Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Preston Mill and Guardian Country Diary

May 13, 2020

Preston Mill is a National Trust for Scotland property and a 6 mile/10K cycle from Dunbar. We passed there recently on a circular walk around the village of East Linton (good photos). It is thought that there has been some kind of mill here since the 12th century but the present mill is the one restored in 1760. The John Gray Centre refers to the Historic Environment Record for the mill – “Preston Mill is a plain rectangular building of mortared masonry with a pantiled roof. The mill has been driven by an undershot wheel”. What is perhaps more interesting on first view, is the kiln (Photo below), with its unusual conical roof at the top of the pantiles. This kind of structure is more common in Holland.

Preston Mill kiln (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

As you walk around the building, to the right of the picture above is a large pond and this feeds water via a sluice gate to the mill. The photo below shows that on the day we visited, there was a serene stillness about the pond and this provided us with some exquisite reflections of the trees to the right and in particular, the long, thin tree which looks more graceful in the water than it does on land. The reeds in the pond were unmoving next to the cloud reflections in the water. It made you stop and look more carefully at the pond.

Pond next to Preston Mill

The mill itself is on the north side of the building and the operation was driven by the large wheel on the outside. The photo below shows this impressive and powerful wheel from the side view. The water is blocked off from the wheel at present – the site is closed to visitors due to the pandemic – but you can see the channel next to the wheel, where the water is rushing headlong towards the calmer stream beyond. So it is not difficult to imagine the wheel in operation, driving the internal millstones to crush the grain and make flour. My thoughts looking at the wheel were that you would be impressed not just by the water driving the wheel furiously round, but also by the noise which must have been thunderous.

Preston Mill water wheel

When you go round the corner to face the wheel, you get a greater sense of its power, as this is a magnificent piece of engineering, with its solid, strong spokes and wooden, domino-like spars around the edge. I like the shadows on the wall inside the wheel in the photo below, as well as the sandstone. If you look at the bottom left, you can see that these stones have been cut smooth and are a later addition to the building, with the original, rougher stone to be seen at the top right. The mill has undergone many alterations over the centuries, the position of the mill and the kiln being moved across the site. The main changes since the eighteenth century has been the replacement of wooden machinery parts with iron replacements. The detailed recent update (good photos) of the wheel makes interesting reading.

Preston Mill water wheel

This is a fascinating site, even just to walk round, and certainly worth visiting when the mill is again open to visitors.

There is a daily column in The Guardian newspaper, which pops through my letterbox each day, in which a range of writers comment on nature in their local environment. It is called Country Diary and if there was an Olympic competition for the best writer – and thankfully, there is not – then Paul Evans (superb photos) would win it. From time to time, the Country Diary chimes with what is happening outside our front door and Evans’ latest diary entry is partly about aquilegia which is in flower in our garden at the moment. As Evans points out, this plant, with the unfortunate scientific name of aquilegia vulgaris, “Because of its bird-like petals, it is called aquilegia, after aquila (eagle), or columbine, after columba (dove). Violence and peace, a yin-yang flower holding opposing forces in nature” – an elegantly phrased description. Evans also notes that in some part of the country, it is known as granny’s bonnet and aquilegia is “a blue, purple, sometimes white, wildflower of woods, fens and damp grassland on calcareous soils, and a classic cottage garden plant”.

The photo below shows one of our four aquilegia plants now in flower. The sun was catching some of the flowers and so was the wind, thus the appearance of these flower heads appearing to dance or sway. Each individual flower head seems to act on its own, as no two of them are facing in exactly the same direction. This is a wonderful sight, as the flowers emerge from an uninteresting looking plant, which seems to sprout stems overnight and then the flowers appear to brighten up the day.

Aquilegia flowers

Evans continues “The wildflowers, culinary and medicinal herbs, together with ornamental exotics, created a gardening where nature is drawn into culture and culture leaks into nature.” Thus the aquilegia/columbine which began as wild flowers were introduced to gardens as Evans eruditely explains. At the beginning of the article, there is a superb photo of the orange tip butterfly (good photos) feeding on the granny’s bonnet. I have not seen any butterflies as yet on our flowers but it may still be too cold for them in the south east of Scotland at this time of year. The photo below shows how the flower cleverly presents itself to bees and butterflies, with its protruding pistils and stamens. I like the way the photo has captured the shadow of these protuberances, as well as the graceful veining of the petals.

Columbine close-up

The final photo shows one of the aquilegia which has flowers, but they are not yet fully open. This is probably because this plant lies underneath a row of hedge like shrubs and awaits the sun coming round in the afternoon at this time of year. The once dull greenery at the bottom is greatly enhanced by the flowers and the dappled sunlight coming through and this produces a beautiful pattern of light and shade on the leaves.

Emerging aquilegia flowers under the shrubs

I am sure that if you walked along one of the paths near Preston Mill, you would find wild aquilegia flowering quietly and you might pass it and not notice it. The next time I am there, I will look more carefully.

The Wall by John Lanchester and this year’s bluebells

May 6, 2020

I bought a copy of John Lanchester’s novel The Wall (review) before the lock down started, not anticipating that it might have relevance – potentially of course – today. It is a dystopian novel, set in a future where The Change – an undefined environmental global catastrophe – has transformed the UK into a totalitarian state which has built a wall all around the coast of the mainland. The wall is meant to keep out The Others whom we are led to believe are refugees trying to get into Britain for a better life. There are several echoes of Orwell’s 1984 here, especially the terminology e.g. some people – often refugees – are allowed to stay in Britain as The Help and those who are Defenders i.e. those who work as guards on The Wall, are given The Help as servants.

The novel’s protagonist is Kavanagh who is a young man doing his compulsory two years on The Wall. The story begins with Kavanagh’s dread of working 12 hour shifts on The Wall where it is often cold, sometimes wet and always boring. As a reader, you wonder where Lanchester is going with this tale e.g. will it be a detailed description of the post Change society? There are references to this such as the allocation of some people as Breeders but as the novel develops, it becomes more of a roller-coaster ride with refugee attacks and the consequences of this – not revealed here. It is a shortish book – the 276 pages in my copy being in fairly large print – and while it is extremely well written and continually tense and intriguing, I found myself wanting more depth to the characters and more explanations of what life was like in such as heavily controlled society. The control in the present pandemic is nothing like that of the novel but Lanchester cleverly suggests – in a very subtle way – that a country like the UK could slip into totalitarianism in a much worse situation. I would certainly recommend this book highly.

Dystopian novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Another visit to Foxlake woods to see this year’s crop of bluebells. Depending on what time of day you visit and whether the sun is shining through the trees or not, you always see something different. The photo below shows the sign for the bluebells. It’s an interesting sign in that it uses the Scots word mind, not meaning to remember but meaning to watch out for or to be careful with. In the background are some scattered bluebells and the large, solid trunk of the tree.

Advisory sign to walkers at Foxlake Woods

The maturing of the bluebell flower heads coincides with the appearance of the new green leaves on the trees, so you get double the pleasure when you walk along the path. So the scene in the photo below has gone from an uninteresting bed of green – bluebells without their bells – and bare, sometimes forlorn looking trees, to a visual delight with the purple of the bluebells and the delicate greenery in the tress, particularly the saplings on view here. Although it is early May and only 12 degrees, there is a warmth about what you are looking at and it is also a very cheering sight.

Carpet of bluebells

The next photo shows the canopy of tree branches that soar above the path as you look along the woods. On the left, you an see the still bare branches, extending like grotesquely overgrown fingernails, of some of the trees. The new greenery may block out the sun more but it is a very welcome splash of colour, giving the trees back their graceful elegance which they lost in the autumn. It is tempting, when looking at the bluebells, which you know are going to be temporary, to forget to look up to the fresh green leaves. You should always do so as this gentle green on the leaves is also temporary.

Canopy of green at Foxlake Woods

Close up, you can see how the flowers got their name and these bells below look as if they may be ringing, with some invisible ropes making them sway and peal. I like the way the sun on the flower heads changes the colour, depending on the angle of the light hitting the bluebells. Also, in the photo, you can just see that inside each bell are yellow stamen which attract the bees. There is a playful look to these bells, with their upturned ends suggesting dancing.

Hanging bells

I took this video on my Android Lenovo mobile phone so the quality is not as great as with say, an IPhone (which I am continuously told to get) but it still captures this glorious display of colour.

Bluebells at Foxlake – with commentary

The Hoot and SPLIT: Poems by Juana Adcock

April 28, 2020

Members of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) receive a seasonal online newsletter entitled The Hoot which is put together by Rosie Filipiak, the Communications Officer at SOC. The Hoot’s heading shows a different bird each season and this is the one for this Spring.

The Hoot edited by Rosie Filipiak (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On of the birds featured in this issue is the bullfinch (link includes bullfinch song) which has the wonderful scientific name of Pyrrhula Pyrrhula. Rosie Filipiak’s description is “Bullfinches are such lovely birds, both sexes with their smart, clearly defined colouring and the male with his gloriously-coloured chest in a difficult to describe bright red/pink/orange hue” and that is as good as I could do. The photo below – Rosie Filipiak gave me permission to download her photos – shows a bullfinch with perhaps some nesting material in its beak – or a captured insect? This is a very graceful looking bird which looks comfortable in its own elegance and I like the contrast between the delicate pink of the chest and the dark blue of its head. The female bullfinch (video) also has different shades on its plumage but the colours are less pronounced.

Bullfinch by Rosie Filipiak

The Hoot includes brief articles and photos by a range of authors. The second one featured here is the eider duck which has the rather serious sounding scientific name of Somateria Mollissima. The name comes from the Greek for body and wool, so the eider duck is seen as having the softest wool. The photo below shows both male and female eider duck and there are no prizes for guessing which is which. We regularly get sets of eider duck in the water at the back of our house and sometimes, when you walk along to Dunbar Harbour, there will be up to 30 male and female eiders in the harbour water. From the harbour side, you can clearly hear the clucking of the females and the whoo-whooing of the males, the latter being quite a comical sound.

Eider duck by Rosie Filipiak

Male eiders have a beautiful light green colour on their necks and this is quite visible when they swim away from you. The photo below hints at this colour but when the sun is on the bird’s neck, the green becomes lighter and more prominent.

Eider duck by Ross Elliott and produced here under the Creative Commons Licence.

The Poetry Book Society’s (PBS) Winter 2019 Choice was Juana Adcock’s debut collection Split. The Guardian reviewer found this collection “unnerving, moving and engrossing” and I would agree with that statement – in parts of the book. Adcock can be a beautifully lyrical poet. In a poem about the Italian Cinque Terre, the land describes itself as “cut into terraces my earth/ hugged together by roots my water/ inking through gaps my stones/ holding together neatly my walls/ tidy in vineyards and olive groves”. The poem – no punctutation – regrets that this pristine land has become a tourist destination in modern times. One of the themes of the book is migration and Adcock adds a very modern aspect to today’s Cinque Terre – “And as the dinghies sink/ and those fleeing from war drown/ wordlessly in my picturesque sea” the Tourist Board is examining how to increase visitor numbers – of tourists that is, not refugees.

I found some of the writing self-indulgent and was not as impressed by the opening section, which is a dialogue between a woman and a snake, although other, and I am sure much more qualified, reviewers raved over this part. The book is also overtly political in parts – and none the less effective for that. In Letters to the Global South, the richer northern hemisphere tells the South “Thank you for sending us your choicest foods/ …. In exchange, please receive these trade agreements/ you never agreed to/ These weapons for small and large-scale kills”. This is of course, a generalisation of the whole northern hemisphere but it is certainly relevant to some countries.

There is also humour in the book and Adcock, who is Mexican and has lived in Glasgow since 2007, amusingly but tellingly compares different languages – Spanish, English and Scots dialect. The poet reflects “Reading Scots on the page, to me/ a non-native of these lands/ is a bit like trying to read an architect’s plans”. The poet listens to Scottish people talking with ” their ars rolling around the muirs/ their els liltin and birlin over the water/ … their ees stretching my face bones higher/ … their liquid ues in the muine-moon” – very clever. It reminded me of living in Australia and doing timing at Wagga Wagga Road Runners, with people mimicking my accent and asking “Where’s the booook James?” as they came to sign in. So I would recommend Split – just don’t believe all the hype.

Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea and Sheila Sim’s garden photography

April 20, 2020

I have just finished reading Joseph O’Connor‘s outstanding novel Star of the Sea (review) The book was published in 2002 and there is a fascinating 2019 introduction to the book by the author. In this, O’Connor compares the starving Irish population of the village of Letterfrack (good photos) in the 1840s to people starving in Africa today. He writes “Down at the very bottom [of Irish society] were the nobodies of Connemarra: white Ethiopians of the Dickensian world”. The novel takes the form of the story of the vessel The Star of the Sea and its journey to America. On board are the poor in steerage and many of them are ill with disease or starvation. There is a first class area of the ship and this holds the wealthy passengers, among them is David Merridith, Lord Kingscourt who is intriguingly called The Victim early in the book. O’Connor cleverly has the narrator of the story being an American journalist Grantley Dixon who is also in first class.

On the face of it, this could appear to be a story of misery, violence, poverty and wealth with a range of stereotypical characters, as the ship progresses and the poorer passengers suffer and die, while the rich enjoy fine dining. O’Connor is too subtle a writer to allow this to happen. As one reviewer wrote “As with much Irish writing, there is a telling contrast between the bleakness of the materials and the opulence of the treatment”. Characters of all classes are allowed to be developed and they are all interlinked – before and during the voyage. There are also sections on London and Charles Dickens makes an appearance, with O’Connor cleverly suggesting that Dickens found the name Fagan from one of the novel’s protagonists Pius Mulvey. This is a long novel – 405 pages in small type in my paperback – but the author manages to keep the reader both interested and fascinated by the developing story. The plot goes right to the end and there are many turning points where the reader can be taken aback by certain revelations. I cannot recommend this novel too highly. I heard Joseph O’Connor speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival (alas cancelled for 2020) last year and he is a brilliant raconteur as well as an accomplished writer.

Star of the Sea – an outstanding novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Sheila Sim is a photographer who is based here in Dunbar and she has kindly allowed me to download some of her photos to feature in the blog. Sheila’s photography ranges from the UK to Russia and Portugal and she has been invited to contribute to journals such as The English Garden and Gardener’s World. There was an exhibition of her work recently at Dunbar’s John Muir’s Birthplace but this was unfortunately halted due to the closure of the birthplace under current government rules. Examples from the exhibition are available online.

The first example of Sheila Sim’s photography from this exhibition in the photo below, shows the beautiful garden at Humbie Dean and this is the work of Frank Kirwan over 7 years. The exhibition notes that he ” has almost single-handedly created an ornamental and woodland oasis out of dense thicket and challenging terrain”. The scene below will now have passed this year and the daffodil heads will be shrunk and looking forlorn. In the photo, however, the daffodils are at their prime and perhaps they are singing joyfully, their heads like open mouths, but we cannot hear the sound. There are superb contrasts in this photo, between the yellow heads and white with yellow centre heads, the different coloured green stems of the flowers and their grassy surrounds. What makes this photo stand out to me is the silver birch at the top of the slope, with its graceful, dappled trunk taking our eye towards the sky.

Humbie Dean garden by Sheila Sim

The next photo below is of the garden at Greywalls Hotel (good photos) in Gullane (pr Gullin) – c16 miles/25K up the East Lothian coast from Dunbar. This is a more formal garden which may have been designed by the famous Gertrude Jekyll. We’ve gone from the Spring in Humbie to the summer at Greywalls. The photo has captured the manicured lawn areas very well – both in the sun and in the shadows. The large bush at the forefront of the photo takes our eye up through the garden to the house, with the large tree on the left. This is a shapely garden and like the Humbie daffodils, the red flowers are reaching up to display their colour to attract the bees.

Greywalls garden by Sheila Sim

The final photo from the exhibition comes from the garden at Archerfield (good photos). This garden is attached to a cafe/shop and behind it there is a fairy trail for children. It is a very pleasant garden to walk round and this photo cleverly shows the crossroads of the paths. In the summer, there is a riot of colour amongst the flowers and the vegetable sections are sumptuous. I like the variety in this photo, with different elements on view – flowers, paths, greenhouses and of course the magnificent sandstone walls that surround the garden, as well as the huge trees looming above the walls against a blue sky.

Archerfield garden by Sheila Sim

When this pandemic is over, I hope that this exhibition – of the work of an expert photographer – can still be available for people to see in person i.e. to see the photos as a collection and not just as individual photos, as good as they are.

Hyacinths and tulips in the sun and in poetry

April 13, 2020

My annual attempt to capture the essence of the beautiful tulips now at their resplendent best in my garden carries on. In addition, this year I have hyacynths as last year, my sister bought us some hyacinth bulbs in a small pot and, having stored them over winter, I planted them out again in a much larger pot. The photo below shows three plants already in full bloom and two others just emerging. I like the way that the flowers change from a dark blue when they are maturing to this graceful light purple colour when fully grown, and there is a contrast between the strong green of the leaves and the delicate shades in the flower heads.

Hyacinths in a large pot (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Hyacinths have an easily recognised scientific name Hyacinthus and are part of the Asparagales family. Hyacinths have a long history and in Greek mythology, a dispute between the gods Apollo and Zephyr led to the death of Hyakinthos, a young Greek. From his wound, a flower grew and it was named after him. The photo below shows that the hyacinth is multi-headed, with each elements of the flower having its own dark centre. I like the movement apparent in this flower and it seems to be swirling around while being, in fact, motionless. If you cast your eye up and down the flower, each segment extends its petals as a ballet dancer might extend her/his limbs.

The swirling hyacinth

This year’s tulips have been a sight for sore eyes and have lasted well, due to the absence of strong winds. Those in the photo below are new bulbs I bought last autumn. There is a gap in the pots in front of the tulips and there should have been variegated pansies on show there. Unfortunately, all the pansies I planted died as a result of pansy sickness, for which there is no cure.

Tulips by the seashore

Taking a closer look at the tulips, as in the photo below, you get a better appreciation of the colours in display. What appear to be yellow tulips also have other colours on the outside and inside of the flowers. I like the shadows on the leaves of this group, as they appear to be creeping up the plants towards the tulip heads, which are opening to the sun and increasing the quality of the display. Tulips are bigger and bolder than daffodils and take over from their still beautiful, but mono-coloured neighbours. You get the feeling that the tulips enjoy this superiority of colour.

Tulips and shadows

Taking an even closer look at the tulip heads, there appears to be another world inside. In this photo, the petals are giving us a glimpse of what might be inside. The petals are unfolding like clues in a crime novel in which the plot is revealed slowly. I also like the way some of the colours darken as the shadows move across the flower head, while other colours are revealed on the outside of the petals.

Almost revelatory tulip

So what is shown inside, what happens when the clues build up and there is a tense ending to the novel? The tulip opens up further and there is a strange looking six-limbed , one-eyed creature surrounded by flames on display. Is it a murderous or a benign alien, or just a dancer in a surreal costume at street festival in Rio?

Energetic inside of the tulip

The final close up shows the dancing beastie in all her/his finest attire and flaming backdrop.

Spring dance

Both flowers are cited in some famous poetry. In his poem Charmides, Oscar Wilde recalls the origin of hyacinths – “The stealthy hunter sees young Hyacinth / Hurling the polished disk”. In Milton’s Isabella, the lovers “..All close they met, all eves, before the dusk / Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil, / Close in a bower of hyacinth and musk”. In Tulips, A E Stallings writes “The tulips make me want to paint….. The tulips make me want to see“. Sylvia Plath’s poem Tulips has the opposite effect on the poet, as she writes “The tulips are too excitable.. The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me…. Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color”. Plath, I am sure is in a very small minority of tulip non-admirers, as the sudden tongues are surely a delightful description of the flaming red in the tulips. We still have more tulips to come out in pots and in the ground, so I am looking forward to finding out – in Stallings’ terms – what the tulips will make me do i.e. in addition to smile and admire.

Walk to Edin’s Hall Broch from Abbey St Bathans

March 28, 2020

The population are all in lock down here in the UK, but as we live in the countryside, it is easier for us to go for local walks – along the beach or up the hills. A few days ago, we drove down to Abbey St Bathans (good photos) which is 16 miles/26K from Dunbar. From this little hamlet, we walked into the deeper countryside to find Edin’s Hall Broch, a 2500 year old structure. The next blog will feature the broch itself but this post will focus on the hilly walk we did. We only met two other people on the walk and we all kept our safe distance.

You start the walk at the car park next to one of the bridges in Abbey St Bathans. There is a sign pointing you through the trees and along the side of the river. The river here is called the Whiteadder (pr Whit-adder) Water and it flows east before joining the River Tweed at the border town of Berwick Upon Tweed (blog post). The photo below shows the view along the path, just before you have to go up to the road for a while. As it’s still March, the deciduous trees are still bare but there is some colour in the evergreens and water sparkles in the light. With no-one else around, we could stop and listen to the water flowing by and the occasional bird song from the trees – very peaceful.

Whiteadder Water at Abbey St Bathans (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

After being on the road for a about 300 metres, you are directed on to a path by a wooden sign. It is hard to tell how old this sign is but it has certainly survived here for many a year. These wooden signs are still quite common in rural areas in the UK and when you follow this sign, you feel as you are taking part in something that has been here for many generations to enjoy. The sign is unusual in that the words have been carved into the wood, rather than printed on and this may be one reason for their longevity.

Weather worn sign to the broch

Once on this new path, the terrain becomes much trickier. The photo below shows the steps down to the riverside and while this is a helpful addition to the walk, you still have to be careful as the steps are uneven. On the way back, this presents a stiff climb which will test your fitness.

Wooden stairway on the way to the broch

At the bottom of the steps, you come back to the river, which is now much narrower. In the photo below, you can see that – probably a longtime ago – there appears to have been a sluice gate across the water, although its purpose is not clear. The ferns at the side of the river have now only dead foliage on view, but there will be growth underneath and if you were to come back here in September, the ferns would be at their peak.

Sluice gate over the Whiteadder Water

You then climb another hill and you come on to a wide expanse of what is essentially moorland. The path towards the broch shows no evidence of sheep having grazed here recently, although this would appear to be perfect sheep country. From the top of the hill, you look down to the valley below and you can see how a glacier once drove its way – at an infinitesimally slow speed – through the hills, pushing them to one side. You then get a view of Retreat House which was originally built by the Earl of Wemyss (pr Weems) as “a hunting lodge with separate flanking wings providing stabling, kennels and staff quarters”. As an aristocratic man’s retreat, it would have been seen as an idyllic location for the earl’s rural pastimes.

Retreat House from the moorland

The next photo shows the house’s proximity to the river and there is no doubt that fishing would have been one of the reason for the earl and his entourage to visit Retreat House. This is a wonderfully panoramic view, looking down to the river, the house and the forests and fields beyond. The bare trees take on a purplish hue when seen from this distance and the trees are reflected in the river. At this time of year, the evergreen pines and firs take on a more graceful appearance than their more ragged looking neighbours, although there is nevertheless a certain elegance about the leafless trees, in which the sap is now rising. Again, this view will be transformed in the summer months.

Retreat House near the Whiteadder Water

This is a varied and attractive walk, with some superb views. The paths can be tricky and it is advisable to have mountain goat abilities at certain points, where the paths go along steep slopes. It is certainly worthwhile once you get to another wooden sign, another tricky path and one more ascent to the broch.

More daffodils – this time with scenic views

March 20, 2020

I walked along to The Glebe in Dunbar, where the annual display of daffodils has once again appeared. On the day I went, there was a strong SW wind, so the daffodils were swaying their heads vigorously from side to side, like young people attending a rock concert. The photo below shows the mass of flowers, most of which are now fully out. Only two weeks ago, this scene was completely green, so there is a wonderful transformation for the passer-by as this wide streak of yellow brightens up the view.

Daffodils at The Glebe (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On The Glebe, there is a large gun near the cliff edge. This is one of the guns that used to be in the Dunbar barracks and is a 25-pounder Q F Mark II Gun. It was put there to commemorate World War 2 by the local Community Council. It now provides a backdrop to the daffodils. The photo below shows the gun behind the flower mass and to the left of the gun, the Bass Rock can also be seen. According to this site, the first gannets have arrived on the rock.

Daffodils, gun and Bass Rock

The photo below shows soldiers firing canon from an area above Dunbar Harbour. This area later became the Castle Barracks and the gun near the daffodils would have been part of these barracks in the 2nd World War.

Canon artillery training next to Dunbar Harbour

From The Glebe, I walked along to Winterfield Promenade, originally built in 1894 as a gift to the town from the local Baird Family. As you walk along the prom at this time of year, you come across isolated groups of daffodils. How did these flowers get to this location is unknown – people or birds? They are a welcome sight to the walker and have a beautiful backdrop. The photo below shows these elegant and graceful flowers, some of which are just coming out, against the rocks which are on view as the tide was out. On the right, you can see the red sandstone (good photos) cliffs. For many years, sand martins used to create holes in the cliff face and nest there each year. Alas, we do not see these birds any more and I used to enjoy seeing them perform extraordinary acrobatics in the air as they caught insects on the wing.

Daffodils on Winterfield Promenade

Further along to the west, I came across a larger bed of daffodils which were gently swaying in the breeze, being protected by the wall of the golf course from the fierce gusts of the wind. The photo below shows this compact, extended family of flowers with the bare rocks, the Bass Rock and the coast of Fife in the distance. On a clear day like this, you can enjoy a panoramic vista and see for many miles.

Daffodils on the prom with the Bass Rock and Fife beyond

Before turning back, I noticed the complex sky to the southwest. It was late afternoon by this time and the photo below has come out darker than it actually was at the time. Nevertheless, it was a sky which you sensed was changing, with the dark clouds maybe threatening to blot out the exquisite range of colours – of sky and cloud – below. The building on the right is now the clubhouse of Winterfield Golf Club (good photo). It was originally built as Saint Margaret’s, which was owned by the farmer whose lands now form the golf course. The term Winterfield comes from the fact that this land was used for cattle to graze in the winter.

Sky above Winterfield Golf Clubhouse

Blown over daffodils and Country Diary in The Guardian

March 12, 2020

The month of March has come in like a lion here with gales upon gales. One of the victims has been the emerging daffodils and Tête-à-tête in the garden. These have been brought in and now decorate the kitchen window sill. I was looking at the small vase of flowers last night and noticed how the shadows of the flowers could be seen behind the flowers on the kitchen blind. So a photo opportunity presented itself. The photo below shows the daffodils – both white and yellow – with their protruding stigma, pistil and anther. For a detailed description of the parts of a daffodil, see here. What I find intriguing about the photo is the different shapes in the shadows. You don’t just see the flower outlines, as on the left hand side, but a mixture of other shapes. One looks like a bird, while at the bottom, the shadows seem to have spilled over from the blind. There is also the very dark shapes of the stem and the cluster of stems in the vase.

Daffodils and shadows

The photo below is a close up shot of one of the white daffodils in the little vase. The volcano like centre of the flower has the stigma, pistils and anthers shooting out of the dark interior, as if the lava had been instantly liquefied into columns which exploded at the top. The gossamer like petals have their own shapes, delicate shadows and rivulets and look like wings that might carry the daffodil into the air on a Spring wind.

Close up shot of a daffodil head

The final photo is also taken close up but shows the contrast between the white and yellow flowers. The serrated heads of the daffodils look like frilly bonnets which you might see in televised Victorian dramas. The sharp edged petal of the yellow one reminded me of the hood of a Ku Klux Klan member, only in yellow. The white petals have a ghostly look and could be flapping like bats in the air. The more you look at flowers like this, the more you see – or think you see. Flowers like these are a heart-warming sight at this time of year, especially in a warm kitchen, with the wind howling outside and the rain battering the conservatory roof next door.

Daffodils under the kitchen lights

One of the delights of getting The Guardian delivered every day i.e. in proper paper form, not online (although nothing wrong with that for those who prefer that mode) is reading the Country Diary. Yesterday’s entry began “The trees on the hill are shaking in the wind. From the top of one of them, somewhere, a woodlark persists with its pretty, lilting song. I look for it, but it must be hidden by branches”. The photo below shows this engaging, tiny little bird, whose song is not just pretty, but lilting and the use of this word means you can imagine the type of sound it might make. To hear the woodlark, check out here.

Woodlark by Jan Svetlik and used under the Creative Commons Licence

My favourite Country Diary columnist is Paul Evans (read columns here) and one of his recent contributions is entitled “The gatherings at a bird feeder are anything but random”. Evans is a poet in disguise and he writes that the birds at the feeder are “oblivious to being watched as they flit and thrum about their daily lives”. If you watch a bird feeder, then flit and thrum are expressive verbs to describe the action. Also, “individual birds circle around the feeder, which is the axis of their world” – another superb, concise description. The entry ends with “They are all beautiful and complex, nervous and obsessive, a society devoted to the mysterious providence of the watchers”. This is an interesting concept, that the bird display is for our benefit. The photo below shows two goldfinches at a bird feeder, showing off their splendid colours.

Goldfinches at a feeder by Jans Canon and used under the Creative Commons Licence.

The word “Spring” and Dunbar chimneys

March 2, 2020

In the top half of the world – or the bottom half if you see the southern hemisphere as the key area – today, the 1st March is the first day of Spring. This set me thinking about the word Spring or spring and its many connotations. As a season of the year, Spring is celebrated as bringing growth in plants and warmer weather, although this is not true today as it is five degrees but feels like minus one in the strong wind. The American poet Billy Collins writes “If ever there were a spring day so perfect,/ so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze/ that it made you want to throw
open/ all the windows in the house…”. In terms of nature, we think of Spring as when the sap is rising particularly in trees, promising a future of leaves and flowers. The human analogy of this can be found in Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall – “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. Spring also brings new colour to the garden and already we have daffodils and tête-à-tête shining yellow in the sunshine.

Last year, I included the two photos below in this blog post and passing the village yesterday, this year’s crocus extravaganza is well on its way.

Crocus display in Stenton (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Yellow and purple crocus in Stenton

I resisted the temptation to look up spring in a thesaurus and decided to exercise my mind in thinking of uses of the word. I came up with: What springs to mind is..; a spring in your step; springing to life; a settee spring; a spring as a source of water e.g. hot springs in Whakarewarewa (good video and photo below); s/he is no Spring chicken – an ageist phrase nowadays; and to spring a surprise on someone. No doubt there are many more for this very flexible word.

Visitors to Dunbar from countries like Australia, as well as today’s children, are often fascinated by the number of chimneys to be seen on the top of houses in the town. Many of these houses and High Street flats were built in the nineteenth century and, as central heating had yet to be invented, each room had to have a fireplace and each fireplace needed access to a chimney to allow the smoke to escape. Chimneys or lums as they are known in Scotland, are now mainly architectural features, maintained to preserve the look of the houses. Coal fires were, of course, a major source of pollution, particularly in cities, because of the type of coal used, but for most people, this was the only source of heating available. Older people in the UK will remember that many houses – council or private – only had a fire in the living room and that leaving that warm room e.g. for the toilet, was a chastening and often freezing experience in the winter.

You almost never see a coal lorry nowadays and even in 2012, when I posted this photo on the blog, it was a rare sight to see a coal man carrying a hundredweight of coal on his back.

Delivering coal

Walking up towards the High Street from my house, you look down on a row of large houses in East Links Road. The first photo shows the chimneys through the still leafless trees and beyond the houses, the Old Harbour walls are visible next to the sea. The second photo shows a range of different chimneys – enlarge for better effect – and also that many of the chimney stacks are situated between two houses. This allowed builders to create fireplaces in both houses, using only one chimney stack.

Roofs and chimneys on East Links Road
Chimneys in the sunshine

Further up the road, what was formerly the Dolphin Hotel is now being refurbished to be a hostel for visiting surfers, walkers and other tourist. In the photo below, you can see the newly restored chimney pots, with the silver tops to keep out birds. Meanwhile, two local seagulls sit nonchalantly enjoying the winter sunshine.

Seagulls on restored chimney pots

On to the High Street itself, where there is a multitude of chimneys, the photo below shows the number of chimneys needed to serve the flats below. Most of the chimneys on view here have been restored in the 20th century and none are used now for their original purpose. What I particularly like about this photo is that you can see the chimneys themselves, but also the shadows of the chimneys. In former times, the chimneys would have been as black as their twenty first century shadows, because of the smoke. With the demise of coal fires, the skilled trade of chimney sweep – those who came into people’s houses and pushed brushes up the chimneys to clean off the accumulated soot – has now almost gone.

Chimneys on Dunbar High Street

Going back to phrases, he smokes like a chimney is mainly redundant now but was a common saying, especially in the mod twentieth century. Also, in Scotland, at New Year, people would toast each other, saying Lang may yer lum reek – on other folks’ coal. This meant – long may your chimney smoke with other people’s coal – and was a humorous phrase but noting the alleged meanness of the Scots.

My new book and Scottish Nature Photography Awards

February 21, 2020

The delay in posting this has been caused by the very enthusiastic response I have had following the publication of my new book Dunbar in the 1950s (cover below). The book is the result of my research over the last five years into aspects of Dunbar – my home town – in the 1950s. The book’s contents are:

Chapter 1 – The whales at Thorntonloch in 1950 revisited; Chapter 2 – Rationing; Chapter 3 – Housing; and Chapter 4 – Entertainment Chapter 5 – The Store: The Co-operative shops in Dunbar; Chapter 6 – Lipton’s shop; Chapter 7 – George Low & Son: The shop, the businesses and the auctions; Chapter 8 – MJ and B Williamson’s shop; Chapter 9 – AT Smith’s shop; Chapter 10 – Louis Allen’s shop; Chapter 11 – Knox the Newsagent’s shop; Chapter 12 – Carruthers’ shop and restaurant/cafe; Chapter 13 – Conclusion.

This is an oral and social history of some aspects of life in Dunbar in the 1950s. Although the book focuses on one town, most of the book could relate to any small town in the UK in the 1950s and some chapters, such as Rationing, Housing and shops such as The Co-operative or Lipton’s would also be relevant to major cities at the this time. The chapters were chosen according to whether I had access to people to interview and, in the shops’ chapters, could provide me with contemporary photographs. Oral history allows the authentic voices of people from different social strata to be recorded. I am hoping to set up a Dunbar Oral History Archive (DOHA) later this year. Social history allows people who would not normally appear in history books to have their voices heard, particularly working class people. This book features the memories of both working class and middle class people.

My new local history book (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Many of the photos given to me by my interviewees are quite unique. In the photo below, Jimmy Combe, who has lived all his life in Dunbar, is seen here not long after he joined the Cooperative – known locally as The Store – returning from delivering messages (Scots for shopping) to houses in the West end of Dunbar. The photo was taken by street photographers Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor who later became famous folk artists. You can see the bike – known as a message bike – in the photo, with East Lothian Co-operative and possibly Dunbar underneath. Jimmy was 14 when joined the Co-operative in 1947 and worked his way up to become a qualified grocer and later store manager.

Jimmy Combe – message boy

The latest exhibition at Waterson House in Aberlady is focused on African Wildlife but I am featuring the previous (still touring) exhibition of the Scottish Nature Photography Awards. As you might expect, there is a very high quality of photographs on display. I was sent the first and second winners by a member of SOC staff and they are presented here with permission. We all have our different opinions about what might or might not win such competitions and in this case, my own vote would have gone to the second prize winner. The magnificent photo below shows a curlew – my favourite bird – with its impressive sounding scientific name numenius arquata, in its full splendour. I have noted before on the blog that I see curlews regularly through my scope on the rocks in front of our house. Only two days ago, I was watching a curlew doing exactly what the photo shows. The bird bends its head to the side and inserts it fully underneath a rock. It only does this for a short time, as it raises its head again to check for danger. On perhaps the third probe, the curlew straightens up with a crab in its beak. At first, I thought that the crab might be too big for this long-beaked hunter, but the curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab into the air, opened its beak fully and devoured the unfortunate crab, which was in the wrong place at the wrong time on this rocky Dunbar shoreline.

This is a very graceful bird, with its flowing feathers, sharp eye and even sharper, penetrative beak. I like the way the photographer has captured the light on the bird, highlighting the patterns on its back, white breast and legs. An enviable talent took this shot.

Eurasian Curlew with Shore Crab by Toby Houlton

The winning photograph is shown below. When you enlarge the photo, you see what I imagine many people might think to be an even more graceful animal. There is no doubt that this is a beautiful shot and possibly unique, as it captures the young roe deer (good photos) with the flowers in its mouth. I like the way the photograph frames the roe kid between the grasses. Your eye is immediately drawn to the deer itself, with the blurry grasses acting as props. The roe kid looks as alert to danger as the curlew always does. So, roe kid or curlew – who would you vote for as winner? If can see this exhibition on its tour, then do take the opportunity to see it, as you will be very well rewarded.

Roe Kid Flowers by Phil Johnston