beginning of the book here. Richard Ford told the audience that writing this memoir – about his mother 30 years ago and his father recently – was an attempt to portray his experience of his own childhood, but also of his parents’ lives. It’s a small book and has some very poignant moments in it. Ford is a high quality writer and his descriptions of his father coming home on a Friday from working away encapsulate a boy’s wonder and admiration superbly. I mentioned my favourite quote from Ford’s books in the last blog post and I included it in a question I asked at the session. My question was “In one of your novels, Frank Bascombe [protagonist of 4 Ford novels] refers to ‘the normal, applauseless life of us all’. Do you think that this applies to your parents’ lives?”. Richard Ford agreed that it did and added that this did not mean that they did not have mostly happy, full and successful lives. I met the author briefly as we all left the tent and I told him that it was my favourite quote from his work. “It’s one of my favourite quotes also” he said, patting me on the shoulder “thank you for reminding me of it”. My new claim to fame. The not too clear photo below, taken on my phone, shows Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

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Richard Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark (Click to enlarge all photos)

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Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents

It’s now late summer and as I write, today (31 August) is the last official day of summer in the UK. Many of the flowers in my garden are now at their peak or e.g. the lobelia are showing signs of fatigue, with fading colours and drooping stems. In this photo, you can see the lobelia struggling to match the burgeoning of the gladioli and geraniums.

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Plants on our decking

At our back door, from late spring we have an ever expanding hydrangea which is now covered in large pink flower heads and I captured a close-up of this one just after a rain shower. The bunches of 4 petalled flowers nestle into each other to form a perfect ball and the petals are like little fans, ready to protect the delicate centre at any time. The flowers’ pink colours develop and change over weeks, from pale pink to brighter pink and then back to pale, almost pallid pink as late autumn and cold nights take their toll. This is a much admired plant.

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Close up of hydrangea ball

At the front of the house this year, we have three different colours in the gazania plants I bought in the spring. The one shown below has intriguing shades of purple, yellow, brown and white. It is a celebratory plant which opens in full sunshine and might be yelling out how wonderful it is to be alive. I like the cluster of Sydney Opera House type petals which brandish their bright colours in contrast to the more reticent yellow of the centre.

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Gazania daybreak

One of the welcoming appearances in the past few days have been brightly coloured butterflies which feed on the gazanias. The first one I managed to photograph was a peacock butterfly  shown below. Butterflies are like bees – playful. They wait until you think you have a perfect photo and just as you are about to click, off they flit and land on a nearby flower. The markings on the seemingly ragged wings are surreal and multi-coloured, spread out from the slim, curved body with its twin antennae constantly checking the environment. In this photo, there is a lovely contrast between the realist flower heads and the surreal marking on the butterfly.

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Peacock butterfly

The second one is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. I find this one more restrained in its colours than the peacock. I love the symmetry of this butterfly. If you (metaphorically) sliced it in half and folded it over, there would a perfect match. The colours appear to have been daubed on to the wings and the body shaped from a mould. The twisted hat-pin antennae are both a warning to the butterfly of approaching danger and a warning to potential predators. So we now have new arrivals to join the bees which are still feeding on the lavender but having to work harder, as the lavender is fading also.

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Small tortoiseshell utterfly

 

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Lucy Newton exhibition and walking up to Arthur’s seat

July 5, 2017

At Waterston House in Aberlady, the current exhibition (until 26 July) is by well known wildlife artist Lucy Newton. I reviewed Lucy’s last exhibition at SOC here almost exactly 2 years ago. If you had asked me in 2015 whether the then exhibition could be surpassed in quality, I would have doubted it, but along comes Lucy Newton in 2017 and produces an even more stunning exhibition than the last one. I again requested two images for the blog and Lucy kindly sent me four. The first one on view below is Brown Hare and I found the detail of the animal’s fur amazingly delicate, especially the whiskers around the mouth. You have a feeling from the hare’s eye that it is sensing something – danger perhaps and getting ready to run. The alert hare looks comfortable in her/his environment – sprigs of heather  and maybe snow? You can see how the hare might blend in nicely and use the heather as camouflage. I occasionally see hares while out cycling and the hare will often stop on the road, look at you from a distance, as if daring you to catch it. As soon as you get anywhere near it, the hare speeds down the road and disappears through a hedge. Even Chris Froome would not catch a hare.

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Brown Hare by Lucy Newton (Click to enlarge)

Choosing the 2nd photo of Lucy Newton’s work was difficult. There is a superb painting of a woodpecker on a moss laden tree, in which the moss and the bark flow down the trunk, and contrast with the vibrant colours of the bird. I chose the painting below of a barn owl in flight. You can see in the photo below that there is an energetic sense of movement about this piece of art. It is more stunning at the exhibition itself, as when you first see it, there is a fleeting feeling that the owl might really be in flight. In the background to the bird here, the series of abstract shapes also suggest movement to me and they reflect the swish of the bird’s wings, which are drawn with such detail that you see and feel action in the depiction of flight. This is an exhibition not to be missed if you are in the area.

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Barn Owl in Flight by Lucy Newton

My good friend an ex-colleague from Charles Sturt University Bob Pymm visited us recently from Australia. Unlike the rest of June in Dunbar, it was a gloriously sunny and warm weekend, with a flat calm sea. On the Monday, we got the train up to Edinburgh and walked up Arthur’s Seat (good photos). We walked from the Scottish Parliament along part of Holyrood Park (good photos in Gallery) and then up the direct route. It’s quite a climb up the rough steps and there are some parts where the scree is slippery. However, you get great views of the city as you climb higher. The first photo looks over to Fife, with eastern part of the city in view.

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View from half way up to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

In the 2nd photo, Edinburgh Castle (good photos) is prominent on the right of the photo, with the spire of St Giles’ Cathedral half obscured by the Salisbury Crags. At the very top of Arthur’s Seat, there were crowds of visiting tourists, many of them young people, and we heard many languages going up and down the track. Edinburgh is now a very cosmopolitan city all the year round an there is great pleasure to be had in seeing so many people from different nations enjoying this outdoor environment.

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View across Edinburgh city centre from near the top of Arthur’s Seat

Going back to town, for lunch in the famous World’s End pub with its range of Belhaven beer, brewed here in Dunbar, we walked around the back of the Scottish Parliament, with its exquisite use of wood outside the offices of the MSPs. The photos below show firstly the wide view of the so-called “think pods” in the offices. In theory, these were designed to help the members as they contemplated developing policies to help the Scottish people. More cynical views see the pods as places where plots are hatched against the opposition.

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“Think pods” at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

The second photos shows a closer view of the pods and their external wooden facades. The pods are elegantly designed and the wooden poles, set at angles to become an abstract feature, add to the aesthetic quality of the building’s exterior.

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“Think pods” and wooden facades at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

 

 

Dunbar Battery redeveloped

June 22, 2017

Following the award of a grant of £700,000, Dunbar Harbour Trust has been instrumental in transforming part of the harbour site. The Battery has a long history, being built in 1781 as a fort to defend the existing Cromwell Harbour from attack by American privateers and also from a possible French invasion. In the 1870s, the Battery became an isolation hospital and at the start of the First World War, the hospital was taken over by the Red Cross and revamped. In the 1930s, it was the site of housing for a time but this was abandoned when the roof blew off. Until this year, the Battery has been an open space for visitors to look out from its walls out to sea or back to the south and the Lammermuir Hills. The Battery  (good photos) has now been transformed into an amphitheatre and coastal garden, with areas for public art. I took my trusty camera along to take a personal look. When you go through the stone arch, what first catches your eye is the wooden seating which is part of the new amphitheatre.

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Seating in the amphitheatre at the Dunbar Battery (click to enlarge)

On closer inspection, you see that on the lovely wooden steps, there are the names from the Shipping Forecast which can be heard on Radio 4. There’s an excellent video available on why people love the Shipping Forecast. The forecast has a lyrical quality to it, as many of the names could be from a poem – North Utsire, (pr Ootseeri) South Utsire, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger. As the Battery is next to the sea, this was an inspiring idea. The Shipping Forecast is also a poem by Seamus Heaney from his Glanmore Sonnets and you can hear Heaney reading the poem here  – a wonderful experience.

The public art on display at the moment is The Sea Cubes by Scottish artist Donald Urquhart.  In the photos below, you can see the steel cubes on display and a close up of one of the fossils engraved into the cubes. The cubes are attractive to look at and people of all ages can use their imagination to decide what they look like – ice cubes which have floated down from the North Pole or steel mirrors which have landed from space? They are a very peaceful sight. When you look closely at the intricate nature of the engraved fossils, you can see the complex structure of these fairly basic creatures. This one also reminded me of a map of an archipelago, with a thousand islands.

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Sea Cubes by Donald Urquhart at the Dunbar Battery

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Fossil engraving on a Sea Cube by Donald Urquhart

The Coastal Garden section is also very interesting and pleasant on the eye. The photo below shows the pebbles, the wooden blocks and the range of plants which can survive in the harsh seaside conditions. The plants include sea pinks (aka thrift), red valerian and Caradonna Meadow Sage. It will be interesting to see the plants develop and spread and bring more colour to the site in the future.

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Coastal garden at the Dunbar Battery

As you leave the Battery, you see Dunbar Harbour and Dunbar Castle through the archway as in the photo below. I’ve featured Dunbar Harbour on this blog a few times and it is an ever-changing view, as the light differs or there are different boats in the harbour. The 1st photo shows the magnificent stone wall and arch which gives solidity to the entrance and frames the harbour very well. After you walk down the slope from the battery, you are on the harbour quayside and you are looking across the harbour to the castle, as in the 2nd photo below. This is the view on a calm summer evening at the harbour. In October, the small yachts are taken out for the winter as the winter tides turn the harbour into a turbulent rush of water.

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Dunbar Harbour and Dunbar Castle from the Battery.

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Dunbar harbour from near the Battery

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

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

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The Roost by Paul Bartlett

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

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Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

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

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

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

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

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

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

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Bordeaux restaurants

Smooth tattie dreels and bluebells

May 3, 2017

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

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

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

 

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Tattie dreels and the Lammermuir Hills

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

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Bluebells beneath trees at Foxlake Woods

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Bluebells and trees in the sun at Foxlake Woods

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

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Bluebell close up

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

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Bluebell close up, showing pale cream anthers

Redhouse Castle, walls and daffodils, and honeywort

April 11, 2017

Sometimes you get to places by accident. Recently, we were visiting the Carol Barrett exhibition and there was a huge queue of traffic going into Aberlady (good photos), we headed west, through Longniddry  and ended up at Redhouse Castle (good photos). There is a new garden centre next to the ruin of the castle, which is a late 16th century building originally standing 4 storeys high. The first photo shows the ruin from the edge of the garden centre. It is perhaps not one of the most attractive castles which have survived but, given the technology available in the late 16th century, it is an impressive site.

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Redhouse Castle., East Lothian (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo shows the arched entrance into what would once have been an impressive courtyard of the Douglas family who built the original castle. It was acquired by the Laings (good photos) in 1607.

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Entrance to Redhouse Castle, East Lothian

The final photo is a close up of the doorway into the castle. Above the wooden door, on the pediment, can be seen the Laing family coat of arms and the initials MIL for Master John (Ioannes) Laing and RD for his wife Rebecca Dennistoun or Deenistoun. The motto on the lintel is Nisi Dominus Frustra – one translation being without the Lord, all is in vain, although like many Latin mottos, other translations exist. The stonework around the doorways is smooth, unlike the rougher – but more attractive, sandstone of the building itself.

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Doorway into Redhouse Castle, with the Laing family arms

On to stonework which is on a much lesser scale but, as I built most of it myself, remains attractive and has been enhanced by the array of daffodils now in flower above the walls. The first photo is of the first wall which I built with much advice and help from former stonemason Ian Sammels. This remains – unsurprisingly – the most impressive wall.

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The Sammels/Herring all and Spring flowers

The 2nd photo is of the latest – and final(?) stonewall, which I built myself. The mixture of daffodil types – white or yellow petalled – with the different shades of red sandstone, plus the shadows of the bushes behind, make this – I think – a well composed photos.

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The Herring wall with a variety of daffodils

A new plant in my garden is honeywort, given to me by my lifelong friend and fellow blogger Tam Bruce and his wife Sandra. Tam gave me two cuttings from their impressive garden in Edinburgh. This plant, shown below, has the wonderful name of Cerinthe major “Purpurascens”. It is a long established plant which attracts bees – thus its name – and one source quotes Virgil as ” using this plant as an offering to swarming bees in order to entice them into a new hive”.  As the photo shows, the plant has very colourful  tubular bell flowers, and at the moment, the leaves are starting to change colour and will develop into brilliant blue leaves or, more precisely, bracts which are defined as “leaf like structures”. So there is more to come from this plant, which seeds itself vigorously and has to be controlled. Tam and I had some fun in email exchanges, suggesting a modern update of the Beatles’ song Honey Pie, with a new line of “Honeywort, you are driving me crazy..”. I like the shadow of the plant against the stone and its intriguing shapes.

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Honeywort in my garden

 

Carol Barrett exhibition and Wagga Beach

April 3, 2017

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

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

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Sulphur Crested Cockatoo by Carol Barrett (Click to enlarge)

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

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Blue Winged Kookaburra by Carol Barrett

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

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Laughing Kookaburras in the Western Sydney suburbs

 

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

 

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Laughing Kookaburra at Wagga Beach

 

Back on my bike, John Clare podcast and crocuses

February 23, 2017

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

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

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

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Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

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

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Close up of crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

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

Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

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

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Hepatica flower

 

 

Whales stranding and The Store

February 13, 2017

Just before I went to bed the other night, I got an email from my brother-in-law in New Zealand to tell me that there had been a huge stranding of pilot whales at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. This is of particular interest to me, as many of you will know, as I wrote a book about a mass stranding which took place at Thorntonloch, near my home town of Dunbar in 1950.

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My book on the whales at Thorntonloch

One of the things I noticed about the above email was that, when I clicked on the link I’d been sent, I saw that the news was only 20 minutes old – and it included video footage of the stranding. This got me thinking. If my brother-in-law Jim had been in New Zealand in 1950 and wanted to tell me about this mass stranding, how would he do it? His only option then would have been to write me a letter, which I would have received maybe a few weeks later, given that there would have been a very limited air mail service at that time. In my book, I analysed the social aspects of the stranding in 1950, including communications. In 1950, most people heard about the whales locally and most often by word of mouth. There was no television in Scotland then and of course, no internet.

When I was nearing completion of my book, I wanted to refer to recent strandings and did a search for that. Spookily, I found a report of a mass stranding which had happened four hours earlier – also at Farewell Spit and I included this photo from there in the book.

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Mass stranding at Farewell spit in 2015

At Thorntonloch, there is a lovely stretch of beach and it is a very peaceful place to go for a walk. Farewell Spit is next to Golden Bay – another beautiful spot – so it is ironic that these attractive and peaceful beaches were – and continue to be – the scenes of such dramatic carnage, as hundreds of whales died when they stranded as a group. There was some better news overnight, with reports that 200 whales had been re-floated at Farewell Spit after a third mass stranding in as many days.

On Tuesday evening, I’m giving another talk to Dunbar and District History Society (new website imminent), of which I am a committee member. I’ve been looking at the social history of Dunbar (where I’ve lived for 60% of my life) in the early 1950s. I started with the whales at Thorntonloch and went on to look at rationing, new council houses and entertainment. I’ve now moved on to shops and shopping. On Tuesday, I’ll be concentrating on The Store, which is what the Co-operative shops were called at that time in this part of Scotland, although not elsewhere. The talk will start with an overview of the SCWS (Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society) which provided the hundreds of Co-op shops across Scotland with most of their goods to sell. The Co-op was the largest retail  organisation in the UK at that time, with over 40% of the non-independent trade.

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SCWS in 1950

This was a time before supermarkets had arrived in any numbers in the UK and the Co-op shops offered an attractive dividend to its customers, most of whom were shareholders – on a very small scale. It was also a time of rationing, so goods were restricted in availability, and of retail price maintenance i.e. prices of good were fixed, no matter where you bought them. The Co-op factory in Glasgow was a huge enterprise and the next two photos show some of the work done there.

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Women sew on buttons in the Shieldhall factory

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Women making rock in the Shieldhall factory

I’ll also be including interviews I did with local people who worked in The Store in the early 1950s. A very interesting interview I did was with Jimmy Combe, a very sprightly 84 year old, who began working for The Store as an apprentice grocer in 1947, aged 14. In the early 1950s, being a grocer was to be recognised as a skilled tradesman, like a plumber or joiner/carpenter. Jimmy went to night school in Edinburgh to do exams in a range of subjects, including bookkeeping and salesmanship, as well as subjects related to departments such as butchery, grocery and dry goods. An advert for such classes is shown below.

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Co-operative education in the 1950s

My talk will then look at the introduction of self-service in the mid to late 1950s. This move – accelerated by new technology and the end of rationing – in many ways deskilled the workforce and was the beginning of the end for the apprentice grocer. Before self-service, everyone was served individually, with all goods behind the counter.

 

The Fishermen and the Sandpiper

February 3, 2017

The title of this week’s blog looks as if it might be a story for children but it is two different topics. I’ve just finished reading The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. It’s a novel which is set in Nigeria and features four brothers who decide to go fishing in the local river, despite warnings from their parents not to do so. On returning from the fishing one day, they meet Abulu who is described as “a madman” and often goes around naked and dirty and is described as smelling of “.. rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus and of bodily fluids and wastes”. It is believed that Abulu has the gift of prophecy despite being mad and he predicts that the eldest son will be killed by “a fisherman” i.e. by one of his brothers. This is a tragic story of love, hate and revenge and there is an ambiguous ending which may give some hope. Despite the tragedy, the book is enthralling to the reader, as the tale is told from an account by Ben, the youngest of the four brothers, who looks back from an adult perspective on what happened to his brothers. The long suffering, but supportive mother and the eccentric (and sometimes arrogant) father have high hopes for their children. The father works for a national bank and the family is reasonably prosperous compared to their neighbours. Nigerian politics appears in a startling incident when the boys, who have skipped school, meet with one of the presidential candidates in the town and have their photographs taken with him. Obioma is an accomplished writer, although this is his debut novel, and the story is very well constructed, with excellent dialogue. Obioma can sometimes overdo the metaphors he uses but he does produce some startling phrases throughout the book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. I found my copy in a charity shop, so look out for your copy and you will not be disappointed. You can read the first chapter here.

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The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, there is an interesting article on the Western Sandpiper at Aird an Runair by Brian Rabbitts, who describes the bird as having “.. startling white underparts and rich rufous upper scapulars”. This immediately took me to the dictionary as “rufous” and “scapulars” were new words to me. The word rufous comes from the Latin rufus meaning red and is used to mean reddish-brown. Scapulars are shoulder feathers on birds, although a scapular, in a religious context,  can be “a sacramental object made of two small panels of woven wool (the required material)” or a short cloak worn by a monk. When you look at the superb photos below – generously sent to me by Brian Rabbitts – the feathers could be seen as a kind of cloak. I had a feeling that The Sandpiper was a piece of music, so I looked it up. There maybe music with that title, but what I was recalling from the dim past, was the film The Sandpiper (video) with the famous tune The Shadow of Your Smile.

In the first photo below, the bird’s scapular is shown clearly but I think that in this picture, the colours in the kelp outshine the bird.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts (Click to enlarge)

In the 2nd photo, you can see the bird’s dagger-like beak and legs that might be of steel welded on to its body, plus the scapular which reminds me of tiles on a roof.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts

In the third photo (cropped by me), I like the stoical look on the bird’s face, waiting patiently for food to swim by. Also, the swirl of the incoming wavelet compliments the flow of the bird’s feathers. You almost want to stroke this bird’s back.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts