Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

New tatties and Van Gogh in Arles

September 10, 2019

Last year’s dry summer in Dunbar meant that the potato crop in the small plot in my garden only produced tatties the size of golf balls. They had the requisite thin skins and were tasty, but we soon got through them. This year, the rains came – often fortunately at night – and this, combined with some warm weather has meant a bumper crop. The photo below shows the potatoes which have just been dug out of the ground with the fork. This was from two of the smaller shaws at the front of the plot. They tasted delicious and I enjoyed eating the first, gently boiled potato with some butter. I’m sure that there is some psychological effect of tasting a vegetable that you have planted in the Spring, watched as the shaws developed and the flowers came and went, and then saw the slight yellowing of the shaws, and then dug them up to eat an hour or two later. They are still tasting as good as on that first day. Add some creme fraiche to the chunks of potato on your plate to enhance the flavour.

Newly dug potatoes in my garden (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

This being my blog, regular readers will know that I cannot mention digging without referring to Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poem about watching his father in the garden. This is one of Heaney’s best known poems but it is always rewarding to read it or hear Heaney himself reading it, as in the video below. The poet hears ” a clean rasping sound/ When the spade sinks into gravelly ground” and he remembers his father digging potatoes twenty years before. The father knows how to dig properly i.e. ” The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/ Against the inside knee was levered firmly”. Every year when I dig up the new tatties, I remember Heaney’s line “Loving their cool hardness in our hands” as I pick up the still dirt stained, solid potatoes. It is a joyful moment.

Back to France. Arles is rightly famous for its Roman heritage (last week’s blog) but it is also known for its Van Gogh connection. The first venue was the Espace Van Gogh in the centre of town. This is the site of what was Arles’ main hospital and it was here that the demented painter came when he cut off his earlobe in a depressive state. The photo below is of the well manicured gardens and you can still see part of the cloistered walkway which was part of the hospital. Despite it being a scene of horror for Van Gogh, this is a very tranquil area today. The artist painted the gardens (see below) and there has been an attempt to recreate what he saw during his time at the hospital.

Espace Van Gogh in Arles
Le Jardin de L’Hotel de Dieu by Vincent Van Gogh

Our next stop was the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation (good photos) in Arles. This is a modern building housing extensive exhibition space, plus workrooms and a library. We saw the exhibition of Niko Pirosmani (good photos) paintings, which were impressive. There was also a smaller – but still fascinating – exhibition of some of Van Gogh’s own work. The highlight was his different versions of The Sower or Le Semeur in French. The photo below shows the version entitled The Sower 1888. What is interesting about this painting is that while the fields below the sower are depicted in impressionist styles, the tree, the sun and Le Semeur himself are quite clearly shown, and this was deliberate on Van Gogh’s part. It is a stunning painting to look at – so much colour and light and detail in the figure, the tree and the sky. You need some time to study this work of art and take in all its different components to really appreciate it. Every time you come back to the painting, something different catches your eye.

Van Gogh’s The Sower

The next photo shows a close-up of part of the painting and if you enlarge this, you will see the swirling lines in the sower’s coat and hat, as well as the range of colours in the field being sown. I thought that this gave me a fuller sense of the construction of the painting and its constituent parts. It’s a real privilege to see these paintings as actual works by Van Gogh and looking at them again, I’m still in awe of his talent.

Close up of part of Van Gogh’s Le Semeur

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Arles’ Roman heritage and Washington Black

September 3, 2019

Our next trip after Poland was to the south of France and the historic Provence town of Arles (local pronunciation Arr-le). We flew to Marseille and the train from the airport direct to Arles takes a mere 38 minutes. As well as being very well known for its Van Gogh connection (later post), Arles was a major town during the Roman occupation, (as locals would have called it) of what was later to become Provence, in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Some of the ruins in the town were built during the reign of Augustus Caesar and thus fall into the BCE i.e. they are over 2000 years old. The most impressive – and the most visited – Roman built edifice in Arles is the huge, circular amphitheatre. It was built in the late 1st century as an arena of public entertainment and crowds of up to 20,000 could watch chariot races and combating gladiators. It is still used today for bullfighting as well as plays and festivals.

It is a very impressive sight as the photo below shows. You do not get a true picture of the arena today as it is covered with scaffolded seating, but it is not difficult to imagine the crowds sitting on the stone terraces and cheering on their favourite charioteers or gladiators. While today’s football and rugby stadiums may be bigger, more comfortable and technologically advanced compared with the Roman version, this first century feat of architecture, engineering and stone masonry matches them.

Roman amphitheatre in Arles (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

When you look at the huge walls (1st photo below) and the corridors (2nd photo) behind the seated areas, you can appreciate just what an accomplishment the building of this amphitheatre was. The Romans had no mechanical stone-cutters, no no forklift trucks, no digitally controlled cranes and no cement lorries. This arena was built by labourers and stone-masons with very basic scaffolding and block-and-tackle pulleys which were manually operated. When you look up at the size of some of the stones used as lintels in the corridors, you are reminded of the superb knowledge and skills that the Romans had in creating something this spectacular. This amphitheatre could last another 1000 years. How long will our modern day stadia last?

The walls of the Arles’ amphitheatre
The corridors of the Arles’ Amphitheatre

I took this video of the arena and it includes views across the town of Arles, through which the might Rhone river elegantly flows. You can watch the video here.

Not far from the Roman amphitheatre in Arles, there is another hugely impressive feature of Roman architecture. The Roman Theatre (very good photos) held 10,000 people when it was full and was an important cultural centre in the town during the Roman occupation. It was here that the more educated class of people in Arles could watch Greek and Roman plays. The photo below shows the view from the stage and the circular seating area. Standing on the stage, you can imagine the actors in full voice – there was no artificial amplification then – acting out a tragedy or comedy.

Roman Theatre in Arles

At the back of the stage, two of the original pillars have survived and the bases of other pillars are clearly visible (photo below). The audience would therefore have seen the stage and its highly decorative backdrop, made possible of course, as this is an outdoor theatre. In the background in the photo below, you can see the many other stone remains of the Roman period and some of the sculpture on the stone is very impressive. This is a very large area and there are two more sections to the left of this photo where you can wander around the huge and small blocks of stone. The Romans built big – to show the might of the Empire and to impress the locals by the sophistication of the different elements of the stone structures, as well as the aesthetic qualities on show in the plays.

The Roman Theatre in Arles

The theatre was surrounded by thick stone walls, with a number of gates through which the audience could enter. The photo below shows one of these gates. Of course, entrance would be controlled and there would have been special entrances for the Roman governor, his administrators and his troops. You can see some of the many arches above the gates in the photo and there is a range of styles in the stone which form the arches. This is one of Arles’ must visits and the ability to walk round and feel the smooth stones which were originally moved, sculpted and put into place in 12BCE, is an enhancing experience.

One of the entrance gates in the Roman theatre in Arles

We also visited the extensive Roman baths (good photos) – the Thermes de Constantin – and you can see the areas in which people took their baths. The information board tells you that these were the baths for the ordinary people of Arles, and that men and women bathed naked here at allocated times. The wealthier locals and the Romans did not use these baths , as they had their own private baths in their extensive houses.

The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has written an intriguing novel in Washington Black (review). The book begins in a slave plantation in the West Indies and we are introduced to 11 year old Washington Black, who witnesses the horrors of the slave trade. While memories of the plantation haunt the man reflecting on this time and indeed haunt the book, the story moves on quickly as Washington Black is taken on as an assistant by Christopher (Titch) Wilde. The boy proves to be intelligent and artistic and soon gains knowledge of hot-air balloon technology, as well as the natural world.

This is an adventure story as well as a reflection on freedom – from slavery and from families – and Washington Black escapes with Wilde to the Arctic, where they find Wilde’s eccentric father. In further escapades, he is taken to Morocco and London. While some of the story means that the reader has to accept unlikely escapes e.g. from a bounty hunter, Edugyan is a brilliant storyteller and you are carried along by the story. Edugyan is also a stylistic and at times poetic writer e.g. her descriptions of the view of the plantation from a nearby hill or the Arctic ice scapes. Later in the novel, Black shows himself to be an inventor and natural scientist, the equal of his white employees. Whether he will get recognition for his work is not in his hands. The novel is a rewarding read and, despite some of the hard to believe coincidences and outcomes in the book, I recommend that you buy it.

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic and Gdansk church buildings

August 27, 2019

Note: The images have been sorted and now show as they should i.e. vertical

When I read a new book of poetry or a novel which has extensive reviews at the beginning, I try to avoid reading what will obviously be praiseworthy (but sometimes exaggeratedly so) comments. I have just finished reading Ilya Kaminsky’s outstanding book of poetry Deaf Republic (review). Unusually for a book of poetry, Kaminsky is telling a story – in a series of incidents – recalling a fictional town somewhere in eastern Europe which has been occupied by soldiers. The book begins with a reflection on the occupation, with the title of the first poem being We Lived Happily during the War and the narrator states that when houses were bombed, “we opposed them/ but not enough”. Kaminsky has some beautiful images throughout the book. The people of Vasenka tell the story while “on balconies,/ the wind fondles laundry lines”. A deaf boy Petya, is shot by soldiers in the snowy street and the people respond by adopting a collective deafness, which “passes through us like a police whistle”. There continues a passive – although not always – resistance as the people refuse to hear the soldiers. “The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paper clip” is a startling image, perhaps denoting how insignificant the oppressors view the boy and the other citizens of the town.

While the story is a mainly tragic one, there are scenes which show that humour can still exist in time of war. The people hang puppets outside their doors to mock the soldiers. Other scenes talk of the love one of the narrators has for his pregnant wife, as he reflects on their courtship – “we kissed a coin from your mouth to mine”. The people’s deafness to the soldiers means that they develop sign language and Kaminsky – partially deaf since the age of four – reflects on deafness at times in the book, but not in a didactic manner. This is the best book of poetry I have read for a long time and it fully deserves the glowing reviews such as that of Andrew Motion “Deaf Republic is a wonderful book, comprised of brilliantly realised vignettes in which violence, tenderness, exuberance and suffering combine to create a folk drama that feels archetypal, yet is deeply revealing of our here and now”. If you only buy one book of poetry this year, make it this one.

Kaminsky’s brilliant book of poems (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

There are many churches in Gdansk and you only have to look at the skyline to see the proliferation of spires to realise this. St Kathryn’s church is one the first to be seen on the main tourist route in the city. It dates back to the 14th century and had its ceiling repaired after a fire in 2006.

The photo below shows the outside of the church with its attractive tower and spire. The tower contains what the above website calls ” a 49 bell carillon”. This is a new word to me and carillon means ” a set of fixed chromatically tuned bells sounded by hammers controlled from a keyboard”. The bells sound every hour and as you walk around Gdansk, the sound of bells from different areas of the city are a pleasant feature.

St Kathryn’s church in Gdansk

Inside the church (photo below) you can see the patterned ceiling done in an abstract manner and you start to follow the lines across the ceiling until you reach the altar. For a long established Catholic church, St Kathryn’s is relatively unadorned. The pulpit on the left has some delicate woodwork and at first, you wonder how the priest might enter this small space. You then see the two folds of the small door at the back.

Inside St Kathryn’s church in Gdansk

There is a donations box – more a of a trunk than a box – and you can see from the photo below that the church has never taken chances with the money being deposited in the trunk. The huge padlocks would take some shifting. The church obviously appreciates the generosity of it parishioners and visitors, but is also aware of potential thieves.

On a much grander scale is St Mary’s Basilica (good photos) which dominates the city and can be seen from most areas. It claims to be the largest brick church in the world and it certainly has a very impressive exterior. The view below is from Mariacka Street, featured in the last blog post. It is when you walk to the end of the street and round to your right, that you see the extent of this huge edifice. I wondered how many bricklayers (and how many bricks and how much composite material i.e. mortar) worked on this church and for how long. As a student in Edinburgh, I worked on building sites as a labourer and in my third year’s summer break, I got a job as a brickie’s labourer. In the hierarchy of building sites, this is a major step up.

St Mary’s Basilica at the end of Mariacka Street in Gdansk

It also has an unusual interior, with dazzling whiteness greeting the entrant to the church. The photo below shows the white walls and patterned ceiling, which provide a suitable back drop for the suspended candelabras. As with St Kathryn’s, there is a starkness about the church, but it is beautifully adorned with flags and sculptures. It has a huge interior with 31 chapels lining the sides of the church and it would take you a long time to walk around the whole cathedral and visit all the different chapels.

Inside St Mary’s Basilica in Gdansk

One of the most striking parts of the basilica for me was the organ (photo below) as it has a beautiful symmetry, with the organ pipes clearly on show and topped with elaborate decoration, in contrast to the main part of the church. I am sure that it must make a mighty sound in order to fill this cavernous basilica. You had admire the craftsmanship of those who built this majestic instrument, as well as its predecessors. This organ dates from 1985, but the earliest organs in the church go back to the 15th century and were destroyed in the fire of 1945. We will never see the original organs but we can imagine that they too would have the grandeur of their descendant.

St Mary’s Basilica’s organ

There are many more churches to visit in Gdansk, as well as several museums, one of which is the Museum of the 2nd World War, which is housed in a very modern building, with its huge glass front (photo below). We visited the museum but there were very long and immobile queues, so booking online is probably the best bet for this potentially fascinating museum.

The Baltic city of Gdansk and the Literacka restaurant

August 21, 2019

A two week break in the blog as we were in the south of France for a week, meeting friends from Australia. We spent a day in Gdansk on our trip to the wedding in Poland and it is a very impressive city. When you walk around some parts of Gdansk, you feel as if you could be in Amsterdam as you look at the narrow buildings in some of the streets. The photo below shows one of the decorated set of flats in one of the main streets in Gdansk. It looks as if it might have been slotted in between the two wider houses on either side.

Colourful building in Gdansk (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Farther down this street, you come to the magnificent Town Hall – Ratusz in Polish – which was built in the late 14th century and its tower and spire dominate the city skyline. As you can see in the photo below, the tower is a magnificent site and is all the more remarkable as it was mostly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt. The building now houses a museum which charts the history of the city. You can climb up the tower to a balcony just above the clock, although we passed on this as there was a large queue.

The tower of the Town Hall in Gdansk

If you keep walking on this street, you come to a gateway which would have, at one time, separated the port from the rest of the city. The Vistula River goes into the sea at Gdansk and part of the river side has been transformed into a row of restaurants on one side and hotels on the other. The side with the restaurants is very similar to the port side in Copenhagen. One of the most famous landmarks in this area is The Crane (good photos) which is a 15th century structure formerly used to load and unload cargoes and also insert masts on to ships. As you can see below, it is a magnificent sight when viewed across the river and would have completely dominated the harbour area in its functional days.

The Crane in Gdansk

From this side of the river, you also get superb views of the Gdansk skyline with its many spires and towers, as well as the Dutch looking buildings – old and new – across the river. The newer buildings are aesthetically pleasing with their traditional shapes and attractive glass. On the river itself, there is a constant flow of cruise barges and boats. The city was jam packed with tourists in some areas but there are also many quieter back streets to stroll along.

Gdansk skyline from the riverside

Parallel to the main Dluga Street, with its rows of restaurants, street performers and sellers, is the Ulica Mariacka which is a much quieter and narrower street, and during the daytime it is filled on both sides with little stalls selling amber goods. You can see some of the stalls at the bottom of the photo below. At the top of the photo is the tower of St Mary’s basilica. We noticed a promising looking restaurant at the end of the street and returned there in the evening – a very good choice. The Literacka (good photos of the inside) is a wine bar and a restaurant with a difference. The name of the restaurant means literary in English and the very helpful waitress explained that the building was formerly known as The House of Poets, as it was used by writers and poets in the Polish Writers’ Association. The food was excellent and we had (phone photo below) beautifully cooked sea bass on snow peas, with potato puree and a jug of delicate sauce. The cost of the main course was about £10 each, so excellent value, given the service, the tasteful interior decoration, white table cloths and friendly service.

Sea bass at the Literacka

When we had finished our meal, the waitress brought the bill in this book (photo below) and told us that each person paying the bill got a different book – what a brilliant idea! I told the waitress that I had two books by Cesare Pavese the famous Italian author of the 20th century. I looked up the title in Polish and it means beach in English. I checked my shelves and the 2nd photo below shows my copy – an English translation of the same book, so a neat connection. The restaurant is well worth visiting if you are ever in this strikingly attractive city.

Plaza by Cesare Pavese in Polish
Novel by Cesare Pavese

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.

Malcolm Mackay novel and Peebles revisited

July 9, 2019

Having taken a few weeks to read Milkman (previous post), I read Malcolm Mackay’s How a Gunman Says Goodbye in a week. This is a crime novel – which won the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year Award – with a difference. In most crime fiction, the police are the main characters and the focus is on their thinking and their procedures and (mostly) how they solve the crime. In Mackay’s novel – the 2nd in a trilogy about the Glasgow underworld – the focus is on the criminals themselves and in particular, on Frank MacLeod who has spent his adult life as a gunman or hit man for organised crime in the city. Mackay takes us very convincingly into the mind of Frank (as he is referred to in the novel) and his boss Peter Jamieson, who runs legitimate bars and nightclubs but is also involved in drug dealing. The novel is written in short sentences and short chapters but this adds to the quality of the writing, rather than detracting from it e.g. “People [other gunmen] get surprised by something and freeze. Never happened to Frank”. There is an excellent array of characters with some deep insight into the mindset of Frank, a young gunman Calum and Jamieson. The plot moves with alacrity and the reader is constantly wondering what will happen next. My attempts to second guess Mackay all failed. Frank MacLeod is obviously a bad person, who has killed many people to order, but the reader will have some sympathy with Frank’s dilemna – no spoiler here – around which the book is shaped. We should not sympathise with such a character, but we do. There are policemen in the book but they are on the sidelines. So how does a gunman say goodbye? You will have to read this highly recommended book. There is a very good interview with Malcolm Mackay here.

Excellent crime novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the weekend, we had a visit from my friend and ex-colleague Bob, on a visit from Australia, who has been to Dunbar a number of times but had never visited Peebles in the Scottish Borders. We had a walk along Peebles’ attractive High Street with its late Victorian architecture and I took Bob down a close (Scots for alley or vennel) to see the door of what is still a painter’s and decorator’s business. In the photo below, you can see that this ornate leaded window on the door shows the much wider extent of the business in former times. A gilder was “someone whose occupation was to apply an overlay of gold or gilt” according to one dictionary. The firm also installed windows – glazier and painted signs for businesses – sign writer. A bellhanger turns out to be what it says on the tin – a skilled tradesman who hung bells, presumably in churches.

Windows on a door in Peebles

We then had a 4 mile walk (good photos) along the River Tweed which runs through Peebles. It was a sunny day and there were excellent reflections of the trees across the river. In the photo below, you can see how the reflections slightly blur the image of the trees, but still give you a double view of the trunks and extensive branches of the trees that line the river bank.

The River Tweed in Peebles

Further on in the walk, we looked up to see Neidpath Castle and the website cited contains a very good aerial view of the castle at this time of year. I took the photo below in the winter time, so the trees are bare, but this gives you a clearer view of the castle itself. The castle has a long history going back to the 12th century and it is described as “rubble-built” i.e. mainly of rough stone and you can see this from the ruined section to the left of the castle.

Neidpath Castle near Peebles

The walk then passes a very impressive bridge along which the railway used to run. The photo below – again taken in the winter on another visit – shows the structure of the bridge, which has eight arches and in the column at the side of each arch, there is a cross., the significance of which I could not find. Above the arches, you can see the cast-iron railings which are another attractive feature of what is called the Neidpath Viaduct.

The old railway bridge near Peebles

The walk continues to another bridge which we crossed and made our way back to Peebles over the hill and along the side of the extensive forest.

Scottish Birds photography and the white sands of Jervis Bay

January 22, 2019

As a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, albeit as only an occasional bird watcher, I receive the journal Scottish Birds – see latest cover ( and some content) here. For serious birders – do not use the pejorative term twitchers – there are many well researched and peer-reviewed articles in the journal. My main interest is in the photography. Through the help of Harry Scott of Pica Design and with the permission of the photographers, I am able to reproduce three aesthetically pleasing examples here.

The first is of a honey-buzzard (below) which was captured in flight, showing its magnificent wingspan. This bird is a living creature but also a work of art. It is beautifully symmetrical – look at the outer wing, finger-like feathers and the Australian aboriginal-like painting patterns on the wings. The bird’s tail could be a Japanese fan, used to display status and cool down its user, as opposed to being part of this superb hunter’s killing machine. The eyes and the beak look small and insignificant in comparison, but they too are part of the hunter’s toolkit. I see many more common buzzards as I cycle around the countryside than I did a few years ago and buzzards often sit on fences next to a dual carriageway in our county. They look in control of their territory and their elegant flight is something to see.

Honey Buzzard – Copyright John Anderson (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second photo is of avocets (below)which have the superb Latin name recurvirostra avosetta, which translates as having a curved back and beak. The avocet really is a most elegant bird, with its long straight legs like pillars holding up an earthquake threatened building, an upright stance and that beak which is turned up at the end, giving the bird a haughty look. There’s an excellent video of avocets here (scroll down to the video) where you can hear the birds chitter-chattering and watch their non-stop action in preening and feeding.

Avocets Copyright Ron Penn

The third photo (below) is a new bird to me, the kildeer (good photos) – the charadrius vociferous – which has a distinctive call and is a rare visitor to the UK. This photo was taken in Shetland and was only the 5th sighting in 50 years. This is a small bird but the shapes formed by the colours of the feathers around the eye, beak and neck give it a rare elegance. The subtle brown of the feathers on its back draws your eye to the black stripes and up to the slightly darker brown around its alert eye.

Kildeer Copyright Donna Atherton

While staying with our friends on our last stop in Australia recently, they took us down the coast to the idyllic beaches at Jervis Bay (good photos). We have a beach called Whitesands not far from Dunbar and it is a beautiful beach. In terms of being white however, Jervis Bay beaches are a long way ahead. The photo below shows one of the white beaches through the trees next to the road above the beach and you can see the brightness of the beach and the delicate turquoise of the sea.

Once you were down on the shore, there were big waves rolling in. The water was not as warm as we enjoyed in Port Douglas, but it was still very pleasant for a paddle. You can see in the photo below the whiteness of the collapsed waves, the bluey green sea behind and the slope of the beach. There was a considerable drag each time a wave performed its diving act and turned back to meet the next wave.

As we walked through the bush at the edge of the beach, we came across this friendly gecko, which was completely undisturbed by my close-up photography and seemed willing to pose for the camera. In the first photo below, the gecko catches your eye first but then you see the huge spider-like split in the tree trunk, as you follow the gecko’s tail to the leaf-laden floor of the bush.

In the next photo, the gecko’s ability to camouflage itself is apparent and when it climbed further up the tree trunk, it was hard to spot against the darker wood. I loved the rough curves and lines of the gum tree trunk, which had cast off the bark it no longer needed. There is a plethora of Australian geckos which you can see here. If you have more time and patience than me, I’m sure you might be able to identify this particular type of gecko.

New Year walks, pelican in the chip shop and Kiama blowhole

January 15, 2019

On New Year’s Day, we woke to 2019 to see a fairly clear sky and a sunny day albeit with a coldish westerly. So as to make the most of the light, we headed off in the morning to St Abbs Head, which has featured many times on this blog and is one of our favourite places. We parked overlooking the harbour and there is a superb view from here, as in this 2017 photograph, which takes in the main harbour, the outer harbour and the lifeboat station.

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Looking down on St Abbs Head Harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

We walked from east to west as far as the lighthouse which was built by the Stevenson brothers in 1862. It’s an unusual lighthouse in that it sits on the edge of the mainland, high above the sea, as in the photo below.

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St Abbs Head lighthouse

On the walk there and on the way back, we noticed that an area next to the shore had been cordoned off and a notice said that seal pups were being protected. We saw 2 pups down on the rocky shore. When they are still, the pups are very well camouflaged and look like some of the bigger rocks. So silky smooth when in the water, the seal pups clumsily made their way across the rocks to the flatter part of the shore, maybe to enjoy the winter sun. I could not find any current information on the seals, but this 2017 report (good photo) is very informative about the St Abbs seals.

Back at the car above the harbour, I took this short video.

On the 2nd January, we took a walk along the wide stretch of Belhaven Beach. When we got to the bridge, although the tide was out, it was not far enough out and we could not cross the bridge, as the far end was covered in water. So we walked along the Dump Road to West Barns Bridge (photos from previous post) and out to the beach. The wind had eased from yesterday, so it was warmer and we could stand and watch the huge waves hurtle themselves on to the beach. There were quite a few surfers out and while some eased gracefully along a big wave, others were knocked flat by an incoming rush of water. There was a glorious sound of incoming waves, followed by a sluuurrrp as the waves hit the beach and dashed back out. The photo below shows the drama of the waves. 

Big waves and minuscule surfer on Belhaven Beach

I took a video of the waves and swung the camera round to see the chalets at Belhaven with the golf course behind.

The last stop on our overseas trip was to visit our very good friends Bob and Robyn at their idyllic house near Berry in New South Wales. They met us off the train at Kiama which is a very attractive coastal town not far from Berry. There’s a very good fish and chip shop/restaurant that overlooks the water – The Kiama Harbour Cafe. The fish and chips were excellent, but what is different about this fish and chip shop is that they have a pelican which nonchalantly walks about the shop and cafe – see the photo below -which shows the pelican waiting expectantly for fish – it does not like chips apparently – next to our table.

Friendly pelican in Kiama cafe

Kiama is probably best known for its spectacular blowhole (good photos) and it is a fascinating sight, as people watch in anticipation of the seawater being blasted into the air. The blowhole’s action comes from large waves entering a small cavern and compressing the air, which then forces the water out of the gap. This photo below shows a medium-sized eruption of water. You watch and watch for the really big blow-out and of course, this happens when you walk away and hear the other viewers yell out “WOW!”. There is an excellent coastal walk that you can do when visiting Kiama, taking in more than one blowhole, fascinating rock structures and unspoilt beaches.

Water spurting out the Kiama blowhole

Lucy Newton exhibition and back to Wagga Wagga

January 8, 2019

We recently visited Lucy Newton‘s superb exhibition of wildlife paintings at Waterston House, Aberlady. The exhibition runs until 16 January and it really is worth a visit. I last reviewed Lucy Newton’s work on the blog in 2017 and I did wonder if this new exhibition could be a as good as the previous one. The new exhibition is not just as good but better than the previous one, with the artist’s intelligence, skills and brilliant technique on show to even greater effect. Lucy Newton kindly sent me examples of her work.

The first portrait below is an exquisite depiction of a curlew – my favourite bird – which I regularly watch through my scope on the rocks near our house. The actual painting is much more effective in terms of the quality of the bird’s features and background, but I do like the way the artist has portrayed the elegance of the curlew with its long beak, strong upright stance and delicate colours in its plumage. There is a slight haughtiness but not arrogance in the curlew – it knows that it is bigger than other birds and can delve further under the rocks than the others also. I recently watched a curlew twist its head and push its beak under a rock. The beak emerged with a good sized crab wriggling in it. The curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab in the air, opened its beak and swallowed the crab whole.

Curlew by Lucy Newton (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is of a grey wagtail and again, this reproduction of the work does not do it full justice. The colours of the wagtail immediately catch your eye, the delicate greys and the striking yellow contrasting very well with the more Impressionist depiction of the rocks behind. The detail in the bird’s feathers is very impressive and Lucy Newton captures the tense awareness of the bird – ever alert to what might be happening in its environment. The artist catches the softer elements of the wagtail’s plumage, but also the sharp lines of its beak, legs and tail to very good effect. I looked at this painting for quite a while, forever noticing some new detail.

Grey wagtail by Lucy Newton

The third example from the exhibition is of a red squirrel and here Lucy Newton’s artistry shines out. Look at the bristling tail of the squirrel, its soft ears and nose and very keen eye. Again the sharp portrait of the animal contrasts with the softer background of the tree trunk, with its gnarled features and lichens, which are so softly painted that you feel that if you reached out, they would be delicate to your touch. Few artists have the ability to draw and paint the squirrel’s fur in such beautiful detail, but Lucy Newton has the imagination, skill and remarkable technique to produce such an outstanding piece of art. Get to see this exhibition if you possibly can. Unsurprisingly, many of the paintings had been sold.

Red squirrel by Lucy Newton

In the 2000s, we lived in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga for 3 years, when I worked at Charles Sturt University. I then taught from my home in Dunbar for another 6 years, going back to Wagga (as the locals call it) for 6 weeks every year. We returned to see many friends at Wagga Wagga Road Runners on our recent visit to Australia and stayed with our very good friends Paul and Sonya – superb hosts. The Murrumbidgee River (good photos) flows through Wagga Wagga – designated as an inland city – and there are some lovely walks along the river close to the centre of town. The photo below shows some of the beautiful gum trees along the riverside. The gum trees of course shed their bark, not their leaves and then they reveal smooth trunks. I like the reflections in this photo – of the trees, the riverbank and the cow on the far side.

Gum trees on the Murrumbidgee in Wagga Wagga

One of the remarkable features of the river at dusk is the arrival of very excited and very loud sulphur crested cockatoos – photo below. If you check the link and scroll down to Calls, you will hear the screeching noise these birds make. Imagine the racket you will hear if you go down to the river at dusk and maybe 200 birds arrive to roost, but not before they produce a deafening cacophony. They are attractive looking birds with their distinctive yellow crest and white plumage and will land quite close to you.

Sulphur crested cockatoo

We also made a nostalgic visit to the Pomingalarna Reserve (good photos) to walk around one of the many tracks. When we arrived in Australia we quickly discovered that you cannot run (my wife) nor cycle (me) in most country areas as you can in Scotland, so you need to go to designated areas. The reserve is well known as the home of two mobs of kangaroos and it is unusual for a visitor to the park – runner, cyclist or walker – not to see a kangaroo. We only saw some of these amazing animals from a distance, as the photo below shows, but we did see a large group bounding across the grass and into the forest – a fascinating sight. The second photo is from 2011 and shows the kangaroos on the golf course at the entrance to Pomingalarna. When conditions are very dry, the kangaroos will venture on to the course to find water. Note the flag on the green in the background.

Pomingalarna is a very interesting and attractive part of Wagga Wagga as it features a wide variety of trees, animals and birds, so it is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

 

Kangaroos at Pomingalarna

“Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” and Whakarewarewa Maori village

January 1, 2019

At the moment, on my little easel in the room where I write, there is a book which one of my sons gave me for my birthday this year. It is (cover below) entitled “Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” by Michael Blann. Each day, I turn over the page and see and read about some of the stunning looking, but often exhausting (for cyclists) roads, often with multiple bends, leading into the mountains. The book covers the mountain climbs in Le Tour de France but also the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d’Italia and Swiss and Austrian cycle races. There are many beautiful photographs in the book of the landscapes through which the cyclists pass at various times of the year, so the photos can appeal to those interested in cycling but also to those who have no interest, but enjoy seeing very different mountain views in European countries.

M Blann’s superb book (click on all photos to enlarge)

I picked out two photos from the book to show contrasting views of the mountain climbs. The first view (below) shows the twisting route on the Luz Ardiden which is an HC climb – the toughest on Le Tour. HC means hors categorie i.e. beyond categorisation. This area is in the Haute (High) Pyrennees and the climb lasts 13.1K with some very steep parts included. The website notes that the descent from the top is the best of all descents in Le Tour. As you can see in the photo, the 25 hairpin bends would make this quite a spectacle on Le Tour with riders either straining every sinew to get to the top or risking a crash coming down the road at top speed, which can mean well over 100kph for the top riders. When you look at the enlarged photo and follow the bends, it can be quite hard to stop your eyes drifting down the side of the mountain. There is a building – looks like a house in the middle of the bottom 3rd of the picture. The house must have amazing views but, even in a car, this would be dizzying ascent to get home.

Luz Ardiden in the south of France

The second photo (below) is by way of contrast to the first photo and many of the views we get on the TV coverage of Le Tour – the castles, the forests, the fields of barley or sunflowers. This view shows that cyclists have to traverse some parts of the mountains which are not viewed as picturesque. This route is part of Le Cols des Champs  and is called the grey shale summit. As you can see in the top left of the photo, the areas is mixed and there are some very attractive parts of this ride on Le Tour. While this part of the race may look uninteresting because of the road going through what may be a disused shale mine, there is still a fascination in the potentially vertiginous descent in which the riders are engaged. There is also a stark beauty in the layering of the shale on the slopes.

Le Col des Champs – the grey shale summit

From France to New Zealand and a complete contrast in landscape. On our trip to the north island of New Zealand, we visited the town of Rotorua which is famous for its geysers. Our aim was to see the Maori village of Whakarewarewa (good video). The village’s name is pronounced Foka -rewa-rewa as our guide told us and she also gave us the full name of the village- in the photo below. The village is still owned and inhabited by local Maori people. On the tour, we were given the history of the village which dates back 300 years to a gathering of troops by a chief named Wahiao and the full name refers to this conflict between tribes.

Maori village in Rotorua

The photo below shows part of the village, which was built on geothermal land so the people could benefit from heat generated. The guide explained that this was potentially dangerous as a new geyser could erupt under any house. There were early warning signs and some houses had to be moved. It is a strange sensation when you first look across the houses, but as you walk through the village, you soon become accustomed to this new, steamy environment. What you do notice at the end of the tour, is that your feet are deliciously warm.

Whakarewarewa village – steam rising from geysers

The next photo below looks across one of the larger pools in the village. While it looks inviting – and the smell of sulphur was not very strong here – you could not bathe in these waters because of the temperature of the water and geysers which shot up at irregular intervals. There is an attractive reflection of the bushes and the houses in the water and you can see some of the more modern houses above the water. The village is a mixture of traditional bungalows and recently built 3-storey houses.
The “most volatile” of the geysers according to the map we were given is called Korotiotio which means grumpy old man and the temperatures can reach 120 degrees Celsius.

One of the larger pools in Whakarewarewa

At the end of the tour, there was a performance by Maori singers Te Pakira and the show included the traditional Haka war dance, some Maori songs and a demonstration of Maori stick games. Sometimes when you watch so-called “cultural” performances, you have the feeling that either you are patronising the performers or they are patronising you. However, there were no such feelings amongst our audience as this appeared to be a reasonably genuine recreation of Maori songs, dances and war dances. It was a lively and colourful performance as you see in the photo below.

Whakarewarewa performance

This was an excellent visit – educational, informative, entertaining and reasonably priced. If you are in the Rotorua area, you should not miss this. You can get an even better flavour of the village and the performance in this video.