Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

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.

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

William Boyd’s Love is Blind and frosty Gifford

December 30, 2019

William Boyd’s 15th novel Love is Blind (review) is the stylishly written and entertaining tale of Brodie Moncur, an expert piano tuner, who leaves his home in the Scottish borders at the end of the 19th century to work in Edinburgh. He leaves behind a tyrannical father – a foul-mouthed (in his own home) clergyman who makes money from his sermons by attracting visitors. Malky Moncur, the irascible clergyman, is both ludicrous and funny and Boyd has other characters in the book who enter Brodie’s life, and provide the reader with entertainment. Boyd is above all an excellent story teller and this tale takes in love, adventure and fascinating places – Edinburgh, Paris , St Petersburg and the Andaman Islands. Brodie falls in love with an opera singer Lika Blum, the partner of the famous pianist John Kilbarron and much of the book is about Brodie’s attempt to get away with Lika and avoid the Kilbarron brothers. William Boyd keeps us guessing at various points of the book about whether Brodie will be successful and how his pursuers manage to follow him to different parts of the world. There are some convenient happenings in Brodie’s life e.g. his unfair sacking from the Channon piano company, but the author takes the reader along with him as the story unfolds.

Boyd is particularly good at describing places at the end of the 19th century and we get glimpses of the wealthy parts of Edinburgh, Paris and St Petersburg but also the poorer and inevitably seamier side of these cities. The author takes us with him along named streets – George Street in Edinburgh, the “avenue de Alma, just of the Champs-Elysees” in Paris and Petrovsky Park in St Petersburg – and this gives the locations a real sense of place. Brodie Moncur is a memorable character and his story is highly recommended.

William Boyd’s superb novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On the very frosty day referred to in the blog recently, we went up to the historic village of Gifford (good photos) for a walk. The village’s most famous son is John Witherspoon, one of the signatories to the USA’s Declaration of Independence. On the day we visited, the frost was much heavier than in Dunbar – Gifford is 13 miles/21K inland, so away from the salty sea air. This meant that the village took on a fairy tale look, with everything – roofs, gardens, trees and grass – turned into glorious white. The photo below shows a garden at the edge of the car park next to the village hall. You can see the heavy frost but also the evergreen tree at the top which has been in the sun. The sage-like green leaves on the plants look both limp and rigid at the same time.

Frosted garden in Gifford

Just around the corner, there is a bridge overlooking the burn/river that runs through the village. This photo shows the fast flowing burn, the whitened grass and fence on one side and the white, bare branches of the tree overhanging the water, which appeared to be running as fast as it could to get away from the frozen earth.

Gifford burn rushing onwards

A little further on, you are looking into a sizeable back garden and driveway which leads up to a substantial stone house. I like the variety in this photo, with the iced over greenhouse next to the mosaic of chopped logs. To the left, on the ground is what we would call a saw horse on which timber would be cut before being chopped for logs. It is also called a sawbuck in the USA. My Scottish brother in law said he would call it a cuddy which is a Scots word for a horse. The berries on the trees to the left and right add colour to this archetypal winter scene.

Woodshed, saw horse, greenhouse and berries in Gifford

While the previous photo has several elements to it, which makes it an attractive picture, the next photo is relatively simple. This magnificent copper beech hedge is enhanced by the white frost, while still retaining its own brown colour. Twelve hours later, this hedge would have resumed its normal colour as the temperature rose in the evening. It would also look less rigid than it does in the sub-zero temperature.

Frosted copper hedge in Gifford

This photo shows the entrance to Yester House (good photos) which stands at the end of the park. The driveway and gardens used to be open to the public but since it was bought by the son of an oil tycoon, the gates have been refurbished – and firmly shut. Only paying guests are welcome now. It remains an impressive gateway to the house and the frost on the trees, roofs and pillars give it the look of something out of a Gothic horror film. What terrors lie behind the locked gates?

Gates to Yester House in Gifford

The final photo looks over the empty oblong of grass which used to be used for grazing sheep and holding a market for sheep and cattle in former days. On the left is the row of trees which line the avenue to the park. The frost highlights the normally unremarkable (in winter) bare trees, which now stand out. The village hall (good photos) is the most prominent building in Gifford and is in the main street, along with the Goblin Ha’ pub. The original Goblin Ha’ (good photos) was part of Yester Castle which was built by Hugo de Giffard – purportedly a wizard, whose army of goblins built the large hall (ha’ pr haw in Scots) for him. The castle is now a ruin.

Gifford market area and village hall

Visit to Berwick on Tweed and the Serranos Tower in Valencia

November 21, 2019

We recently had a day out in the border town of Berwick on Tweed (good photos). Berwick, as it is commonly known, has a chequered history in that over the centuries, it has been part of both Scotland and England, changing hands between English and Scottish kings. It has been in England since 1482, but was involved in cross border raids featuring cattle rustlers for hundreds of years.

Berwick is a town famous for its bridges, the best known one being Berwick Bridge (photo below), with its fifteen arches. According to the website above, “The arches are unribbed, almost semicircular at the northern end and clearly segmental at the southern part, beyond the pier six”. It is a magnificent structure, highlighted on the sunny day of our visit by the sparkling blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the river.

Berwick Bridge (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

One of Berwick’s most famous products is the hard sweetie, Berwick Cockles. Doing local history research for my new book, I discovered that Carruthers’ shop and Restaurant in Dunbar in the 1950s, sold Berwick Cockles. An interview with Charlie Carruthers, son of the owner, revealed that Cockle Cowe, the man who owned the Berwick Cockles business, brought the large jars of the sweets to the shop/restaurant himself. A chance visit to the excellent Mule on Rouge cafe in Bridge Street in the town – good tea/coffee and tasty cake, with vinyl records playing in the background – gave me the opportunity to photograph some original Berwick Cockle jars (photo below) with the owners’ permission. It is interesting that the second and fourth jars tell the purchaser that these “genuine and original” sweets are “entirely different from imitations”. The middle jar indicates that it is “A Present from North Berwick” so Mr Cowe obviously had some franchising arrangement with the East Lothian town.

Original Berwick Cockles jars

We walked around the town’s impressive ramparts and town walls, from which there are views out to sea and back into the town itself. The photo below is looking from the ramparts on to the graveyard of Berwick Parish Church. The trees are nearly bare, revealing their smooth trunks and the shadows they cast across the gravestones, which have their own shadows. At the front, there is an expertly built and admirable stone wall.

Berwick Parish Church graveyard

The ramparts themselves reveal some of Berwick’s military history which tells us that the ramparts were begun in the late 16th century and are still in place and clearly visible. The photo below shows a small part of the undulating ramparts and one of the surviving canons used to protect the town from invasion. The stone wall on view here is rougher than the churchyard one but none the less impressive.

Berwick Upon Tweed ramparts

Returning to my Valencia trip, one of the highlights was visiting the Serranos Towers (good photos) which were just around the corner from our apartment. The towers were built as part of the city’s defensive walls and were one of the main gates into the city. They are a very impressive edifice from the outside as you can see in the photo below, which was taken at street level, on one of the many tree lined avenues in Valencia.

Serranos Towers in Valencia

Once you climb to the top of each of the towers, you can appreciate this building as a defensive structure, as any approaching enemies would have easily been seen nearing the city. There are stunning views across different parts of the city from the top. The photo below shows the edge of the tower walls on the left and then the sprawling city, with the church towers and spires dotting the landscape. Looking across the city, you see the blending of the very old, the quite old and the modern in the different rooftops on view.

View across Valencia from the Serranos Towers

On the other side of the towers, you are looking at what was once the flowing River Turia, which burst its banks in 1957 and flooded most of the city, killing sixty people. The city administration decided that the only way to avoid another such disaster would be to reroute the river (good photos). The question then was what to do with the dried up riverbed which went through part of the city. The answer was a huge park.The views from the towers give you a panorama of the five mile parkland and “The park comprises over 450 acres and is characterized by bike paths, event spaces, active recreation fields, fountains, and many notable structures, such as the Alameda Bridge by Santiago Calatrava”. The first photo below shows a floodlit area for a range of sports and the second photo shows the numerous paths through the impressive range of trees. When my pal and I went to see Valencia FC play at the stunning Mestalla Stadium (good photos), we walked through the park in the daylight going and in the dark coming back, along with many other supporters.

Parkland on the former River Turia
Paths through the trees on the former riverbed

I took this video of the parkland from the top of the Serranos Towers.

The Valencia parkland

This video shows the views across the city’s many roof tops from the Serranos Towers.

There is so much to see and do in this magnificent city which, should you get the chance to visit, will reward you with superb views from the many elevated vantage points across Valencia.

Swans at Belhaven and gladioli season

October 17, 2019

All summer and into the autumn, we have been watching a family of swans at Belhaven Beach. The two adults had eight cygnets and surprisingly, all eight have survived. These are mute swans and the first photo below shows an adult – male or female? – in the water. Swans are elegance personified and there is a calmness about this bird, as it gently makes circles in the water. The impressionist reflection and the clarity of the water at this stretch of the Biel Burn, which becomes part of the sea when the tide comes in, shows off the swan’s calm authority. The second photo shows the other adult, also reflected in the water but creating a smooth wake behind it as it makes its way effortlessly along the stream.

Adult mute swan at Belhaven Beach (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
A swan and its wake in the Biel Burn

The family of swans seemed very relaxed in the water as they swam up and down and finally under the bridge. The first photo below shows all ten swans in the burn, with the beach behind and the sea in the distance. This was in the early evening and there were still quite a lot of people around. The swans ignored us all, although no-one went into the water where the swans were. I stood right on the edge of the water and the adults blithely passed me by, ignoring this swan paparazzi. The second photo shows the swans closer up and you can see that, while the cygnets are maturing, they have not, as yet, gained the perfect whiteness of their parents.

Ten swans a swimming in the Biel Burn
Swan family at the Biel Burn

The final photo of the swans sees them all gliding under the bridge in a quiet procession, like a human family out for a walk in the early evening. Perhaps the swans are communicating with each other, but there is no sound that I can hear. Maybe they communicate by gestures known only to themselves. This is no military-type march but relaxation in motion, enviously watched and admired by all.

Ten swans in a family glide under Belhaven Bridge

I took this video (2 combined) of the swans and in the first part, you can see the beach behind with still quite a number of people there, despite it being after 7pm on a September evening.

Each year, in late Spring, I lift the winter bulbs and plant gladioli. This is a random exercise, as the gladioli are stored in a cardboard box in my garage and planted out as they come. This means that different bulbs are planted in different parts of the garden and in tubs at the front and back of the house. Gladioli are described by the RHS as ” cormous perennials with fans of sword-shaped or linear leaves and spikes of funnel-shaped flowers” and are also known as The Bride. They are also commonly known as sword lilies, the name being derived from the Latin gladius meaning sword. the two photos below show gladioli at the back of our house, with a vigorous (albeit blurred) incoming tide in the background. In the second photo, the colour of the gladiolus matches that of the geranium below – purely accidental on my part, as I have no knowledge of the colour to emerge from the corm being planted in the pot.

Half flowering gladiolus

As regular readers of this blog will know, I love taking photos of flowers just when the rain has stopped outside. For the many people who receive notice of the blog outside the UK, this should not be interpreted as indicating that this part of Scotland is rain-sodden for months on end – prejudices die hard! Here in Dunbar, we get less rain on an annual basis than Sydney. Of course, if you go further west in Scotland …. The two photos below show different plants at the front of our house – again in pots. I like the shimmering quality of both the flower head and the raindrops in the first photograph and it is interesting to see how even large drops of rain still cling to the flower. There are fewer raindrops in the second photo but the colours are spectacular, with the deep purple centres enfolded by the gentler purples of the petals, which resemble the skirts of the flamboyant Folie Bergere artistes. The centre pieces could be ballet dancers.

White gladiolus after the rain
Light purple gladiolus after the rain

Camargue horses and visit to Parc Ornotholique

October 2, 2019

On our stay in Arles, we went out for the day to the Camargue wetlands and on our way through this region, we passed many horse riding stables, as one of the most famous aspects of the Camargue is the horses, both wild and tamed. The Camargue is a fascinating area as you are quickly into very flat countryside, with a range of crops such as maize growing in the fields. Gradually, there are more and more wetlands to be seen and a wide range of birds on the water as you drive past. We saw the wild horses when we went to the Parc Ornithologique (more below) but not up close as the photo below shows. I deliberately tried to frame the horses through the elegant reeds which grew at the waterside.

Camargue horses across the water

After we left the Parc, we drove to the very attractive seaside town of Les Saintes Maries de Mer (good photos) and as you walk towards the beach, you come to a roundabout with a statue of a Camargue wild horse in the middle. It is an impressive statue which captures the flowing mane of the horse and there is an impression of the horse in motion across the grass or the water of the Camargue.

This professional-looking video gives you an excellent insight into the horses and the wetlands. Watch it in full screen for best effect.

Le Parc Ornithologique (good photos) is a special place to visit. There is a walkway around this wetland area, which is famous for the birds which reside there and visit on their way north or south. We saw many egrets, herons and the occasional avocet, although LeParc also features a range of animals, such as otters, which are mainly seen at dusk. The highlight of a visit here is the sight of large groups of flamingos, which can be seen quite near the waterside. The first photo shows a close up of this very elegant but somewhat comical bird. The flamingo (good photos) – the name means fire in Spanish – is a beautiful bird, with its elegant neck, the splash of pink in its feathers and bright pink legs. It is also an odd mixture of shapes, with the head looking as if it might not belong to the rest of the body, the neck looking like the S-bend under your sink, and the legs have knobbly knees and look as if they could break at any minute.

Flamingo at Le Parc Ornithologique

When you see the flamingos in large groups, as in the photo below, it is a very impressive sight. The birds in this photo are reflected in the water in an impressionist manner and some are standing on one leg. The flamingos are constantly on the move, either feeding or about to feed, stretching down into the water.

When you look at the flamingos as you walk around Le Parc, you realise that these birds are contortionists. The photo below shows some of the flamingos placing their necks and head across the back of their body. From the waterside, they look like a cast of ballerinas performing in a ballet. The one on the far left of the photo is standing on one leg, with the other leg forming a triangle above the water, showing that their sense of balance is exquisite.

We enjoyed a relaxing but scenic walk around the area and you can do shorter or longer walks. We did the longer walk – about 7K – and this takes in some extensive areas of wetland, with a large lake on view at one point. I would recommend this very highly to anyone visiting this part of France.

For someone of my generation, the mention or sight of flamingos recalls one of the outstanding songs of the 1960s. Watch the video below and you’ll be singing it all day long.

Pretty Flamingo by Manfred Mann

Local history exhibition and Lake Ilawa, Poland

August 5, 2019

Dunbar and District History Society (DDHS) have a new exhibition in Dunbar Town House, entitled Summers in Dunbar. The exhibition, excellently curated by DDHS secretary Pauline Smeed, presents a range of information and images from the 1960s onwards, showing how Dunbar was a very popular holiday resort. The town is still an attraction for tourist as this Tripadvisor page (good photos) shows.

Returnable keys at The Roxburghe Hotel in Dunbar (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The first photo from the exhibition shows what was the magnificent Roxburghe Marine Hotel, which was one of Scotland’s leading hotels in the 1950s and 1960s. My former classmate Nigel Marcel’s parents owned the hotel in the 1960s and 1970s and he confirmed that when guests mistakenly went away with hotel keys, they would inevitably be returned with a stamp affixed to the key. Room 42 was on the top floor facing the sea. The hotel was later demolished and the area now contains a block of 4 storey attractive flats, many with sea views and a row of cottages which overlook the sea in front. We are lucky enough to live in one the cottages. Nigel remembers cutting the long grass where our house now stands, with a scythe.

Dunbar’s east beach in the 1960s

The second photo from the exhibition shows Dunbar’s east beach, probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The beach over the years has lost its sand and has become less used. The people in the photo appear to be very well dressed, so this photo may have been taken on a Sunday, with crowds gathering possibly for a Faith Mission meeting. In the background of the photo, above the beach itself, you can see the remains of the old granary and distillery buildings which stretched along from the harbour. At the bottom right of the photo is an early – and what looks like a very basic – pram. You can see more photos  from the exhibition and more examples of summers in Dunbar on the DDHS website

We were invited to our friends’ son’s wedding in Poland last weekend. The wedding took place in the idyllic setting of Lake Ilawa. There is a complex of large and small lakes in this area and we were in  the town of Ilawa, which is on one of the smaller lakes. 

Looking across Lake Ilawa

The photo above shows the view of Lake Ilawa and this smaller lake had a 2K circumference. This is looking across the water to the Hotel Stary Tartak (good photos) where we stayed and where the wedding took place. The hotel is very comfortable and very cheap by UK standards. Walking around the lake was a pleasure as once you got past the shopping area, few people were about.

Lake Ilawa through the trees

This photo shows the lake through the trees which cover the lakeside but do not obstruct your view and add interest to your walk. We did take a boat trip which began on this lake and went round an island in the next, much bigger lake. It was a very relaxing 50 minutes and although much of the trip passes the lakeside reeds, these are wonderful to look at, as they swayed in the breeze, just like the barley fields at home at the moment.

A coot swims at the lakeside in Ilawa

At the landing where the boat trip starts, there were many ducks and also a number of coots which have the scientific name Fulica Atra. These are very attractive birds but they tend to be very wary of humans in this country and will swim away rapidly at your approach. At the lakeside in Ilawa, the coots are obviously accustomed to people approaching them, so I was pleased to get this photo of the coot and its reflection in the swirling water, with its varied light patterns.

Water lily on the lakeside at the Stary Tartak

Water lilies by the lakeside at the Stary Tartak

At the back of the Hotel Stary Tartak, were outside seating areas and some loungers at the lakeside. When you got to the water’s edge, you could see the large cluster of water lilies (Nymphaea). In the close-up photo above, you can see the beautiful pink petals – inspiration for the Sydney Opera House maybe? – and the delicate yellow stamens reaching for the sun. The 2nd photo shows the water lily flowers sitting on their fan-like leaves amongst the reeds. If you ever need to be away from it all and relax , go and look at some water lilies.

Researching in the National Library of Scotland and prolific lavender in the garden

July 19, 2019

When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh many years ago, access to the National Library of Scotland was denied to undergraduates until they entered their honours year – the fourth year of study. I spent much of this final year in the National Library as I could get documents relating to my dissertation which the university library did not have. I also found it a very conducive place to study as it was quiet and had an academic atmosphere. I was took one of my friends to the Reading Room and he had to leave after a short period of time as he said it was too quiet. Study habits, such as where and when to study, tend to be formed when students are in their early teens and, despite claims you will find on the internet about e.g. the study habits of successful students, individuals differ in the preferences. When I took up local history research a few years ago, after retiring, I went back to the National Library of Scotland (NLS) to get books and articles relating to my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. I still find the NLS an enthralling place to visit.

Stairs up to the Reading Room in the National Library of Scotland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo above (taken on my phone) shows the stairs which lead up to the main Reading Room and the NLS have taken to insert quotations from famous scholars on view here. David Hume was an eighteenth century philosopher who was born in Edinburgh and is recognised as one of the most important philosophers in the world. So there is a grand stairway leading up to where the real research is done.

Looking down from the Reading Room level at the NLS

This photo shows the view from the 2nd flight of stairs above the main stairs. The window frames at the top right are only part of this huge window ” comprising square glass panels each etched with alternating panes of a thistle and Scottish crown and the arms of the principal benefactors of the library”. The ornate banisters on either side are “painted in black with gold leaf and [each] has a mahogany handrail”.  A fuller description can be found here. On the walls are framed examples of some of the illustrative work to be found in the NLS archives. Many visitors come up to this point to admire the interior but only NLS members i.e. people doing research, can enter the Reading Room.

Inside the NLS Reading Room – upstairs

Once you go through the Reading Rooms, you have to place your NLS card on a reader to go further. To get your reserved books – and this is still a predominantly book-based library – you go to a desk where the assistant will retrieve your ordered material. I reserved three books yesterday and collected them today. It is an excellent service as you can return the books and and get them back for another five days. The NLS is not a lending library. Upstairs in the Reading Room, in the photo above, you can see the domed and squared roof windows which let in natural light. This library is for serious research, so it is quiet and therefore conducive to learning. This is not to say that all libraries should be quiet. Far from it – lending and children’s sections of public libraries should encourage conversation and school libraries (one of my former areas of research) should be places where students, teachers and school librarians can discuss what is being studied. The NLS also has regular free exhibitions which are certainly worth visiting.

It is now midway through our summer in the UK and in our garden, the lavender bushes are now at their peak. Lavender plants are prolific growers, with their abundant stems reaching up to one metre above the base. In the winter, the lavender is almost invisible – a series of grey patches in the garden – but in summer, it shoots up to dominate the landscape in a furious burst of colour.

Prolific lavender in our front garden

The photo above shows how the lavenders of different kinds have spread themselves across the garden. Every time I walk into the house, I rub my fingers on a lavender head and take in the wonderful scent provided by the bush. After a shower of rain, if you open the front door, the lavender scent wafts across your face and you can inhale the welcoming odour.

Lavender, hydrangea and roses

The photo above shows how the lavender provides height at the back of our small patch of garden outside the front door. Near the front, the smaller lavender, with its much thicker heads has spread itself over the ground in the past year. The poppies still in flower on the right hand side are accidental i.e. not planted by us but spread by the wind or the birds. Lavender has featured in literature for many centuries. Shakespeare (Winter’s Tale) wrote ” Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;/ The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun”. Lavender has also been seen as health giving. A 1545 herbal states ” I judge that the flowers of lavender quilted in a cappe and dayly worn are good for all diseases of the head”.

A rose after the rain

Finally, one of the climbing roses, seen in close-up – my favourite form of photography. There is startling beauty in this rose – the delicate petals still holding on to the raindrops and the exquisite centre, with its pink and orange. The flowers may only last for about a week in total but the look and smell of them linger in the memory for much longer.

Milkman by Anna Burns and poppies at the side of the railway

July 1, 2019

I have just finished reading Anna Burns‘ Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman (good review). It was a controversial winner of the prize as some reviewers did not enjoy the intensity of the book, which features many long paragraphs describing the feelings of an 18 year girl growing up in an unnamed country in the 1970s. There is no doubt that Burns has created a character – whose name we never discover – with a unique voice, relating to family troubles, her relationship with “maybe boyfriend”, her stalking by a local “renouncer” and her reflections on being an unusual late-teenage girl with conflicting feelings about herself, her environment and her family. We are quickly aware that we are in 1970s Northern Ireland, possibly in Belfast, where Burns grew up. There is a universal aspect to this claustrophobic society, where rumour is rife and controls what people think of each other.

It is also a controlled society, with the powerful state on one side, represented by an oppressive army and police force. These forces – we assume them to be the British – harass the girl’s community ( not stated but clearly Catholic) and support the people “over there” (not stated but clearly Protestant) in the city and “over the water”. There is also internal control by the “renouncers of the state” – the IRA – who rule the girl’s home area and mete out severe punishments on suspected informers. The protagonist, only known as “middle sister” or “daughter” or “maybe-girlfriend”, is seen as unusual as she does not conform to unstated and unwritten rules of her community.

The book can be difficult to read at times – it is occasionally repetitive about this closed society – but Burns manages to move the story on and include some dark humour to illuminate a potentially gloomy plot. It is certainly a different kind of novel but one well worth buying. I read it in small chunks and it might be more rewarding to make a more sustained effort to get the best effect.

An intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We seem to have had an extended period of wind from the east this year – and that means cool to cold around here – so I have been cycling in that direction for a while now. The route takes me on the road to the local cement works, where I join a cycle path. At the moment, the countryside is full of growth. The once green barley now has multi-grained heads and has turned slightly yellow, as it sways in the wind. The sprout plants which looked pale, forlorn and unlikely to survive, have now blossomed into more substantial and healthy looking plants, although they still have a lot of growing to do. The potato fields are now in flower as are the fields of peas, which must be profitable this year as there are many more stretches of pea-green to be seen. On the side of the fields, there are scatterings of poppies, some bright red, some pale red and a few purple heads can also be seen.

I stopped my bike on the cycle path next to the railway on one side and the muddy tracks of the cement works on the other, to admire a mass of poppies. In the photo below, you can see that when you get closer, you are looking at more than poppies, as scattered amongst the swaying redheads are a variety of wildflowers and thistles.

Poppies at the side of the cycle track

I last posted on poppies in 2016 and quoted the poet Sujata Bhatt and her poem which describes wild poppies as “a living flame of love” and as “a wildfire / by the roads”. The poet sees “how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” and if you look close at poppies, you see their silk-like heads. I took a video on my phone of the scene and you can see the contrast between “the living flame” of the poppies and the green of the ivy.

Poppies at the side of the tracks near the cement works

One of the photos of a large poppy head in my garden in 2016 was used in that blog post. You can see in the photo below that the petals do have a silky sheen and that the centre piece could be mistaken for some kind of tarantula, either real or mythical.

Inside a poppy head

As I was scrolling through photos of this year, I came across this close up of a tulip head and it has a striking similarity to that of the poppy head, but with a different species of 6 legged creature in the middle. They are both exquisite examples of design in nature which provides inspiration to poets and artists alike.

Tulip head with tarantula centre

Book on East Lothian and the Longest Day

June 24, 2019

One of the books I was given for my significant birthday in October was East Lothian which contains striking photographs by Liz Hanson and a well written brief history of my home county by Alistair Moffat. It can probably be described as a coffee table book, but it has been up on my little book easel for weeks now, as I (if I remember) turn over a page every day. This means that we see the images and perhaps read some of the text on a regular basis, as opposed to having the book lying about – maybe on a coffee table – and hardly being opened. So, if you have some books – maybe as presents – I urge you to buy an easel, so that you get much more pleasure from books with many photos or paintings in them.

Lavishly illustrated book on the county of East Lothian (Click on all images to enlarge – recommended)

The book covers the major towns in East Lothian, including Dunbar, as well as much of the farmland. East Lothian is known as the garden of Scotland because of its rich red soil, which is ideal for barley, wheat, oats, oil seed rape (canola in Australia), potatoes, peas, beans and turnips (swedes). The famous golf courses in East Lothian are also featured.

Looking towards Bolton

The photo above shows an oil seed rape field at its brightest, next to the hamlet of Bolton (good photos) , near the county town of Haddington. Bolton is best known for its graveyard, where the mother of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, is buried. I cycle through Bolton from time to time and it’s a very pleasant spot.

Bare trees and shadows in Gifford

The photo above is taken in the very attractive (and affluent) village of Gifford (good photos). The trees overlook a walled area, known as the village green, but which may well have been used to graze sheep or hold a sheep market in the past. You can walk round the village, with its mixture of traditional solid sandstone houses (seen in the photo) and more modern housing. There is a river which flows through part of the village and you can overlook the river from 2 bridges in the village. I like the way Liz Hanson has captured the shadows of the winter trees across the green. I have enjoyed this book and it will take its place on the easel again at some point.

On Friday, it was the longest day of the year here. Of course, in Australia – where many of you are – it was the shortest day. The summer solstice occurs when the sun – in summer here – is closest to the equator, as one definition has it. Now, given the size of the earth and that of the sun, we should surely talk about the earth’s equator being closest to the sun. Otherwise, we could be seen as going back to the old beliefs that the sun went round the earth. An article in IB Times states that “The origin of the word ‘solstice’ is derived from the Latin word sōlstitium. It literally translates to ‘the (apparent) standing still of the sun’.” A definition of solstice – a French word – covering both seasons states  “the time of year that seems to never end. The longest days of summer the unending nights of winter”. So our nights are getting shorter, although only by a very small amount of time. A local expression here is “Aye, the nights are fair drawin’ in”.

Sun rays over Dunbar on the longest day of 2019
Red sky and pink sea on the longest day of 2019

I took the two photos above at 22.45pm on 21st June, although the actual solstice took place at 16.54pm. To the naked eye, it was lighter than in the photos, but the sky was an intriguing mixture of shapes and colours, both of which were changing all the time. In a matter of a couple of minutes, clouds changed their shapes e.g. became more elongated, and colours both deepened – red – and brightened – pink. The second photo shows the reflection of the sky in the sea, which took on a light pink colour, like looking at a tasty bottle of Provence rosé.

I took this video twenty minutes earlier and it is something we can return to in the winter, when there will be more than eight hours less light on the shortest day of the year.