Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Walk on the Biel estate and Keith Brockie paintings at Waterston House

January 31, 2023

I last posted a reference, with photos, to Biel House, almost exactly two years ago on this blog. In order to get to Biel (pronounced Beel) Estate, which c3miles/5K from Dunbar, you leave the A199 and go up a long drive to the house, firstly passing a cottage which would have formerly been the gatehouse to the estate. Once you are over the bridge spanning the A1 dual carriageway, you come to a newish set of gates (photo below) which lead to an impressive avenue of cedar trees. This is a stunning entrance and it is a very pleasant walk with the tall, thick trees to your left and right and the Lammermuir Hills in the distance. There is farmland on both sides of the trees, with the winter/spring wheat growing slowly but becoming a sparkling lightish green in the sunshine.

Entrance to the Biel Estate (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the end of the cedar walk, you come to a lane (photo below) with a small forest on each side. The side of this narrow road is still decorated with fallen leaves from the autumn and this scene refreshes your memory of when the leaves were yellowing and browning, but still on the trees. The adjoining wood is a mixture of rhododendron bushes, evergreen and deciduous trees. So there is a contrast all the way up the hill, with the bare tree on the right and the branches of the fir tree extending across the avenue. At some points, where there are mainly deciduous trees, you can see through to the fields beyond. This view will disappear in the late spring.

Lane leading up to Biel House

At the top of what is quite a steep hill for walkers and cyclists, you come to a crossroads, with the left taking you down to the Biel Burn and the right to attractively named Beeseknowe Farm (good photo). The entrance to Biel House itself (photo below) has impressive, elegant and graceful twin columns, with decorated, thistle-like rounded tops. The sign says Private and this is meant for cars, as walkers and cyclists appear to be welcome as passers-by. The photo shows the still flowerless rhododendrons to the right and left but if you look closely at them, you can see the small buds appearing, a sign of beauty to come. As you can see, there are some impressively tall trees here and the carpet of rust-coloured leaves adds to the attractiveness of the entrance.

Entrance to Biel House

We visited an excellent exhibition recently at Waterston House in Aberlady, the home of SOC (Scottish Ornithologists’ Club) to see the work of well known wildlife artist Keith Brockie, whom I have featured here on the blog on more than one occasion, the last time being in 2017. The exhibition finished not long after our visit and we are looking forward to the present exhibition, featuring examples from Scottish Nature Photography Awards. I am grateful to again to Laura Gressiani at SOC for sending me, with Keith Brockie’s permission, the three examples of his outstanding work below. The first example (photo below) is entitled Brooding Tawny Owl and shows Brockie’s truly amazing grasp of detail and his ability to portray the details of the tree and owls. It is hard for me as a non-artistic layman to imagine just how long this must have taken him to paint, but the result is a wonderful piece of art. Seeing Brockie’s quite large paintings at the exhibition is quite a different experience from looking at the photo, but the enlarged photos here will give you a chance to admire his work at close hand. On first seeing the painting, you notice the adult owl and its tired but still alert looking face, as well as its colouring and the very realistic looking feathers. Then you see the baby owl, fast asleep it seems to me and its green beak accompanied cleverly by the green, exquisitely veined leaves. Then there is the patterns on the smooth bark of the silver birch. In all, a painting to be admired again and again.

Brooding Tawny Owl by Keith Brockie

The second example (photo below) from the exhibition is entitled Mistle Thrush and is another example of Brockie’s supreme artistry in portraying birds and their environment. Once again, you are struck by the sheer amount of detail here. This bird, with the unfortunate (for us) scientific name of turdus viscivorus, has an enchanting song, which you can listen to here (scroll down to song audio). Brockie’s bird is not singing, but is perhaps waiting for an opportunity to sing to attract a mate, perhaps. The patterns on the bird’s breast give an aspect of surrealism, whereas the keen eye and the sharp beak, ready for the berries below, are painted realistically. The colour contrast been the berries and the bird draws our attention to both. The branch upon which the bird sits has a claw-like feature, seen just above the artist’ signature. A study in ornithological concentration is presented here and is as eye-catching as the owls above.

Mistle Thrush by Keith Brockie

The final example shows Keith Brockie’s art (and artistry) at its finest. This is a stunning portrait of a wild animal and you can see the muscularity in the hare which will give it its lightning speed. Out cycling around Dunbar, I have often seen hares, whether on the road in front of me or in a field, and when they start running, they go so fast that you think they might be flying low above the ground. The hairs on the animal’s ears, face and body are drawn so convincingly that you think this must be what it is like to be really close to a hare. There is alertness in the ears, the eyes and the nose and this is a hare which is very aware of its surroundings and possible dangers. This site (good video) tell us that “The hare grazes on vegetation and the bark of young trees and bushes”. You have to admire Brockie’s skill in painting the grass upon which the hare will feed and the way in which the grass mimics the shape of the hairs on this powerful but stunningly beautiful animal. The contrast in colours – white, brown, black, orange and green – in the painting should take your eye up, down and across the painting to appreciate its visual beauty. This was a most remarkable exhibition and if you ever get to see a Keith Brockie art show, grab the opportunity with both hands. A huge round of applause to Waterston House for acquiring this enchanting display of wildlife art.

Brown Hare by Keith Brockie

Spott Burn, the ford and nearby Brock Wood on a soggy New Year’s Day 2023

January 20, 2023

I have featured the walk up to Spott House a few times on the blog e.g. here. On New Year’s Day, we went to do the same walk but the gates were (unusually) locked, so we walked through the village of Spott (good photos) and on past the older houses. We then came to what is known as the Witches’ Stone Photo below). Some local historians repeated the story that the stone was erected in memory of Marion Lillie, a witch who had been burned at the stake in the early 1700s. However, this was refuted by a researcher studying the local Spott Kirk (good photos) records, who noted that Lillie had been interred in Spott Kirk (Scots for church) in 1705 and buried in the kirk graveyard. Although Lillie was accused of being a witch, she could not have been buried in the graveyard, as women found guilty of being a witch could not be buried. The early 1700s was a time of fear for many women and you can read about the witch trials, with women often found guilty on flimsy evidence, here. A new sign at the stone was placed there a few years ago and the stone is now seen as a memorial to the women who died unjustly.

Witches Stone at Spott. Photo by Hlz Wlz (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the bottom of the hill, past the stone, you turn right and down another hill until you come to a ford, through which flows the Spott Burn (Scots for stream or small river). This is normally a gentle flow of water and you can drive your car safely thorough it with impunity. On the day of our walk, there had been recent heavy rain and the normally calm water appeared to be either in a boiling rage or in throes of an ecstatic experience, as it hurtled under the footbridge, carrying on its journey eastwards to the sea. The photo below shows the view looking eastwards, up the road to the village. You can see from the marker denominating the height of the water that it is 6 inches, which is high, as normally the water from the burn does not go beyond the edge of the burn on the left. The photo also shows the sturdy trunks of the many-limbed tree and the branches reaching down to the water. In the field beyond, the green shoots of what will later be a wheat or barley field are now emerging. When the sun catches the sun catches such a field at this time of year, it enhances the greenness of the crop. To the left of the photo you can see the buildings of Spott Farm.

The ford at the Spott Burn

The map below shows the exact location of the ford, down the narrow road from the Witches’ Stone. The F B opposite Ford stands for footbridge. The road going up from the ford is locally known as Daniel’s Brae (brae is Scots for hill) but on the map is Daniel’s Side Brae. I could not find the origin of the word Daniel in this name. The map also shows Brock Wood of which more below. Opposite Brock Wood is Spott Dod and the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines one meaning of dod as “A bare hill with a rounded top” and this word is also used in the English language. Spott Dod is the site of an old hillfort according to this Canmore site indicates that this was originally “the remains of an Iron Age enclosure, in which the defences were predominantly of timber” and was a functioning fort about 2,900 years ago. If you followed the high road from Spott village, you come to another dod Deuchrie Dod (good photo).

Spott and district map from https://canmore.org.uk/site/search/result?NUMLINK=73230&view=map

I took this video standing on the west side of the ford.

Near the end of the video, you get a view of Brock Wood and we walked through part of the wood, which is separated by Daniel’s Brae. Brock Wood (good photos) is a nature reserve and also popular with walkers with an ornithological inclination. This site states that on the last visit to the site (10 photos) , wildlife included “Dippers, nuthatches, lots of woodpigeons, tits, screeching birds of prey, possibly a jay. Ripe raspberries, blackberries, elderberries”. The Scottish Wildlife Trust site describes the wood thus “Brock Wood, located 3 miles south of Dunbar, is a mixed woodland. Non-native trees, which were originally planted for timber, are gradually being removed to encourage the regrowth of the native alder, ash and oak”. The photo below is near the entrance on Daniel’s Brae and is taken when the greenery has returned to the trees and the winter leaves on the ground have been replaced by summer growth. In the Spring, I will walk through both sides of the wood and continue this story.

Photo by Tony O’Connor

Wintry swans at Seafield Pond and a frosty West Barns Bridge

January 10, 2023

One of my last walks of 2022 was to nearby Belhaven. I parked the car opposite the Surf School (good photos) and walked up what is known as the Dump Road to Seafield Pond, which was originally a clay pit for the Seafield Brick and Tile Works in the 19th century. It later became Dunbar’s refuse site, thus the name Dump Road. The wall separating the sea from the path to the pond is known as the Divvy Dyke and was built by David France, who established the brickworks. France was referred to by Dunbar historian James Miller as “the man who beat Canute” after building the dyke (wall). At high tide, the sea comes right up to the wall. On the day of my walk, instead of sea water, there was thick ice to be seen over the wall. The first photo below shows the frozen grass – submerged at high tide – and the ice beyond. Further out is the wide stretch of sand forming Belhaven Bay (good photos) with the Bass Rock in the distance. The second photo shows the very thick ice further along the sand and you can just see an array of birds further out. These birds – oystercatchers and redshanks – normally feed closer to the wall.

Frost and ice at Belhaven Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Ice on the shore at Belhaven Bay

My walk was in the afternoon and I managed to capture the partly frozen pond while the sun was setting in the west at about 3.30pm. I was lucky enough to have two elegant, graceful and very calm swans feeding in the pond. The photo below shows the swans, with the sun making a golden streak across the pond, the frozen and whitened reeds to the left, and more frozen solid in the ice in the foreground. It was a freezing cold, but fairly still day and the only movement at the pond was the two swans lowering their heads to feed where they had broken the ice. There is a serenity about this photo which I like, although it was not a day to stand still for long. There are numerous lines in the photo, with the grasses above the ice, the reeds standing to attention and the bare branches of the trees shown clearly by the white glow of the sun.

Ice, grasses, reeds and swans at Seafield Pond

You need have patience when taking photos of swans as, just when you think you have the perfect shot, one of them dips its head into the water. The swans were aware of my presence but treated me with insouciance, as if to say “Take your photos but don’t expect us to pose for you”. In the next photo below, you can see the ice in the foreground and, waiting a short time, I managed to capture the sun coming over the pond and the narrow strip of gold on the pond, ending beneath the feet of the swans. The ice/water below the swans has turned to pink and the sun has made reflections of the swans in the water. Just at the point of taking the photo, the further away swan lowered its head but this does not detract from the photo. Swans have a beautiful shape and look perfectly formed with their graceful necks, orange beaks and feathers neatly tucked in to produce warmth on this winter’s day. The legs and feet are perhaps less elegant but there is a fascination about swans which attracts the viewer. You can see more photos and a video of swans at Belhaven on a sunny autumnal day in a previous blog post.

Ice, swans and reflections at Seafield Pond

If you keep walking west past the pond, you come to a path which borders the Biel Burn, over which stands West Barns bridge. West Barns is a village about 2 miles/3.2k from Dunbar. The photo below shows the path and the bridge looking west, with the sun nearly set but leaving a white glow above the trees. There was a dog walker on the bridge and his reflection can be seen, as well as the bridge’s in the water. Across the bridge, the fields to the right were thick with frost and the path was very slippery, so I had to walk next to the wall on the left. So, a very picturesque scene but there was only enough time to take the photo and move on, my breath showing white in the cold air.

Frosty path and reflections at West Barns bridge

Looking east, back to the bridge (photo below), you can see that the wooden railings going on to the metal bridge are white with frost and the grass next to the path is temporarily petrified by the frost. The reflection in the water looks like an impressionist artist’s depiction of the bridge, which loses its colour in the water. I have taken my mountain bike over this bridge many times as you join a path to the right which takes you along a bumpy route to John Muir Park (good photos).

Heavy frost at West Barns bridge

In a previous blog (good photos), I referred to what a relative and a friend of mine would call the art of guddling. The Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) – a treasure trove for Scots words – defines to guddle as “To catch (fish) by groping with the hands under stones or the banks of a stream”. Another definition given is to catch trout “by tickling the underbelly with one hand, grabbing them with the other”. One reference from 1921 states “An’ oot aneth a mossy stane some muckle troot he’d guddelt” which is translated as “And out beneath a mossy stone, some huge trout he had guddled”. See here for more examples of guddling from the DSL. The photo below shows the view upstream in the burn and a favourite guddling site was just around the corner to the right, where the burn forms small pools, into which the trout would swim and rest. There are more reflections here – of the wintry trees and although there was little wind that day, some of the trees appear to waving their “arms” about in an aerobic fashion. There are more lines of sight here, from the left you see the wall, the path, the grassy verge, the burn, another verge and another wall, so the photo is well worth more than a cursory look. The walk ended with me going back along the Dump Road, into car and driving home for a warm and welcoming cup of tea.

Upstream view from West Barns bridge

That Was the Year That Was – 2022

December 31, 2022

As this is the last blogpost of 2022, I am looking back over this year’s posts and making a fairly random search to pick out some highlights.

In February, I wrote “Every year I try to go somewhere different to take photos of the snowdrops which now adorn our woods and gardens. In 2021, I posted this description of the snowdrops at Smeaton Lake. I also remind you each year of Alice Oswald’s uniquely beautiful poem The Snowdrop – read here by Andrew Motion, accompanied by some elegant and graceful photos, including a close-up one of raindrops on the flower. I have just found another site in which you can look at and listen to – “The Snowdrop: An immersive exploration of the science, folklore, and horticulture of this first sign of spring”. Produced by Cambridge University Botanic Garden (good photos), this site is well worth exploration for its information, stunning photography and The Snowdrop – with lyrics – read by Sandie Cain, the garden’s Horticultural Learning Coordinator. I make no apologies for once again quoting from Oswald’s poem “Yes, she’s no more than a drop of snow/ on a green stem…. But what a beauty, what a mighty power/ of patience kept intact is now in flower”.  The photo below gives a close-up view of a peaceful and sedate looking snowdrop community. As ever, the heads – gorgeous white bells – are bowed as the flowers maintain their private thoughts. The photo also shows the forest floor environment in which the snowdrops grow during their relatively short lives. Not only are there brown leaves from last autumn but the green, spiky, storm-blown mini-branches of the neighbouring fir trees. The sunlight adds to the aesthetics of the photo, emphasising the brilliant whiteness of the snowdrop heads.

Snowdrops in Lochend Woods (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

In May, my wife and I went to Perthshire (now Perth and Kinross) for a short break. The blog post began “We recently had a two day break in Perthshire, staying at the excellent Grandtully Hotel, of which more below. The bonnie town of Aberfeldy (good photos) is 5 miles/ 8.1k from the hotel and is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area. It has an excellent bookshop – The Watermill (good photos) – and I would heartily recommend that you also visit its café (good photos, especially the food) downstairs. The town is best known for its glorious walk, known as The Birks of Aberfeldy (good photos). Birks in Scots means birch trees although part of the walk has mostly beech. The photo below was taken on the early part of the walk and you can see the Moness Burn flowing through the stones, as well as the newly-leafed trees, with their delicate greens. The stones take on various hues as the water passes over them and, at the bottom right, the stones which sit out of the water are moss-covered, adding yet another shade of green.

Flowing water in Aberfeldy

I also included this video of the rushing water further up the hill.

In August, we paid a visit to Berwick Upon Tweed and I wrote: “We have not been back to Berwick Upon Tweed (good photos) since 2019 – see this blog post. We walked along the promenade at Spittal Beach which is a long stretch of sand close to the town, which is usually just referred to as Berwick. The photo below shows the southern end of Spittal promenade and the end of the beach. There is a Lowry connection here as his painting Beach Scene can be viewed on the highlighted link. The beach can be seen from the top of the cliffs in the photo below in the second photo, which shows the extent of the beach and the railway viaduct to the left. In the second photo, the tide is further out. On the day of our visit this year, there were many families on the beach and quite a number of adults and children swimming in the water. On occasion, you heard the scream of a child as s/he first entered the cold water with feet warmed by the summer sun.

Spittal Beach
View across Spittal Beach to Berwick

In October, my wife and I went on a short holiday to Porto and one of the main highlights was the visit to the  Palacio da Bolsa (good photos). I wrote “The last room you visit is the one worth waiting for. This site (good photos) tells us that “The pièce de résistance of the Palácio da Bolsa is the Salão Árabe (Arab Hall) by architect Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves de Sousa, who was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain”. The hall was restored again in 2009-2010. The style is faux Arabian and you can see in the photo below how the designer completely embraced the Moorish forms on the walls, the pillars and the ceiling. Note also the highly decorated pillars, with a different design at each stage going from the floor upwards. The floor is also very impressive and the site above adds “As in the rest of the building, here too, the floor is made from the finest woods such as mahogany, rosewood, satinwood, rosewood and maple”.

The Arab Hall in the Palacio da Bolsa

I took this video when in this magnificent and unique room.

So that was 2022. We had a bleak start to the year as Covid restrictions were still place and mask wearing was compulsory inside buildings, but there was a gradual improvement, especially during the longish, hot (for us) summer. As I write, we are 9 days beyond the shortest day of the year and already, there is more daylight. It only remains for me to wish you all A Guid New Year and thank you for reading this blog. May 2023 bring you good health, prosperity, love, luck and laughter.

Warkworth in winter re-visit and frost hits the churchyard and the sprouts

December 20, 2022

Checking the blog, I realised that we stayed in Warkworth in 2013 and that was in July. This visit – overnight only – with relatives was in the depth of the very cold spell we have been having for the past two weeks. The temperature was below freezing on the day we arrived and never went above until we arrived back in Dunbar the next day. On the positive side, we have very warm winter clothes and it was a gloriously sunny day, with a big Australian sky above us. We went for a walk around the historic Warkworth Castle (many photos) but had to be careful of icy patches on the pathway. The castle dates back to the 12th century and was the stronghold of the powerful Percy family from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Percys owned most of the land in the north of England at this time. To the right of the photo, you can see the Great Tower, described as being “in the shape of a Greek cross, with four polygonal wings radiating from a central block, above which rises a viewing tower”. In the photo, you can also see the motte and bailey, along with the drawbridge and the portcullis. This castle was built to impress and to withstand attack or siege. It is still a formidable looking building which dominates the landscape around the village and beyond – exactly as the Percys would have wished.

Warkworth Castle in Northumberland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Beside the castle, the River Coquet provides a quiet and peaceful environment and a good walk. As it was a beautiful day, the reflections on the river were very photogenic. Perhaps the -3 degrees temperature enhanced the quality. In the photo below, you can see the multiple reflections of the stones, the tree trunks, the greenery of the evergreens, the pampas grasses on the right and the patches of blue sky. The river appears so still that it could be a mirror. I also like the shadows on the right which are also reflected.

Reflections on the River Coquet, Warkworth

Further along the river’s edge, on which stood very tame ducks as we passed, you come to the medieval bridge (good photos) and the site above notes that “John Cook of Newcastle, who died in 1379, left the sum of 20 marks towards the building of a new bridge at Warkworth, on the condition it was built within two years”. Approaching the bridge, we got another excellent display of reflections (photo below) of the trees but also the bridge itself. We were hoping to cross the bridge but it was so icy past the defensive tower (good photo) that we had to turn back.

The 14th century bridge in Warkworth

On the following day, it was still below zero at home and there had been a hard frost and a light covering of snow overnight. The roads were clear, so I drove up to the nearby Spott Kirk (good photos) to capture it on a freezing but still crystal clear day. The first photo below is taken from the entrance to the church and shows the gravestones – some dating back 200 years – amongst the ice. There are shadows in this photo as in the previous ones and you can just see the shadow of a nearby tree on the roof and the bell-tower. The trees on the right are mostly bare, with some greenery on the top of the more distant trees. The other green on show is the ivy climbing up the trees and the bushes just above the old stone wall. The second photo is taken down the steps from the left of the entrance and shows more shadows on the bell tower, more gravestones and looks towards the more modern section of the graveyard behind the church. Beyond the kirk on the left, you can see the fields stretching over towards Wester Broomhouse (good photo) farm in the distance.

Spott Kirk with snow and ice
Spott Kirk and beyond

On my way home, I stopped at a field of sprouts near the former Easter Broomhouse (good photo) farm. This is a huge field, stretching into the distance, with the sprouts standing to attention in rows like the soldiers of the famous Terracotta Army (good photos and video). Going in closer, I could see the well developed sprouts, clinging to their stalks like mussels on a rope. The first photo below shows the sprout plant, now with drooping, yellowing and purpling leaves, with its family of young sprouts gathered on the stalk, ready for the harvest. Some of the leaves have fallen off and lie frozen on the ground, covered with ice. The sun is shining directly on the plant and this gives us a variety of greens and yellows as well as the white veins, like river tributaries, on the big leaves. The second photo shows the serried ranks of the sprout army stretching into distance, with the Lammermuir hills beyond. You can see the redeveloped farm buildings – now houses and cottages – of Easter Broomhouse on the right. Unlike many people, I am not a fan of sprouts, whether steamed or roasted as I find the taste too strong, unlike cabbage, which I love.

Sprouts and frost at Easter Broomhouse

Autumn comes to East Lothian

November 5, 2022

We are now into November and this week, I have been planting a variety of Spring bulbs into the pots, now devoid of their resplendent summer flowers. Autumn is here and we are into the 3rd month of this season already. The clocks have gone back an hour and it is dark at 5pm. The photo below shows a beautifully dark maple tree in the gardens at Spott House, on our walk and often featured here on the blog. In Clive James poem Japanese Maple, he writes “My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new./ Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame”. James sensed that he was nearing the end of his life and he added, poignantly “What I must do/ Is live to see that”. In the photo, the maple tree stands out, even if it is in shadow, against the greenery of the grass and nearby trees, the pale sandstone of the house, and the blue of the pond, the sea and the sky beyond. The shadow at the bottom left is cast by a nearby building which has a brewery-like chimney pot on its roof.

Spott House in the sunshine and shadows (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Walking back from the house, we pass one of the driveways up to the house itself. The photo below shows the leaf-laden driveway, with many more leaves to come. In Emily Emily Brontë’s poem Fall, Leaves, Fall, she writes “Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;/ Lengthen night and shorten day;/ Every leaf speaks bliss to me/ Fluttering from the autumn tree”. In this photo, there is certainly a kind of bliss, with the yellowing leaves on the ground, the evergreen bushes to the left and right and the trees, some of which are deciduous, in the sunshine beyond the path. There was little wind on the day, so there was a calmness about this scene, which can be wild, windy and noisy on some autumn afternoons.

The side driveway up to Spott House

Walking back down the driveway, the view is one which can be appreciated at all times of the year. The trees on both sides of this avenue still have their leaves but those they retain are changing colour, from green to yellow or russet. While the trees change shape and colour throughout the year, the view in the distance, to North Berwick Law (good photos) is constant. The brown fields you see below The Law ( as it is known locally) have recently been ploughed but will soon turn to a brilliant green (on sunny days) as the Spring wheat emerges. This was late afternoon, so a perfect time to catch the multiple shadows which stretch across the roadway from one grass verge to the other, with patches of white sunlight seemingly randomly scattered amongst them. This is one of these vistas that, no matter how often you see it, you have to stop walking and just take in the beauty of it.

Another autumnal scenario can be found at the Knowes Farm Bridge, also featured more than once on the blog e.g. here. The recent rain has greatly increased the flow of water in the River Tyne at the bridge and the water was hurriedly hastening onwards towards, eventually, the sea. The photo below shows the river from the side with the fading grasses and young trees. This is a crossing but a dangerous one on a day like this and you can see the exit point in the left middle of the photo. Once across the bridge – to the right of the photo – you can walk behind the trees on the far bank and follow the river on an often muddy track all the way to Preston Mill (good photos). The water is calm to the left and then hits some rocks to form a rushing, white-water gallop, before settling down again as it goes under the bridge.

Looking from the bridge – photo below – at this time of year, you see the river below through the berried branches of the hawthorn tree. To the left of the river, there are fields where the spring wheat is just emerging and bringing a new, startlingly bright green and signs of new growth in this season of decay. John Clare delighted in this time of year in his poem Autumn – “I love the fitfull gusts that shakes/ The casement all the day/ And from the mossy elm tree takes/ The faded leaf away/ Twirling it by the window-pane/ With thousand others down the lane”. No gusts on this day but there are times when a gale blows and you have to hang on to the side of the bridge to keep upright.

River Tyne and autumnal berries

I took this video of the river, so look and listen and enjoy the energetic but peaceful sound the water – no commentary needed.

One of the late blooming bushes to be seen up the country lane from the bridge is the holly. The photo below shows the prolific amount of berries on this bush, which forms part of the hedgerow at the side of the fields to your left and right as you walk up the lane to the road leading to East Linton (good photos) to your left and Tyninghame (good photos) to your right. The holly is usually associated with winter but autumn brings vibrant displays like this, but only on some bushes. Further down the lane there is a large holly bush, but it remains a thorny green, deprived of solid red berries. So, if you look around on your autumnal walk, you see the last of the leaves falling and dying – but later feeding the ground as they rot, but also the recent growth in the fields and on the holly bush. It may be colder now but, in some ways, autumn is the season of colour, perhaps in a more subtle manner than the gaudy summer, but no less beautiful.

Holly bush near the Knowes Farm

Harvest time in East Lothian and this year’s gladioli

September 16, 2022

This year, probably due to climate change or, as The Guardian puts it “the climate crisis”, the harvest was very early here in East Lothian, which is known as the “breadbasket of Scotland” (good photo). Unusually, fields of barley and wheat were being harvested in mid-August and this was due to the prolonged period of very warm weather (for Scotland!) and very dry conditions. This was good news for farmers who did not have to fret about rain causing delays to harvesting or having to use expensive driers on the grain. No combine harvesters on the blog this year, but last year’s blog had two videos – see here. Out on my bike recently, I stopped to take photos and a video of a field near the village of Stenton (good photos). The photo below shows the bales scattered across two fields, with the adjoining field on the right. At the top of the photo, you can see some farm buildings and at the bottom, the grasses in the headrig. Farmers are paid to leave the headrig – Scots for the edge of the field – to grow wild to encourage wildlife. I like the scattered nature of the bales being randomly spread across the field. They could have been dropped by a plane instead of being “birthed” by the baler. I cycled past this field today and all the bales have gone. Farmers are business people but not necessarily aesthetes. 

Bales in a field near Stenton (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I took a close up of a bale in the field – see photo below. The bale is an uncountable series of circles with the straw forced into shape, but with the surface full of individual pieces of hay which have escaped the seemingly enforced regularity imposed by the machine. In days gone by, before mechanisation of harvesting, many people were needed to gather the straw into stooks and you can see a good photo of a field of stooks here. Looking at the bale again, you can imagine this being shown in a modern art exhibition, with an accompanying panel stating that the artist’s intention was to show the solidity of the earth but that, if enough environmental action was not taken soon, the whole of the earth’s structure could unravel.

Tightly packed bale

I took the video below when I was at the field. It was a very windy day, so I put the commentary on later. You can see the wind in the film but not hear it. It is pretty impossible to talk over a wind as strong as this, because of the gusty nature of the wind which obscures part of your commentary intermittently. Bales in fields are a timeless but inspiring sight and I always look forward to seeing them, albeit in the knowledge that autumn may be just around the corner.

Because of our long, dry summer, my annual show of gladioli has been much appreciated by neighbours and passing walkers looking up to the back of the house from the promenade. We had some unseasonable heat in August with record temperatures for Dunbar. This is shown in the video below. The heat meant that the gladioli flowered early and produced beautiful displays but they only lasted for perhaps two or three days before wilting. In the video, you can see one of the yellow gladioli with its emergent flowers, which bloomed ecstatically but did not last.

I took the photo below of the yellow gladiolus in the film a day after it was in full bloom and you can see how it had already suffered from the heat. The flower has retained its beauty in terms of colour, shape and patterns but it has prematurely aged.

Wilting gladiolus

The two photos below show an artistic touch with the gladioli. The first photo resulted in an (on my part) unintentional but quite startling surreal appearance. This could perhaps pass for a Salvador Dali mask, with the two raindrops looking like eyes and part of the stamen forming the nose, plus the eerily green aperture which could be a mouth. I could not see this image when I took the photo. On the top left of the photo, there appears to be another head-like structure but this time with a Pinocchio nose. The bottom part of the flower looks like it could be part of a silk and very flamboyant wedding dress.

Gladiolus after the rain

The second photo was more intentional on my part. This gladiolus had fallen over in the front garden in a strong wind, so it was put in a vase in the kitchen. I took the photo in the very late evening – after 11pm – as the shadows appeared when the light was switched on. This is a graceful and elegant flower, with its gorgeous orange colour and its trumpets standing firm, apart from the one at the bottom right which has had its day in the limelight and has dropped. The shadows are energetic dancers, frozen by the photo. There are, in mid-September, some gladioli in the garden which are still to come into bloom, while others are partially out or ready to be dead-headed. Another wonderful year of horticultural delight provided by these flowers and stems, which remarkably grow from a small bulb.

Gladiolus and shadows on the kitchen wall

Pease Bay walk and Grahame Green’s Brighton Rock

September 5, 2022

It is well over two years since we last visited Pease Bay (good photos) which is 9 miles along the coast going south from Dunbar. As it was very busy Sunday afternoon, we had to park on the hill overlooking the holiday park. We walked along the wide stretch of beach in front of the array of mobile homes. The tide was far out and there were a couple of hopeful surfers near the shore, but that day the sea was flat calm. This is a very popular surfing area and you can see from these photos that when the surf is high, the surfers, body boarders and canoeists flock to this spot. This photo shows the beach we walked along when the tide is in. When the tide is out, you can walk past the rocks on to another big beach – a USA visitor we took here many years ago said we could be in California – which ends with the layered cliff in the photo below. As you cast your eye across the cliff face, you see the very attractive sandstone rock shining in pink. Many of the houses in Dunbar, including our previous house, which you can see with the red door on this Google street map , were built with this type of sandstone which was sources from local quarries.

Cliff at Pease Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Walking back to the first beach, I could see that, since we last visited, there had been some coastal erosion – see photo below. In some ways, this is what might be seen as a superb piece of natural sculpture, with the huge rocks seemingly carved out of the hillside and placed in a structured group to provide a visual delight to the eye. These massive boulders look as if they might have been hewn out of the rockface to provide solid material to build a castle or even a pyramid. The truth of course is less attractive, in that climate change is producing more extreme weather e.g. Storm Arwen (video) last November, and rising seas and stronger winds leave coasts such as that at Pease Bay exposed and vulnerable. There has been coastal erosion for millennia but the rate of erosion has increased rapidly in recent years. The rocks remain, even in their fallen state, very attractive to look at, with their multiplicity of patterns and subtle shades of yellow and grey.

Coastal erosion at Pease Bay

Just around the corner from these rocks, you come to a small cave with the most stunning and colourful strata that you will find anywhere. The photo below – enlarge for best effect – shows this graceful and elegant display of colours, lines and streaks of what look like daubs of paint. I am always reminded of Aboriginal paintings when I see these rocks and I feel that a native artist from outback Australia could add dots and curves to these rocks and produce an incredible work of art, like the one here by Clementine Ecila. On a more prosaic note, the bottom half resembles a slice of layered cake, with a strawberry filling. The more you look at this picture, the more patterns you see.

Strata at Pease Bay

Adjoining the above strata, was another piece of natural art, this time resembling a surrealist painting more than anything else. The rock looks less formally stratified and green algae/seaweed has started to form on the curved rock, with a plethora of shapes e.g. the long dinosaur-looking head and body near the centre of the photo. The white surrounding the pink shapes highlight this seemingly random array of mythical creatures depicted here, not by a human but by the effects of sea and wind. In the bottom half of the picture, you can see what looked like to me an elongated shark, showing off off its vicious, flesh tearing teeth to foe and prey alike. This petrified creature is lying on the sand and I felt that it would well swim away when the tide came in and covered the pock-marked sand. The cliché about nature being wonderful certainly applies here.

Fascinating rocks at Pease Bay

I picked up a copy of Grahame Greene‘s novel Brighton Rock (review) in a second hand bookshop, neatly called The Reading Room, in Haddington, the next town west of Dunbar. The book was published in 1938 and there are certain passages which would not be seen as acceptable today but were not subject to the editor’s red pen in the pre-WW2 era. It has a dramatic beginning “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”, so we are set for a crime novel but this book is much more than a plot, which does contain murders, as we are introduced to a range of characters, firstly from Brighton’s gang world and then a woman who is determined, sometimes comically, to find out who murdered Hale, and why they did it. Greene’s main character is Pinkie, a 17 year old who has taken over one of Brighton’s minor gangs but has high ambitions for himself. Greene does not say so explicitly but the reader immediately feels that The Boy – as he is called early in the novel – is out of his depth.

The book often refers to the Catholic faith and Pinkie is ridden with guilt about his crime and also fears having his first sexual experience. Pinkie’s angst is contrasted with the devil-may-care attitude of Ida Arnold, the last person Hale was with, who doggedly follows leads in the case, while enjoying drinks in the local pubs. There is a dramatic ending but not overly dramatic as Greene builds up tension with Pinkie and Rose, whom he has married so she cannot testify against him, driving into the countryside with a gun in the car. This is a very tense novel but one which will keep you by turns intrigued and amused. Greene is a master storyteller and I urge you to read this book.

Grahame Green’s intriguing book

St Abbs Head walk and ploughing tractor

August 14, 2022

Checking my blog posts, I noted that the last time we did the full walk (good photos) at St Abbs Head was a few years ago, although we have done shorter walks since then (e.g. this blog post). The circular walk, which we did from west to east this time, is 4 miles (6.25K) long and includes some steepish climbs. We walked past a flock of sheep being herded into a pen, we thought for shearing, then over the first hill to where there are fecund fields of barley and wheat at this time of year. Down a second hill, you come to Pettico Wick Bay (good photo) where you see the first of the many cliffs around this area. The photo below shows the bay and the fascinating rock formations which appear to slope down and up at various angles, engraved with solid lines. I have always been puzzled by the name Pettico Wick and it turns out that I am not alone, as the expert Berwickshire Place-Name Resource states “This name is a puzzle”. It refutes the definition provided by the Ordnance Survey Name Book, but suggests that the Scots word wick “an inlet of the sea, a small bay” may be relevant here. The suggested origins of Pettico are discussed but without a definite conclusion, with name being described as “even more puzzling”. The white ledges along the cliffs are former nesting sites of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, but by the time of our visit, most of the birds had gone. Looking at the cliffs, you get a sense of the powerful forces that shaped this landscape.

Pettico Wick at St Abbs Head (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Up from the bay is a stiff climb which has a steep rockface on your left and on your right, you look down to the Mire Loch (good photo). The walk flattens out and the road takes you along to the lighthouse and the keeper’s cottage. To your left are some vertiginous rockfaces which house thousands of seabirds in May and June and you can see examples of these in this NTS video. The lighthouse is shown in the photo below and this is a superb view of these artefacts which were so vital to passing shipping before the arrival of modern maritime technology. The lighthouse was built in 1862 by David and Thomas Stevenson and the NLB site notes “The oil burning light was first exhibited on 24 February 1862. The light was converted to incandescent in 1906 and to electric operation in 1966”. Also in the photo is what the site refers to as “A Siren Fog Signal” ( a new term for a foghorn to me) and this “was established at the lighthouse in 1876, being driven by hot air engines. These engines were replaced by oil driven ones in 1911 and by diesel engines in December 1955”. I like the variety of colours in this photo – the yellow, black and white of the lighthouse, the prominent red of the foghorn, the blues in the sea and sky, and the brown and green of the rockface. At the bottom right of the photo, you can just see a nesting site for a range of seabirds. The St Abbs Lighthouse looks small because of its elevated position but its light was as strong as any other in Scotland. The Siren Fog Signal was the first of its kind in Scotland.

Lighthouse at St Abbs

As you make your way along the paths to the end of the walk, you pass many little coves, a small beach with jagged rocks just offshore, and a divers’ boat sped past as we looked out. Near the end of the walk, at the top of another steep climb, you look across another bay to the village of St Abbs Head. The photo below captures the view of the sea, the rocky shore, the village itself, with the harbour to the bottom left, and the cliffs beyond. There is a 6K walk (good photos) along these cliffs to the fishing town of Eyemouth (good photos). Above the town, the countryside stretches languidly out and beyond, a mixture of arable crops on fertile soil and sheep grazing areas on rougher ground. Just above the rockface, in the foreground of the photo (best enlarged), you can see Northfield House (detailed description) built by the brewing giants the Usher family between 1888 and 1892.

St Abbs Head and its rocky shore

From the end of the walk, we went down to the harbourside in St Abbs for our picnic lunch. On the way there we took the high road route and this gives you a good view looking down to the harbour (aerial photo). My own photo below shows the busy scene. The red roofed building at the bottom right is St Ebbcarrs Café (good photos) which serves teas and coffees, but also delicious cullen skink (soup) and rough mackerel paté. To the left of the café, on the harbourside, is the now independent St Abbs Head Lifeboat shed and slipway. The narrow entrance to the harbour is opposite the slip way and is hidden by the harbour walls. We could see a number of boats carrying divers coming into and leaving the harbour. The sea here is very clear and popular with people doing scuba diving (good underwater photos). This being summer, there is a line of small boats and sailing dinghies in the harbour, along with the larger fishing boats.

Looking down on St Abbs Head harbour

We had lunch on a bench above the harbour and enjoyed a different view of the harbour and beyond. The photo below shows the view, with the back of the café in the foreground. In the distance, you can see the whitened cliffs where the guillemots had nested and above that is near the end of our walk. On the middle left of the photo, Northfield House sits on the promontory. It is a very peaceful spot, with little traffic noise and the mewing of an occasional passing seagull may break the silence. With this view, you have the harbour, the sea, the cliffs and the farmland beyond, so an idyllic spot which is appreciated by all who pass here.

St Abbs Head harbour and beyond

Earlier on the walk, on the far side of the cliffs and before we got to Pettico Wick, I stopped to watch a tractor ploughing a field. I did not add commentary to the video below as I enjoyed the sound of the tractor’s noise increasing as it came towards me. Watch how the tractor gently turns the earth over, to the delight of the swarming seagulls behind it. Then the balletic turn of the tractor at the top, with the shiny limbs of the plough raised and then lowered in anticipation of the next run down the green side of the field. This is a timeless scene i.e. the ploughing of the field. The technology may have changed from ploughman with 2 horses to one man in a tractor, but the overturning of the pliant sod remains the same.

So another extremely enjoyable walk at St Abbs on a fine day and lunch with what many would see as an enviable view.

SOC print exhibition and Carry Akroyd’s book “Found in the Fields”

July 6, 2022

The current exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) is in two parts. Firstly Nature, Prints and Poetry (good photos) which is “A small exhibition in the corridor, organised with the support of the Society of Wood Engravers, presents wood engravings by 13 artists, alongside the poems that inspired them”. The larger exhibition, in the main part of the gallery, is Birds, Botany and John Clare (good photos) by Carry Akroyd (examples of her work). I received permission from SOC for my photos from the first exhibition and from Carry Akroyd to scan and reproduce prints from her book.

I chose two prints from the smaller exhibition – they were all of a very high standard. The print below – much clearer in the exhibition – is by Ray Hedger and is his interpretation of Laurie Lee’s poem April Rise (video reading). The poem’s lines include “While white as water by the lake a girl/ Swims her green hand among the gathered swans”. Hedger’s woodcut shows the girl swimming between the two elegant and graceful swans, with her long hair stretching down into the water, like the smooth back of the swan below her. Above, the other swan is putting on a display for the girl, with the trees at the lakeside spread out like fans. The poem also includes “Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod/ Splutters with soapy green”, demonstrating Lee’s powerful images.

April Rise engraving by Ray Hedger, with poem by Laurie Lee (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The second wood engraving which caught my eye was The Gray Wagtail by Jim Dunbar (good photos). It appears that the artist has got his spelling wrong as the RSPB calls it a Grey Wagtail. The photo below – taken through glass – shows the sharp edges of the bird’s beak, tail and feet and how the artist has captured the bird’s attentive look forward. The black and white portrayal of the wagtail is enhanced by the white around its eye and the stripes on its rear feathers and tail. This loch-side scene, with the bird standing on a rock with the rippling water behind, the overturned boat outside the shed and the trees, perhaps waving in the wind, gives a feeling of being in the countryside somewhere. The wood engraving is based on the poem by Norman MacCaig and poet also calls it a gray wagtail. The poem captures the movement and the spirit of the grey wagtail. If you see one, it is in constant motion with its head going up and down as it flits from place to place. MacCaig writes “You dip and dip and go on dipping/ your tail,/ then shuttlecock up (death of a fly)/ and parachute down again/ on to your watery stone”.

Gray Wagtail by Jim Dunbar

The wood engravings in the first section of the exhibition are very small, but no less effective for that. As you walk into the main exhibition, you move into a different world, of large, dynamic and colourful paintings by Carry Akroyd, accompanied by whole poems (or extracts from) by John Clare (short biography). Ackroyd’s book “Found in the Fields” is on sale at the exhibition and contains her interpretation of several Clare poems, as well as work she had done over the years. The exhibition is on the Clare poems and these are included in the book, in which each page is not far short of A4 size in width and longer than A4 in height. Thus the reader sees the paintings, monoprints and mixed media works in a fairly large size. At £29.95 it is an absolute bargain, given the quality and quantity of its contents and the high production values from Swallowtail Print.

The first example from the book – see below – is entitled Swifts and the accompanying lines are from Clare’s book Northborough Sonnets. The lines of the poem include “The develing black as coal comes out at night/ & flyes above the village out of sight”. The “black as coal” is an apt description of the swifts which dart unceasingly and you can hear their cries as they speed past you. Carry Akroyd’s lithograph captures the essence of the swifts, both visually and in words “never seem to settle”. The winding river catches your eye, with the swans gliding at the bottom and you follow it through a myriad of fields to the top, as the elegant swifts pass by.

Swifts – hand-drawn lithograph by Carry Akroyd

The second lithograph – photo below – by this artist is entitled Startled and is inspired by John Clare’s poem long poem Autumn. The section relating to the hare, quoted in the book, reads “See! from the rustling scythe the haunted hare/ Scampers circuitous, with startled ears/ Prickt up, then squat, as bye/ She brushes to the woods,/ Where reeded grass, breast-high and undisturbed,/ Forms pleasant clumps, through which the soothing winds/ Soften her rigid fears,/ And lull to calm repose”. Clare’s imagery of the “rustling scythe” and how the hare “scampers circuitous” into the woods makes the poem come alive, as we can imagine the hare desperately escaping the scythe. In the print, we can see how Carry Akroyd has managed to incorporate the motion of the hare running to the woods, with its ears “prickt up” and its determined eye, as it seeks the refuge of the woods. Clare writes “These haunts I have long favoured..” and you can see how the poet would be at home in the countryside portrayed here.

Startled – hand-drawn lithograph by Carry Akroyd

The final example from the book – photo below – features two oil on canvas paintings on page 74. These two works are inspired by John Clare’s poem “Wood pictures in summer” which begins “The one delicious green that now pervades/ The woods and fields in endless lights and shades/ And that deep softness of delicious hues”. Carry Akroyd’s painting includes many “delicious greens” in the rolling countryside on view, but she also incorporates “delicious hues” of blues and yellows in the multiplicity of fields on show. In the nineteenth century, in Clare’s time, fields such as these would have been much smaller than they are today, as there were no tractors to plough or to reap. A view such as this today would be of large fields, maybe the size of four of five of the painting’s fields, with fewer hedgerows and trees. Also, you can imagine Clare wandering through the country lanes as he sought to ease his often-troubled mind.

Green Season and Lane through Green Fields by Carry Akroyd

The photos and scanned pages above do not do full justice to the work of the artists on show at SOC or to the clarity of the prints and paintings in Carry Akroyd’s splendid book. Enlarging the photos will give a much better impression. The exhibition runs until the end of July, so visit it if. you can and buy the book while you are there.