Archive for the ‘Photography’ 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

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

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

Trip to Porto: Skyline, river and Luis 1 bridge

December 9, 2022

To get one of the best views across the city of Porto, you need to climb up from the river all the way past the station (blog post) and round to the magnificent Porto Cathedral (good photos). The cathedral was closed for renovations when we visited, but the photo below shows the grandeur of the building, built as a place of worship but also as a structure to dominate the city and send a powerful message to its inhabitants. This site tells us that “Built in the highest part of the city, the Sé Cathedral is the most important religious building in Porto. It is located in the Batalha district, next to the walls that once protected the city. The exterior of the building has the appearance of a fortress with battlements”. My first impression on seeing the back of the cathedral was that it appeared more of a castle than a cathedral.

Part of the outside of Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto)

From the back of the cathedral, you get wonderful panoramic views across the city. The photo below shows a range of domestic, corporate and local authority buildings. The red pantile roofs are of various vintages but make for an attractive sight on a warm, sunny, early October day. On the right in the foreground, you can see some of the tiles on the houses and the balconies which are ubiquitous in Porto. The tower in the distance is the Torre de Clérigos (good photo) and the site tells us that “The Church of Clérigos (Ecclesiastics) is a genuine baroque masterpiece dating from the mid-18th century. It was designed by Nicolau Nasoni, an architect of Italian origin”. We are also told that “The tower extends upwards through 75 metres of elegance forming rhythmic stages before rising to its crowning glory, the spherical clock house. The baroque decoration is thoroughly delicate and of a wonderful lightness”. This seems to me to be a very good translation of an excellent description.

Looking over the roofs of Porto

Again looking over the ramparts of the cathedral, the photo below shows some more of the blue tiles on the face of the houses, the various shades of pink and red on the tiles, and a range of different styles of windows, balconies and doors. At the bottom right of the photo, you can see two doors with the names FADO and SE painted in white. I checked this out and it is the Casa do Fado Sé i.e. the house of Fado at the cathedral. I was once invited to run workshops in Lisbon and the hosts took my wife and I to a Fado concert. The singer was melodious and the guitar playing was superb, but although we couldn’t understand the language, it was clear that Fado songs are not joyful. One dictionary definition of Fado is “a type of popular Portuguese song, usually with a melancholy theme and accompanied by mandolins or guitars”. Above the doors are two banners, one with a mandolin and one with a guitar, and if you look above that, you will see a mandolin on display. You can hear some beautiful guitar an mandolin playing in this video, advertising the Casa do Fado Sé and see and hear a Fado song on the video below. This is a lovely rendition but Fado concerts tend to last about an hour and that is a lot of misery to take in.

Looking down from the cathedral

Running through the middle of Porto is the wide river Douro and we did a long walk (14k) from our hotel near the city centre out to the Foz do Douro (good photos) on the Atlantic coast and back. This is a very busy river although it does not look so in the photo below. However, if you look at the top left of the river, you will see two medium sized cruise ships (example) parked on the south side of the river. Out hotel looked over the river and each morning, we could see new the ships arriving or leaving. Along the right hand side of the photo, you can see a number of piers going out into the river, and these are for river cruises (example), of which there are many. From the bottom right, you can see the walkways along the river and these feature markets during the day and, further up the photo, a multiplicity of restaurants. These were packed out each night and, without booking, it was very hard to get a table anywhere.

Looking west along the river Douro in Porto

The river is also quite spectacular in the evening, after dark. We went to the excellent Muro do Bacalhau (good photos) restaurant and the view below is the one from outside the restaurant, looking west. The reflections in the river are best seen by enlarging the photo and in the enlarged version you can see one of the little ferry boats in the middle of the river. There are new buildings going up across Porto and you can see one with the crane in front of it on the right hand side of the photo. Next to it, with the black sign, is one of the stores holding Porto’s most famous product – port.

Douro river and reflections at night

I took this video from the Monastery of Serra do Pilar (good photos) which stands on a rockface above the river and it is quite a climb to get to it. The monastery – run by the Augustinians – dates back to 1527 and is well worth a visit inside the circular buildings.

You can briefly see the Luis 1 bridge in the video. You can walk across the bridge, which is also used by trams and when there are no trams, people walk down the tramlines. You can see the bridge, with the tram wires but no trams, in the photo below and the building at the end of the bridge on the left, is the monastery. The bridge crosses the river and is one of six bridges that traverse the Douro. You can see excellent photos of the bridges here. The views from the bridge give tourists and locals a spectacular view down the river. The second photo below is an example and it shows one of the river cruise boats about to go under the bridge. We went on one of the 6 bridges cruises and it was an enjoyable 45 minutes. It should have been 50 minutes but the sea mist (haar in my part of the world) rolled in. The guide in the Palacio da Bolsa (previous post) told us that this is known locally as “dragon’s breath” and that the dragon is the city’s emblem.

Looking across the Louis 1 bridge in Porto
River Douro from the Luis 1 bridge

The bridge, named after the king of Portugal at the time it was built, is a magnificent structure as the photo below shows. The bridge opened in 1886 and this site tells us “With a span of 172 metres (564 ft) and a height of 44.6 metres (146 ft) this was a great feat of engineering. The designer this time, Téophile Seyrig, had been Eiffel’s partner on the previous project and showed himself to be a more than able engineer with this bridge”. The reference to Gustave Eiffel (of Paris fame) is because Eiffel designed another Porto bridge earlier. As the photo shows, it has two levels, trams on the top and cars etc on the bottom level.

Dom Luis 1 bridge

The Roman mosaics in Ravenna and the Biblioteca dell’ Archiginnasio in Bologna

September 26, 2022

While on holiday, we went by train to the beautiful town of Ravenna (good photos) by train. Ravenna is famous for its mosaics and there are several sites to see e.g. the Basilica San Vitale (good photos and video). We only had a short time in the town, so went to the famous Domus of the Stone Carpets (good photos), the original name being Domus de Tappeti Pietra. These mosaics date back to the Byzantine era in the 5th and 6th century and inside the building are a stunning series of rooms with mosaic floors. The site was discovered only in 1993-94 and “What stood out among the different archaeological stratigraphies was a 700-sqm complex (the so-called “Byzantine palace”) made up of 14 rooms and 2 courtyards”. I had to look up stratigraphy and it means ” a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification”. Some of the mosaics found dated back to Roman times and some from the 3rd and 4th century BCE. The photo below shows one of the large floors which you can see on the walkway round the site. There is a superb range of patterns here and it is constructed in a symmetrical way around the centrepiece. Given that each mosaic stone is the size of your thumbnail, the work which was put in to construct this magnificent piece of art would have been laborious and must have taken the workmen – and it would have been workmen in these times – many days or weeks to complete. As you look at the floor, your eye diverts from one shape and pattern to another as you look at the twists and turns in front of you. This was a room in a house of a very rich family who could afford to construct this geometric wonder. They may also have had slaves to do the work.

Mosaic floor in Ravenna (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

There are two outstanding floors which depict humans and animals and both can be seen in this video. The first is the Dance of the Geniuses of the Seasons and the first photo below shows the floor setting of this mosaic picture. The dancers represent the four geniuses – artistic, musical, literary and scientific – and it is believed that each of us falls into one or more genius. In this case the geniuses represent the four seasons of the year and they are dancing to the figure of Pan, who is playing his pipes. The floor decoration in itself is very intricate but the addition of the central figures is a marvellous sight, at which you stare in amazement. The second photo below shows a closer view of the central panel. When you look at the detail of the dancers’ clothes and the way they seem to be in motion as they circle in the dance, you can almost hear the music and visualise this ancient dance. In Italian, the panel is the Danza delle Stagioni.

Dance of the Geniuses of the Seasons in Ravenna
Dance of the Geniuses of the Seasons in Ravenna

The second panel, which is displayed on a wall, is the Buon Pastore (good shepherd) and the photo below shows another eye-catching artwork. The information at the site stated that this depiction of the good shepherd is unlike any of the early christian paintings of the same figure. There is much to see in the mosaic artwork, starting at the top with the two peacocks which ” were at the top of the branches of the plants, intimated a sort of halo” suggesting that this might be a saintly representation. To the shepherd’s left, we again see the Pan pipes which hark back to Greek mythology and the shepherd is tending the animals. If this was a painting it might not be so admired, but the fact that it is made up of thousands of mosaic pieces makes you stare in wonder at it. The interlinking pattern at the edge of the main section reminded me of some of the Aboriginal art to be seen in Australia.

Buon Pastore mosaic in Ravenna

This was a great experience and it would certainly be worth visiting again if we were in that region. There is much more to see in Ravenna, in addition to the mosaic sites, so a return visit is likely some time in the future.

Back in Bologna, home to the University of Bologna (good photos), the oldest in the western world and founded as The Studium of Bologna in 1088, we visited a part of the old university, the Biblioteca dell’ Archiginnasio (good photos). There are two main areas which you can visit in this very old library. The first is the Teatro Anatomica (good photos) which was a lecture room – first photo below, from the the site highlighted – for teaching anatomy to students in the 17th century. The walls are made of fir wood and the statues around the walls are of famous doctors in Bologna at the time. It is a beautiful room, with its impressive panelling and ornate chandeliers. The statues and chandeliers may have proved distracting to the anatomy students unless the lecturer was holding their attention. The second photo is mine and shows the lecturer’s chair, “which overlooks that of the demonstrator, is flanked by two statues called “Spellati”, sculpted in 1734 to a design by Ercole Lelli, which were used to visualize the human body, like an open book”. I have never given a lecture or conference presentation in such glamorous surroundings, but I would enjoy doing so.

Teatro Anatomica in Bologna
Lecturer’s stand in the Teatro Anatomica

The second room on display to visitors is the Stabat Mater lecture room/library/concert hall. This is a highly decorated – some might think it is overly ornate – room, as you will see in the video below. There are many plaques dedicated by students to their eminent professors. The photo below shows one such plaque, to Giovanni Bonfioli, a law lecturer, and the inscription states that the teacher should “enlighten the most hidden sides of the laws through the light of wit, of the doctrine and through the splendour of the cultured word”. Signore Bonfoli is a man who had a similar approach to teaching as I did.

Plaque to Giovanni Bonfioli

You get a glimpse into the one of the rooms of the library itself – photo below – and again we see the high decoration and more plaques to lecturers and professors. The books are mainly behind glass and it is very unlikely that the students would have been allowed to browse shelves as we do now, but would instead have to order books from one of the many librarians.

Looking into the library rooms in the Biblioteca Archiginnasio

I took this video of the Stabat Mater hall – named after a performance of Rossini’s work of the same name – and what a privilege it would be to give a lecture/talk in this fabulous room.

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

Visit to Wisley Gardens: Landscape, Sculpture and Flowers

June 28, 2022

We recently spent a few days with relatives in Thames Ditton (good photos) and our first visit was to the famous Wisley Gardens (good photos), home of the Royal Horticultural Society (good photos). We firstly went past the Laboratory (good photos). The photo below shows this early twentieth century building (photo below) – it looks much older – with its elegant design and striking chimneys. This building was used to train horticulturalists for many years. The education of students has moved and the building is being transformed into an educational and exhibition space for visitors. The pond in front of the Laboratory has water lilies in it and (2nd photo below) a delicate and graceful fountain, which sparkled on this warm (24 degrees) and sunny day. There are carefully tended bushes and trees behind and around the pond. This is a stunning introduction to the gardens.

The Laboratory at Wisley Gardens (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Fountain in the pond at Wisley Gardens

The above might be described as traditional landscaping but Wisley also has some very modern examples of the use of stone, water and concrete to enhance the look of the gardens. The photo below shows the Wellbeing Garden (good photos) which has been built in front of the new education centre. The garden was designed by Chelsea Flower Show award winner Matt Keightley and ” the garden is reminiscent of capillaries, allowing flow around the space and into the surrounding areas”. In the photo, you can see, in the foreground, the Pico and Pebble seats, created by Barrell Sculpture (good photos) and the small canal. The RHS note that “A water rill will meander through the garden with the source close to the RHS Hilltop building, giving the sense of information flowing from the science labs and into the garden beyond, the therapeutic sound of gently tinkling water setting the tone for visitors”. This view is from the terrace of the building and you can see the water rill (nice name) flowing into the pond. To the immediate left of the building, there are layered concrete circles with grass in the middle of each and it is very pleasant on the eye, either from this view or close up. This is a very peaceful area to walk round.

Landscaping beauty at Wisley gardens

In another part of the garden, there is the Wildlife Garden Tower (good photos -scroll down) which the RHS states is “a chestnut and willow sculpture by Tom Hare which provides an enormous habitat, filled with pine cones, twigs and anything else that might make a cosy home to all manner of insects”. The photo below shows this strikingly original piece of horticultural sculpture, with its smooth, curving wood opening out to the sky at the top. This means that the Tower is both aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian at the same time, acting as a new home for passing insects looking for a safe refuge. The Tower sits in the middle of the wildlife garden with a huge variety of wildflower plants, some in past their best, some in bloom and some showing promise of a future display of delicate or showy flowers.

Wildlife Garden Tower by Tom Hare at Wisley Gardens

Perhaps the most original and stunning sculpture I saw in the gardens was situated over a pond, surrounded by bright and fragrant lavender, which was on one of the many walkways in Wisley. The photo below (enlarge for best effect) shows a female diver, who appears to have launched herself, from a standing start, up into a parabola of air, which has been filled with stone and she has been petrified in mid-air. This supremely elegant and graceful figure appears as you come out of a walkway with overhanging plants, so it is a welcome surprise. The more you look at the figure, the more motion you start to see. Also, the round table in the pond, the clear, cascading water and the purple lavender contribute to this beautifully crafted scene.

Diver sculpture at Wisley Gardens

Mention Wisley Gardens to most people and they will think of flowers and Wisley has these in abundance, plus trees, shrubs and fruit in different areas of the garden. There is a large rose garden (good photos) with a huge range of roses – of many colours, sizes and scents – to see as you stroll through it. One rose that caught my eye – and my camera – is shown in the photo below. This is the Rosa Tam O’Shanter Auscerise and the RHS notes that this rose is “Lightly-scented, rosette-shaped, deep pink flowers, 5-7cm across, open along the length of the branches from summer into autumn; flowers take on a slight purple hue when fully open”. I liked the almost random shapes of the leaves, curling in the centre to reveal what might be a series of caves, which bees no doubt enjoy exploring. Tam O’Shanter is of course a famous poem by Robert Burns.

Rosa TamO’Shanter at Wisley Gardens

An even more striking flower which you could not fail to notice was the Hemerocallis “Red Suspenders” shown in the photo below. The RHS site does not comment on the origin of the name of this wonderfully coloured and shaped plant, so perhaps it comes from the bright red braces (suspenders in north America) that flamboyant men might wear. The site above states that the plant in summer produces “large, fragrant, dark red flowers with reflexed petals and wide, yellow to yellow-green throats” – an excellent description. This plant seems to welcome you – as well as pollinating insects of course – with its dazzling petals which have white lightning streaks in the middle and the yellow centre which seems as if it might have a secret backlight hidden in its centre.

Hemerocallis “Red Suspenders”

Flowers can also be seen on some of the trees and the best example we saw was the Cornus Kousa (good photos) which had a huge spread of flowers and you can see this in the photo below. This is only part of a much wider display, made gloriously white in the summer sunshine. There is also a beauty in the leaves of this tree – green and thinly veined with white – and the leaves help to show off the petals, which were fluttering gently in a warm breeze.

Cornus Kousa at Wisley Gardens

When you take a close-up view – photo below – you see the artistic form of the petals. Art in nature can be a cliché, but if this had been painted by one of the Impressionists, it would be hailed as a wonder. The pink splashes, seemingly random, on what look like white butterfly wings, would look inspirational in a painting. The veins on the petals are perfect in construction and would not look out of place on a hot air balloon, look especially at the bottom petal on the main flower head. The centre piece looks ugly in comparison but I am sure it has a utilitarian function.

Cornus Kousa petals at Wisley Gardens

Wisley Gardens is one of these places that you can return to at different times of the year and it is certainly not possible to see the whole garden in one visit. I cannot recommend Wisley Gardens too highly.

The Hoot and John Banville’s Snow

April 7, 2022

A new of edition of The Hoot online magazine (Photo below) from SOC’s Librarian and Communication Officer Rosie Filipiak is always something to look forward to. This latest edition promises “some springtime topics – migration, pairing up, and eggs”. I have selected some interesting parts of the magazine, sent out to SOC members and have included information and photos on moorhens, guillemots and shovelers.

Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended.

We see moorhens on local ponds in Dunbar and they tend to be small, shy birds which will swim away as soon as you approach the water’s edge. The Hoot notes that “Moorhens are often overlooked as being rather ordinary, everyday birds, but aspects of their life history are fascinating.  Over winter, Moorhens often form small flocks within which they pair up before monogamous pairs disperse in spring to establish a territory”. Research quoted states that female moorhens are fussy about who they mate with – as they should be, of course – and prefer fatter males, choosing a mate only after inspecting the approaches of several males. The males do 70% of the incubation and often have to build several nests before attracting a female. The photo below is similar to the one in The Hoot which is copyright. Moorhens have red bill shields and yellow bill tips and the stronger the colours, the healthier the bird. This moorhen is in a beautiful setting, with the water lilies as a background and its ribbed reflection in the water. From a distance, moorhens tend to look black and it is only when you get close that you see the stunning colours on its face and bill.

Dusky moorhen in Sydney’s Victoria Park. Photo by Toby Hudson and included under Creative Commons

My own experience of guillemotsUria aalge – are members of the auk family and gather in their thousands in places like St Abbs Head (good video). Unfortunately, The Hoot reported that many guillemots had been found dead along shores in Scotland and the likely cause is a shortage of sand eels, which have moved to colder waters due to climate change. When you get near enough to a guillemot colony, you can hear the constant cries of the birds as they leave and return to the closely packed cliff edge nesting sites. As you can see in the photo below, guillemots are elegant and graceful birds, with their white fronts and blue/black heads and backs. They always look to me like inquisitive birds, with their keen eyes and sharp beaks always on the lookout.

Guillemots – Photo with the permission of Rosie Filipiak

The third bird to be covered in this edition of The Hoot is the shovelerAnas clypeata – and the RSPB site notes that “Shovelers are surface feeing ducks with huge spatulate bills”. I had to look up spatulate and it means “shaped like a spatula” and “having a narrow base and broad rounded apex”. You can see the shoveler’s not particularly attractive bill in the photo below. The bill is however, very efficient and effective as it allows the bird to sieve more water than other ducks. It uses, according to The Hoot “the lamellae, those fine comb-like structures that line the inside of the bill, also allow Shovelers to filter out smaller prey items than other dabbling ducks because they have both more and much finer lamellae”. The shoveler is still an attractive bird with its variegated plumage and keen, yellow eye and Rosie Filipiak’s superb photo also captures the bird’s surreal-looking reflection in the water.

Shoveler by Rosie Filipiak

A new book by the Irish author John Banville is always something to look forward to with anticipation. Banville’s new crime novel – this time using his own name and not his pseudonym Benjamin Back – is Snow (review) and it is a superb novel, which begins in a jocular fashion but becomes darker as the tale progresses. The crime involved is the murder of a priest in a rural Ireland mansion. The body is found in the library and has been disfigured (no spoilers). The eccentric detective St John Strafford is sent to investigate, and the local police and some of the house’s occupants refer jokingly to Inspector Poirot in relation to a “body in the library” mystery. The novel explores the characters in the house – and visitors – as to who might have carried out the murder and why. Banville carefully takes us on a journey of possible killers and their potential motives. The novel is set in 1957 in Ireland, which is still dominated by the catholic church and Strafford’s superiors warn him that he should not investigate too closely, as a scandal might be revealed. There is a quite disturbing chapter near the end of the book where we hear the voice of the dead priest admitting to his own crimes (no spoilers) and this is superbly written. Banville avoids a melodramatic ending – he is too good a writer for that – but he keeps us guessing until the end of the book as to who was involved in the murder.

Banville is a stylistic writer and we are treated to some memorable descriptions throughout the novel. Enjoying a better than expected traditional pub meal, Strafford reflects “It was like leaning one’s back against the sun-warmed side of a haystack”. We come across unusual use of words e.g. swag in “The sky was loaded with a swag of mauve-tinted clouds”. There is humour also, as a barman describes a customer “He’d drink whiskey off a sore leg, that fellow would”. Banville also sent me to the dictionary – “A brumous glow lay on the fields” – with brumous meaning foggy and wintry. Or “The wine gave off an evil, rubious glitter”, with rubious meaning dark red or the colour of a ruby. So we read Banville not just for his in-depth characterisation and sublime plotting, but also for his often telling use of the English language to poetically describe scenes or what people wear. This brilliant book is a must-read.

The river Tweed at Peebles and hosts of daffodils

March 28, 2022

For our first visit to Peebles this year, we chose a bright sunny day to travel to the town in the Scottish borders. The last post on the blog about Peebles was in 2019 – see here. The historic town of Peebles (good photo) is an affluent borders community which attracts many visitors, particularly in Spring, Summer and Autumn. The walk along the wide and fast flowing River Tweed (many photos) is a must when visiting the town. We only has a short walk this time but there are more extensive walks around the town and you can download a brochure on walks here. The photo below is taken not far from the pedestrian bridge across the river and looks back to the town. There are many reflections in the photo, looking left to right you see the copper hedge, the still bare trees, the straw coloured grasses, the church and the trees beyond. The Old Parish Church (good photos) dominates the town skyline, the clock chimes every half hour and you can hear the sound of the bell for quite a distance. There is a path on either side of the river and both are well maintained.

River Tweed in Peebles (Click on all photos to enlarge -recommended)

Walking towards the town, the photo below shows, on the left next to the bridge, the cauld (pr called) which is a Scots word for weir. In the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the word caul comes before cauld. One quotation from 1934 is “Dark, deep, and strong the river ran beneath the high-peaked bridge; then with a sullen roar it dropped — a foaming line of snow-white fury — beneath a high-banked caul”. In Peebles, they prefer cauld, not to be confused with the word being a Scots version of cold. The water is calm near the bridge and it then becomes a torrent as it reaches a small dip in the land beneath the river. Snow white fury above describes it well. It is at this point that you are aware of the noise of the river as it briefly gurgles furiously before becoming calmer. The church still points to the sky and the hills behind the town are clearly visible.

The cauld at Peebles

Then you come to the road bridge and its impressive structure. This is the Tweed Bridge and this Canmore site tells us that there is evidence of a stone bridge being at this point in the river from the 15th century. The bridge was widened in 1834 and then again between 1897 and 1900. The site also tells us that “This bridge over the Tweed appears to be a typical ca.1900 masonry structure, with its five arch spans of about 38 ft and parapets surmounted with decorative cast-iron dolphin lamps cast in Glasgow”, but that there is still evidence of older bridges underneath. This was a bridge built by highly qualified stonemasons and represents solidity and strength, as well as being aesthetically pleasing on the eye. More of the church is revealed through the stretching branches at the top left of the photo.

The Tweed Bridge at Peebles

My friend Paul in Wagga Wagga sent me a short video of the Murrumbidgee (many photos) riverside in the inland city, so I took this video below for him.

All of a sudden, it seems, in our gardens and parks and on roadsides and hillsides, the world has turned to yellow as daffodils make their annual appearance, and it is a heartening sign of Spring. Each year, I try to take photos of these elegant and graceful flowers in different locations. You can see last year’s post here. We now have a plethora of daffodils in our front garden and, as there is a gentle east wind, they are certainly fluttering if perhaps not dancing, in the breeze. I took the photo below on our walk last weekend in the village of Gifford (good photos) which, in running terms, is a half marathon from Dunbar. My wife has run this in the past but we drove there on Sunday. The tête-à-tête are huddled together and of course, may be having a tête-à-tête with each other, given the alternative definitions of the phrase in English. The Old Mill (photo) stood further on up the road near where the old station used to be and this listed buildings site describes it as “1725. 2-storey, rectangular plan granary with square-plan former kiln adjoined at S and single storey outbuildings added to N by early 19th century. Converted for residential purposes”. 

Tête-à-tête in Gifford

Nearer home, there is a hillside – adjacent to the Hillside Hotel appropriately enough – which for most of the year looks like dull and uninteresting waste ground, but it comes into its own with a show of several groups of daffodils scattered across its length. The photo below is of one of these groups/mini-hosts. It consists of white-petalled daffodils, known as Poeticus Narcissi and this site states that “Poeticus daffodils or narcissus also know as Pheasant’s Eye or Poet’s daffodil are timeless with a delicacy and elegance all of their own combined with their unique fragrance”. The brilliant white of the petals contrasts nicely with the yellow flower and the darker green stems. I did not get close enough to experience the “unique fragrance”, so must venture closer in future.

White petalled daffodils in Dunbar

In my own garden, I have a section with the same Poeticus Narcissi which sit beside some more “normal” yellow-petalled daffodils. They sit attractively above the stone wall which I built several years ago and cast long shadows along the coping slabs on top of the wall. What these daffodils also do, in the late March sunshine, it to cast shadows on each other and you can see this on closer inspection. On the right hand side, you can see some raspberry canes beginning to bud and I am hoping for a better crop than last year.

Daffodils above the stone wall

The final photo below shows a section of the garden next to the house and it is very pleasing on the eye, with its mixture of daffodils, grape hyacinth and red and white dwarf tulips. Grape hyacinths have the musical sounding scientific name of Muscari armeniacum and the flowers seem to appear overnight, while the green stems have been there since the end of last year. This site gives the name of the grape hyacinths and notes that “They are extremely attractive to spring-flying pollinators, particularly the hairy footed flower bee, Anthophora plumipes“. You can see some photos of this creature – new to me – here and it is one of the first bees to appear in Spring. They are apparently very small, so you will need a magnifying glass to spot the hairy feet.

Spring flower variety in our garden

Making risotto and swans in the pond

March 17, 2022

The original recipe that I found online for making smoked haddock risotto is the one from BBC Good Food. The beauty of this recipe is that it makes risotto but you do not have to stand over the pot for 25 minutes, adding the stock one ladle at a time. I am not a big spinach fan, so I added peas instead to start with. Since then I have added carrot, red pepper/capsicum to enhance the flavour and also the look of the risotto.

Last week, I also added chorizo. It is a fairly straightforward dish once you have prepared the vegetables. Firstly, I chop a good sized leek into small pieces and rinse it in the sieve. I then diced the carrot and sweated these and the leek (no pepper this time) in some oil – adding mixed herbs – in a pan. Once these are softened and the leek is translucent, you add the Arborio rice, turning the gas right down, and stir vigorously for one minute. The frozen peas, which I steep in boing water first to soften them, are also added. I cooked the chorizo in a small frying pan without adding oil and dried it off in kitchen roll before adding it and the fish stock and cooking the mixture without a lid on, for 5 minutes. The photo below shows the mixture added to our Le Creuset dish and, as you can see, it is colourful and already looks appetising. I like the combination of the white rice, the pale yellow leek, the brighter green of the peas and the dark brown of the chorizo. It already looks creamy.

Risotto without the fish on top (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We are lucky in Dunbar to have our own fish shop in the High Street and it was there that I bought the smoked haddock to go in the risotto. There are two types of this fish and I always choose the pale smoked haddock (photo) as it has a less harsh flavour. There are usually some bones left in the fish at the top of the fillet, so I cut these out with a sharp knife and slice the fish into large chunks. If you cut the fish into smaller chunks, they are likely to break up in the risotto. The photo below shows the fish added to the simmered risotto. There is enough for two people here, with some left over for my lunch the next day. The haddock has its graceful and elegant lines on the top side. The lid goes on and it cooks in the oven for 18 minutes.

Raw fish on the risotto

When the dish is ready, I take it out of the oven and remove the lid. This Le Creuset dish is quite large and has a heavy, solid base and lid. Depending on the dish in which you cook the risotto, you may need more or less stock. When we bought this dish, I found that more stock was absorbed. The result can be seen in the photo below. The fish has shrunk but only a little and the risotto underneath has absorbed most – but not all – of the stock. Now it is ready for the crème fraîche.

Cooked risotto

There are different methods of mixing in the crème fraîche. I used to chop up the fish before adding it to the risotto but I found that it tended to make the fish disappear into the mixture. I now remove the fish, add the crème fraîche and then gently fold in the fish to the risotto. The final dish can been seen in the photo below. My preference is to serve the risotto in bowls, keeping the fish in chunks and allowing guests to add grated Parmesan cheese when at the table. Modesty aside, it is delicious!

The final dish before serving

I walked along to the pond at Dunbar Golf Course (good photos) in the morning recently as rain was forecast for later. Swans are regularly to be seen here and on my arrival, two swans were on the edge of the pond, unmoved by my presence. This was in contrast to a group of ducks, who one moment were swimming sedately in the pond and the next moment were noisily flying off to the adjacent woods. The rain came earlier than expected but this allowed me to take photos of the swans in the rain. The photo below shows the swan surrounded by what look like bullet holes in the water, but the bird was oblivious to the rain and, unlike me, needed no umbrella. I am always fascinated by the shapes of birds and the swan is no exception. Look at the black tip of the beak, its white surround, followed by the long orange section and the black top. All of these are of a different shape but blend together to attract our attention.

Elegant swan and rain circles

One of my favourite poems is Wild Swans at Coole by W B Yeats and these lines show his admiration for these magnificent birds who give us all so much pleasure when we see them in the water, on the shore or in the air.

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

If you have ever heard swans flying above you, you will recognise Yeats’ wonderful description of clamorous wings. A swan in another pond in the photo below, this time at Belhaven Pond, taken for this blogpost. The swan – not the rain – has created the circles in the water now and the swan’s head and body take on a surrealist tinge when seen reflected in the water. I never tire of watching swans gliding along, with a superior look in their eyes, knowing how beautiful they are in contrast to what they might regard as dull humans.

Swan on a calm day