The Old Man of Christmas

I can’t remember a bad Christmas from when we were kids.  My dad loves Christmas: an over-abundance of decorations food and gifts; games, TV and friends.  He’s always been a generous man who likes to give to people, especially friends and family, and Christmas for him is the ultimate expression of this.  He’s  a big kid too.  He revels in ripping wrapping paper off to uncover the gift within.  Socks, smellies, books, it doesn’t matter what it is, the unveiling is half the thrill.

As he’s got older his Christmas ‘novelty’ purchases have become more garish, more ridiculous even, asserting their Christmassyness so they can’t be ignored.  He’s never lost his love of the season, and every year the tree and decorations and lights go up at the beginning of December.

He’s not bothered about getting gifts per se, and always tells my sister and I not to bother.  We tend to give comestibles, things we’ve made very often, sometimes things we’ve bought.  Make no mistake he enjoys them – and him alone!  Chocolates and foodie gifts are never for sharing, which is really strange in such a generous man.

A love of Christmas is one of the things he’s passed on to my sister and I.  We celebrate in our own ways and have made our own traditions, pared down, less gregarious, but a festivity nonetheless. I think the joy has been contagious….

Cheers Pops!

Storytelling

 

I am privileged to know a lot of creative people: writers, artists, musicians and makers of all sorts.  My belief is that we are fundamentally creative beings, and predominantly storytellers.

Every culture, and especially those of native and indigenous peoples, has at some point had an oral tradition.  Stories that get passed on from one generation to another: myths, sagas, legends. Sometimes they are written down because oral tradition is lost, sometimes they are made concrete in other forms. Aboriginal story telling consists of ‘dreamtime’ stories which are an oral form of their ‘spiritual dreaming’ but there are other forms: art is the visual form, dance the practical form.  There are acoustic and geographical forms too.  Cumulatively they make the textbook of aboriginal knowledge, spirituality and wisdom.  The storyteller has a key role as custodian of cultural education.

We can be dismissive of stories as being, at best, fantasy, and at worst, lies.  Children know better.  They switch effortlessly between imaginary worlds: chatting with invisible friends, searching for fairies, pretending and performing.  Imaginary play and telling stories is a vital part of childhood development.  As adults we can be contemptuous of ‘tall tales’ and as children get older we may chastise for elaboration, yet we all embellish the reportage of our actions.  We all produce a narrative commentary on our lives.  We rarely say we went to the shops, or to work without finding the points of interest, conflict or character.  We ‘big up’ our often mundane activity with storytelling, ourselves as the central character.  We retell our day at work as a series of transport disasters which we overcome so that we arrive at our destination triumphant.  Our trip to the shop sees us do battle with the grumpy person on the checkout or the unhelpful assistant, or the terrible drivers.  We are natural narrators of our own lives, and in some ways give meaning to those lives with the stories we tell about ourselves and others.

Stephen King is quoted as saying ‘fiction is the truth inside the lie’ and I think this is true of the stories we tell about our lives too.  I’m not talking about liars or people who have delusions here, but our own personal narratives.  There’s a genre called ‘creative non-fiction’ and memoirs like Jenny Diski’s ‘Skating to Antartica’ and Chris Packham’s ‘Finger’s in the Sparkle Jar’ are good examples.  They impart the truth, the reality of their lived experience, yet all of what they actually record may, or may not, be factually accurate.

At a workshop with Richard Holloway, where he was talking about his memoir ‘Leaving Alexandria’, he read an extract from the book about his father getting up very early and leaving for work, taking care to be quiet and not wake the rest of the household.  Richard was at pains to relay that the event may not have happened, or if it did, he may not have been old enough to register and remember it.  That is, it might be an imagined, rather than a remembered incident.  The meaning is true however, that his father was a caring, considerate hardworking man who cared about his family.  It’s not a lie.   It’s illustrative of what was fundamentally true.

I was interested that as an auto-biographer he was less concerned about every fact and detail, than about making sense of the events; making sense of his life.  And in large part that is why we use narrative discourse – to tell a story about ourselves, to make sense of our complicated, often mundane and inter-connected lives.

Stories can be instructional, escapist, cathartic, discursive, contentious and many other things besides.  For me an essential quality in any tale is being able to see the world from another point of view, a different perspective.  We can be a pioneer, a suffragette, a criminal, politician, ballet dancer – anyone from any period of time, and sex, and profession or none.  We can inhabit any universe or world.  Fictions can stretch and challenge us if we let them.

As a writer, I believe in the power of stories. Stories can change us. They are as important as science in explaining the world; different tools to understand our lives and our world better.  We need storytellers as much as we need scientists.

We have two story telling centres in Scotland that I know of; one in Edinburgh and the other in Glasgow.  They see themselves not only as curators of Scottish heritage and culture, but as vibrant venues where creativity can be explored, and new stories created.  The strap-line for ‘The Village’ in Glasgow is ‘inspiring people to find and shape their voices through the power of story’.  It is a hugely positive narrative that stories can change our lives!

Encourage you children to read, make and write stories.  Encourage yourself to do the same.  In this often bleak and confusing world we need storytellers to shift the narrative.  To create new stories and remind us of the truth in the old ones.

 

 

Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh

The Village Storytelling Centre, Glasgow

A Day Out at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is a lively and eclectic mix of books and people.  All sorts of people; all sorts of books.  I was fortunate to be able to attend for the first time this year and I hope it will be the first of many attendances.  I could have easily spent three days in the bookshop, quite apart from the events.

Taking the early train from Inverness was a price worth paying for something that delivers on both quality and content.  The breadth of the programme is truly staggering: politicians, sports personalities and current affairs ‘celebs’ rub shoulders with crime writers, poets, historians and up-and –coming writers of all genres.  I attended on the Thursday as a talented author friend had been selected by the ‘Story Shop’ to read her story that particular day.  Part of Edinburgh City of Literature programme, it gives the opportunity for emerging local writers to showcase their talent.  My event participation was limited by the time available around that event and the train timetable, so I chose Elizabeth Reeder’s workshop exploring Jenny Diski’s creative memoir ‘Skating to Antarctica’, and Alys Conran and Ursula Kovalyk’s ‘Teen Dreams are Made of This’ which discussed their respective coming of age novels.  Both events were lively and inspiring adding plenty to my reading list and plenty of food for thought.

I live in what is designated a ‘remote and rural hamlet’ and would never want to change that by moving to the city, but I must admit to a touch of ‘Edinburgh Envy’ for my friends who live in the city and can spend days, rather than hours, at the book festival!  I would have loved to hear  Carol Ann Duffy, Teju Cole, Nikesh Shukla, and so many more poets, novelists and playwrights enthusing about their work, their inspiration, and the important subjects they deal with through it.  Instead, I contented myself with the sessions I’d chosen, hearing my friend read her excellent story, browsing the bookshops and people watching.  There were the usual suspects – ‘when I used to smoke pot with Ian Rankin….’, ‘when I last spoke to Nicola (Sturgeon)…’- and the extraordinary ordinary people: writers, readers, teachers, poets, lovers, workers, dreamers – enjoying a literary day out, just like me.  I was also pleased to see hordes of school children, who I hope will be inspired to a life-long love of books, if they’ve not already got the bug.  Like I said, all sorts of people, all sorts of books.  A truly international affair based on a love of books rather than on the cult of personality.

The date’s in my diary for next year.  Go if you can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worker or Shirker?

I was raised on the ‘protestant work ethic’, even though my dad was a Catholic.  To be fair, he championed work and play in equal measure.  A union man and a sportsman – at one time professional – he certainly worked and played hard himself.  It wasn’t a bad philosophy, as far as upbringing goes, but my dad was, and still is, ultra-competitive.

I don’t think of myself as being competitive.  I certainly don’t have a ‘killer instinct’ that wants to win at any price, but I can be a bit hyper, always trying to do too much.  I don’t do boredom as there’s always way too much to do.  I can be impatient, and rarely settle to one thing.  I was never going to excel at one particular skill.  I was, and still am, always too keen to move onto the next thing, whatever that may be . That transferred into my work life too.

Although routine and repetition is a necessary part of any job, and indeed, an inescapable part of life, I have never accepted that you have to do things you hate, especially where work is concerned.  That was not in my dad’s philosophy.  Doing things you didn’t like built character.  In some respects I’m sure he was right.

When I was a baby I was taken weekly to the hospital for injections to calm me down.  I don’t know what was in the injections or why the medical fraternity deemed it necessary to calm an infant down.  Apparently I didn’t sleep much, or well.  My parents didn’t enquire as to the ‘why’s and wherefore’s’ they simply accepted that doctors knew best and let them get on with it.  I suspect I might have been labelled with ADHD if it were now.  I’m not claiming I have ADHD, or more likely ADD, but I’m still no closer to settling.

Perhaps all of this is why patience, and putting up with nonsense, is not my strong suit.  Until it comes to people.  When I gave up my ‘career’ job at 40, and re-trained as an advocacy worker, I discovered that passion and purpose can keep me motivated, whatever labels or temperament I may, or may not, possess.

If I’m doing something I’m passionate about – writing, reading, cooking, photography, working to give people a voice – I can pass the time without stopping for food or ever looking at the clock.  It’s a full-speed-tilt-boogie approach with nothing held back or moderated.  It lacks staying power, however. I tire. I always want to be onto the next thing.

It’s not that I don’t give things my all.  I do.  I really go for it.  I try to give my best, to get things right.  And sometimes I simply try to get things done because I know my interest is waning and I loathe adding something else to my list of unfinished tasks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a quitter, and I’ve never shunned a days’ work in my life. I’ve worked in Boots, in a hairdressers, a factory, for a tour operator, in a library and various other employment settings.  One organisation for 10 years (my record) but the compelling factor has been change, moving on.  I was never going to get my gold watch at 65.  And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  For all my poor qualities and inadequacies, being unable to stick to one thing has given me skills and experiences I would otherwise have missed.

People learn differently, experience the world differently.  There should be enough room for everyone to find their place, and feel valued, whatever and however they choose to be employed. Because someone doesn’t stick at one thing doesn’t make them a shirker.

 

Feel free to discuss!

 

Picture ‘Scots fisher Folk’ drawn with pen and pencil Samuel G Green DD
from the British Library’s Mechanical Curator Collection.

2 weeks, 2,2oo miles – aka Our Honeymoon- Part 4: Peak District National Park to Dumfries-shire

 

The trip north from Wales, via the M5 and M6, was never going to be hassle-free, or take the allotted time of 4 hours.  After checking the traffic and finding the ‘very long delays’ on the M6 and queues at the end of the M5 we deviated from the plan and headed off to Kidderminster for something to eat.  A passable Italian restaurant did the job and we were soon on our way again with rush-hour traffic abating and the roads a lot quieter –for the midlands.  We pushed on to Northampton on A roads and joined the M6 before Stafford to leave again at Stoke.  Not at all the route we had planned.  As we climbed across the moors in the Peak District National Park we were starting to lose light.  We finally arrived in Taddington, 6 miles from Buxton, at 9:30; 6 hours after starting out.

All we wanted was a comfy bed and a good night’s sleep.  Despite the generally well-equipped nature of the cottage, a comfy bed was not something on offer.  It was the smallest bed we’d tried to sleep in thus far, and possibly the smallest double I’ve ever seen.  We did sleep eventually, but not comfortably.

We woke to a forecast of rain – only our second day of it in the last 12 – and headed to Bakewell for breakfast, and tart of course.  Breakfast was disappointing: badly microwaved scrambled and poached eggs, the latter of which I sent back. The tart was better – bought from a deli and half the price of the ones in the Pudding Shop. We browsed a craft fare, with not much crafty about it, although there was some local cheese.  Most had weird flavours – curry sauce, Guinness – but the mature local cheddar was tangy and creamy and we took a punt.  Outside it was still raining so we decided to head over to Chatsworth Farm Shop and peruse some local delicacies.

Rant warning.  Skip this section if you can’t cope.

The shop has expanded into a mini-supermarket, with deli prices.  It looks lovely, with lots of fresh fruit and veg, much of it sourced locally, or at least from the UK Looks can be deceiving.  The bread was part bought in and part made on the premises.  The in-store bakery had all the usual suspects listed in terms of additives.  We enquired about the local ‘artisan’ bakery, and what their loaves might contain, but no one could tell us.  Some of the fancy goods had palm oil in, one of my bug-bears, and they had no idea if the loaves might have too.

The midlands is about as far away from the sea as you can get and I’m always suspicious of how old fish might be if it’s not come directly from a boat to my door.  Looking around the fish counter I was alarmed to see ‘Wild Sea Trout (farmed)’ on one of the labels.  Suspiciously contradictory.  It’s either wild sea trout or it’s farmed sea trout, surely it can’t be both.  We queried this with the assistant serving fish, and he seemed equally perplexed.  He promised to raise it with his boss.  We had a similar issue with the meat counter where sausages were labelled ‘free range’ and bacon wasn’t.  We tried to find out where the bacon came from.  It was clear that some came from their own pigs and was free range, and some was bought in and might, or might not be free range.  I suppose the labelling was erring on the side of caution.  It didn’t stop it being confusing.

All in all we were not impressed.  This establishment had the opportunity to sell real food from local suppliers; slow food, authentic food, and here they were trying to pull the wool over, looking the part but not standing up to scrutiny.  I am perhaps over critical, but I feel compelled to take people to task where food is concerned.  OK, folks, I’m getting down from the soapbox now.

We set off for Buxton, picking up a nail and a flat tyre along the way.  The local tyre place was helpful and efficient and we were on our way in short order.  The weather had improved by the time we got to Buxton, but the place did nothing to improve my mood.  The pavilion was under wraps for renovation and the dome was closed to the public because of a wedding.  We had a desultory wander about the town and the gardens, rescuing a wet bee along the way, and ending up in a tea shop to finish the day on a positive note.

A friend suggested that as we’d visited so many tea shops on the trip we might like to tour the country writing reviews of them.  If anyone out there is prepared to foot the bill, I’d be quite happy to oblige.

The following day dawned brighter, although the forecast was for heavy rain later on.  We’d planned to tour the Hope valley; visiting somewhere I used to live, the damns and the caverns in Castleton.  We changed our itinerary to see the damns whilst it was still dry and the caves later in the day when it was supposed to rain.  Nothing is guaranteed with the British weather and it had started to rain before we reached Hathersage.

I was pleased to see that the village was pretty much as I’d remembered it from the 80’s and delighted that not only is the outdoor pool still at the end of Oddfellows Road, it is still open!  After a brief visit to memory lane we headed up to the dams:  Ladybower, Derwent and Howden.  The Derwent Valley Waterboard built Ladybower in the 1930’s and flooded 2 villages in the process.  Derwent dam is famous for being where the Lancaster bombers did their practice runs.  The dams’ setting in deep moorland valleys and their castellated towers, constructed by an army of navvies in the 1910s, closely resembled the Möhne and Eder dams in west Germany. So 617 Squadron flew practice runs over the “lakes near Sheffield”, practising their manoeuvres when flying low over the water whilst locals complained to the War Ministry about joy riding pilots!  The famous 1955 Dam Busters film was also shot there.  There’s a lot of hidden history in the area, although for me the draw, is the stunning scenery and walks.  We only had a short potter as it really was too wet for trekking.  Contrarily, the weather improved as we headed off towards the caverns.

There are 4 show caves open to the public in Castleton, all clustered around Winnats Pass on the old Mam Tor road, which is now closed. We avoided Peak Cavern – which locals call the Devil’s Arse- and Speedwell Cavern, which you go in a boat to view, as there can be tight areas to navigate and I suffer a little from claustrophobia.  Instead we wound our way round to the Blue John Cavern.

There are various myths about how the cavern got its name, but the one I like best is that samples of the stone were sent to French jewellers, as authorities of the time on gemstones, and they simply described it as ‘bleu et jaune’ which you can see easily turns itself into Blue John in the English language. It is a completely natural cave with the occasional remaining mine workings.  There are around 16 known veins where Blue John Stone is found in Castleton, and half of these are located in the Blue John Cavern. The semi-precious stone is found nowhere else in the world. The mineral is still worked here during the winter months, away from public view and the miners who work the remaining seams act as tour guides in the summer.  We were led by one such guide.

We started with a drop of a short set of steps through a man-made passageway, arriving immediately into the beginning of the natural caverns. The first explorers were lowered on a rope into the caves down an old pothole high in the room which you can see when you reach the first chamber. This was the original entrance and the action of water is visible everywhere in the cavern.

There are six predominant natural chambers all with their own distinguishable features. The first is called Bull Beef, which is a working mine and produces some of the most spectacularly large pieces of Blue John Stone ever mined.  The second chamber is the grand crystallised cavern shaped like a dome, with a type of Blue John Stone that looks like a tree trunk sawn in half.   We were also introduced to the delights of ‘snot rock’.  One of the highlights of my trip.  You don’t see any stalactites or stalagmites in this chamber, although there are some lower down, but here there is snot rock.  Caused when water seeps through the stone, but doesn’t drip, it looks like the rock is plastered in snot, although when you touch it, the rock is hard and not at all snotty.  I didn’t find out what the correct term is, but as you can tell I was taken with snot rock!

The waterfall cavern is next cavern downwards into the stalactite cavern where the formations that give it its name hang high from the roof which bears a resemblance to an upside down riverbed.

The fifth chamber is Lord Mulgrave’s dining room, formed when two underground rivers collided creating a whirlpool, which is responsible for forming the circular shape. The name comes from various stories of the Lord entertaining dinner guests down there – either the miners, or the aristocracy, depending on which story you believe. The last chamber is the Variegated Cavern, named because of the variety of the etchings on the walls and in the room. Standing at 200 feet high it is spectacular.  It’s hard to imagine the full force of nature and the power of the water which formed it.

Climbing back up the 250 steps, I could see why the notices warned people with heart issues and asthma not to go down.  It’s a shame they didn’t have warnings for persons of unfit physique as well.  It was a huge effort to climb back up to through the chambers after the descent of nearly 300 feet, but certainly worthwhile.   If you’re in the area, give one of the caves a visit.

The sun shone as we exited from the deep and gasped the fresh air.  The momentary glimpse of the fabulous valley was short-lived as the rain started to come down heavily.  After a picnic lunch in the car, we made the decision to head over to Cheshire, for a pre-arranged rendezvous with family, ahead of our planned departure time.  It was as well we did.  It took us over 2 hours to drive the 40 or so miles.  The drive started in delightful moors scenery and ended in a traffic jam.  The evening was worth the trip, with good food and good conversation.  At the end of the evening we took a more major route back to the cottage managing it in a little over an hour.

Friday 28th July, technically the last day of our holiday; everything now was about heading north and getting home.  We headed towards the M6 calling at a friends to say hello and see their new born baby son Georgie.  We were treated to homemade cake as well as cuddles, which set us up well for the trek northwards.

We stopped at Teabay, one of the UK’s only independent motorway service stations, for a comfort stop and another car picnic and then carried on up to our overnight stop in Dumfries with the lovely Emma and her beau, Iain, whom we’d only met at our Big Day 8 weeks earlier.  It was a brave move on Emma’s part to host us as she’d not met Tony before the Big Day, and we hadn’t seen each other for nearly 30 years.  We gate crashed her ‘Friday Night Wine Club’ and her man made us a lovely veggie dinner.  It was a joy to chill and chatter and laugh.

The following day, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed off for ice-cream, as you do, and then for a short walk by the river.  The weather was a bit blustery, but ideal for blethering and walking.  It’s so nice when you can relax and be real with people, and Emma and Iain were such people.  Warm, generous and real.  The fact that Iain is a chef and they both like food is neither here nor there…well, maybe….

One cheesy lunch and lots of generosity later, we reluctantly set off again for ever more northerly climes.  Other than passing through, neither of us had seen anything much of Dumfries and Galloway before.  We added it to the list as yet another part of the world worth a re-visit.

Loch Lomond was our final stopping place.  We could have carried on home, but home was still several hundred miles and 6 hours away, so we’d decided to break up the journey with a peaceful retreat part way between Balloch – the village at the bottom of Loch Lomond – and Stirling.  We ate in Balloch on what must be one of its busiest nights of the year as a result of the folk festival.  We were entertained by a too-loud band in a flashy looking pub that was serving bought-in food.  ‘Beggars and choosers’ I suppose.  It was nearly nine by the time we tried to find our accommodation which turned out to be so remote that we couldn’t find it, and nowhere near the village in its address.  Failed by Satnav and my navigation skills we arrived late and tired.  This was the only B&B we stayed at during our break, and not one we’d venture back to.  Old-fashioned, prissy, and with a shared bathroom, it was not my idea of an ideal place to stay.  Nothing was terrible, but nothing was particularly good either.  The scrambled egg was over cooked, the bread, supermarket’s best, the conversation stilted, bordering towards argumentative.  We’re always looking for nice places to stay around Loch Lomond as Tony does the Great Scottish Swim every year at the end of August.  I guess we’ll keep looking.

The trip back up the road was uneventful.  A shop in Waitrose for groceries.  A stop at Ralia for stretching the legs, and a Sunday lunch at Storehouse – not it’s best- and we landed home at teatime with happy hearts and full tummies.

Our trip was not the sort of exotic, romantic break you might envisage, however, it was filled with laughter and beauty and relaxation.  Time spent with each other and with good friends and good food.  We were humbled by how kind, generous and gracious everyone we stayed with was.  Friends and family, you’re amazing.  Thanks for making our road trip a honeymoon and a holiday.

 

2 weeks, 2,2oo miles – aka Our Honeymoon – Part 3:Devon to South Wales

 

Devon to South Wales

Further south and west for our next stop, passing by friends in Dorset, and heading to Devon for lunch with a couple we hadn’t seen in 4 years, and who were also unable to make our ‘Big Day’.

By now you may be getting the impression that we travelled from meal to meal via various friends’ houses.  There is a kind of truth to this.  It was part of the generosity and kindness we experienced that friends offered hospitality, which invariably included sharing meals.  We often ate at times people weren’t accustomed to eating at, owing to our un-predicatable arrival times, yet people were unfazed and welcoming.  And the food was very good.  Food is one of the loves of our lives; cooking, eating, sharing food with friends, are some of the simplest and best times we had on the trip.

After the welcome ‘catching up’ with news and views we were on the road again, although this time not for very long.  The short journey to Exmouth was fairly trouble-free considering we were travelling along the south coast on the first weekend of theEnglish school holidays.

Tea and cake on arrival was a good excuse to sit and natter later we were shown to the ‘honeymoon suite’  as our thoughtful and generous friends had vacated their bedroom so we could sleep there – the second set of our friends to do this.

The following day we had a famous ‘Cole’s tour’ of various East Devon attractions, mainly costal, although avoiding the obvious bottlenecks.  We walked along the path of the river Exe and the sea, through the Marina and along the esplanade to the pavilion.  Although the weather was changeable, the wide sweep of Exmouth Bay was impressive nonetheless.  We had lunch at the Longboat café on the Beach at Budleigh Salterton and our bravery seemed to encourage the sun to come out.  We sipped locally produced drinks and ate fresh crab sandwiches.  My idea of what a beach café should be.   Our afternoon cuppa in the town sadly lacked the same authenticity, despite promising much.  We waited ages to be served – and I mean over 40 minutes – and the orders were incorrect.  Tony said the coffee was nice, although that didn’t really compensate.

The following day the weather was beautiful and we drove to a local nature reserve, Bystock pools, a wonderfully diverse habitat across a relatively small area: heathland, meadow, forestry and water.  We saw Emperor Dragonflies, and Damsel flies a-plenty, although photographing them proved much more difficult than watching them.  We spent a happy hour or so meandering the paths and boardwalks, admiring the lilly pads and wildlife and enjoying the summer sunshine.  Apparently the site is known for being a nightjar habitat.  They’re hard to see at any time, owing to their perfect camouflage, but being a predominantly nocturnal bird we didn’t stand any chance of seeing them during the daytime.  It still gave me a warm glow knowing they were there.

We enjoyed our time in Exmouth despite it being the height of the tourist season, and it was another of those places we added to the ‘must do again’ list.

The following day we were on the road again, this time towards West Wales to visit another friend who was unable to make the ‘Big Day’. The weather was still hot, although thankfully the traffic was only moderately busy, and apart from crossing the Severn Road Bridge and a spate of roadworks, we barely slowed down.

Suitably hungry we walked to The Old Swan with our friend, Chris.  The oldest pub in Llantwit Major was having repairs done, so we didn’t see it at its best but the food was good, with lots of local choices and hearty portions.  It was nice to hear locals in the pub as well as visitors, and to see they had a dog-friendly policy, as many of the hostelries do at home.

Chris was another friend who generously gave up his bedroom.  Somewhat anti-socially, we retired for the night before the witching hour.  Driving, walking chatting and eating clearly makes you tired.  Well, it made us tired anyway, a theme continued throughout the holiday.

 

The following morning we wereup at a reasonable hour enjoying homemade bread, quality preserves and fruit for breakfast.  Chris was keen to show us the delights of the Vale of Glamorgan and a costal walk was the best way to do it.  The Glamorgan Heritage Coast is a 22km stretch of coastline awarded Heritage Coast status in 1972. Extending from Aberthaw to Porthcawl, it features dramatic cliffs, amazing rock formations and is rich in wildlife. We covered a small 6 miles portion of it.  Heading away from the house towards the Col-Huw point, we continued past St Donat’s castle and onto the lighthouse at Nash Point, finishing at the Plough and Harrow in Monknash.

The route was varied and interesting, highlighting as it does the spectacular effects of freeze/thaw weathering and gales pummeling the cliffs and shoreline.   St. Donat’s Castle was once owned by Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper magnate who used to spend holidays there and sometimes bring ‘Hollywood’ friends to stay.  It is now the more sober ‘Atlantic College’, an international sixth form college.  WWll gun placements are a frequent sight along the coast adding to the historical interest.  By far the best bit for me was seeing the jagged coastline and the farmland, dotted with small hamlets. A perfect country/coastal view.

Inevitably our exertion ended in a well-earned lunch at the Plough.  My companions had the Glamorgan sausages – ‘as good as homemade’ was the verdict – and I plumped for a mushroom, goats cheese and beetroot affair, which sounds confused but didn’t disappoint.  After lunch we ordered ice-cream and walked up the road to catch the bus back to Llantwit.  We picked up a few supplies, including some of Chris’s luscious home-grown tomatoes, and began the long haul north.  Farewell South Wales, we’ll definitely visit again. Next stop The Peak District National Park, 200 miles away.

 

Devon Wildlife Trust – Bystock Pools

2 weeks, 2,2oo miles – aka Our Honeymoon – Part 2: Buckinghamshire to Wiltshire

The most direct route to our next destination, in Buckinghamshire, was the A1M, a road I loathe with a passion, so instead we headed for the M1. Not much better, I grant you. Here we got our first reminder or what the UK’s roads are like: congested, polluted, and full of bad drivers.  We’d allowed a leisurely 4 hours to get to my Aunt’s in Olney.  It took nearly 6. We arrived choking on diesel fumes and sweating in the blistering heat.  Thank goodness for mobile phones.  We’d alerted my Aunt to the delay and she had curative tea and cake ready on our arrival, served on her best china.  I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone get out the best china for me before!

We spent a happy few hours chatting and sharing our wedding photos.  We tried to keep the balance between people getting to see a few pictures of our ‘Big Day’ and boring them silly, and I think we succeeded; that or people were too polite to complain.  Eileen was our shortest stop.  We were keen to see her as she’d been unable to make the wedding, but we didn’t want to stay too long and tax her as she’s recovering from a stroke and tires easily.

Next to the deep dark south – Surrey – by means of the M1 and the dreaded M25.  The jokes and jibes about the biggest car park et al are still true.  We queued.  And queued.  We were supposed to arrive in Dorking around teatime and didn’t arrive until 20:30.  The lovely Sylvia kindly waited for us and cooked a meal when we arrived, and Darryl, our friend’s son, spent the evening and following morning entertaining us when he probably had much better things to do.  Sylvia is the mum of a friend I’ve known since childhood although I’ve probably not seen her for 30 years.  It was lovely to feel so welcomed and looked after, especially given the fact that our friends were away and had offered their home as a stop-over in their absence.  The kindness and generosity of friends was a recurrent theme during our road trip and we were both amazed and delighted.

The following day we headed further south and west, on through Hampshire, stopping off at my parents on the way.  It would have felt strange to drive almost past their front door, even though we couldn’t stay over.  It was a different experience seeing them when we were the ‘visiting relatives’ rather than the other way around.

A short hop to Salisbury in Wiltshire should have taken under an hour but took well over an hour due to road works on the Salisbury by-pass.  I will never get used to the amount of traffic on the roads and the time wasted sitting in queues.  Having spent over 8 hours in the car you’d think we’d be quite happy to sit or walk for the rest of the evening, anything but drive about.  Well we were happy to sit and chat but we were also more than happy to take David up on his offer of a ride in his restored Austin.  She’s a beauty of a car and even managed to pull 4 of us up hill  not long after starting.  I did think we’d have to get out and push at one point. Thankfully not.

It was as well we took the opportunity for motoring on a sunny summer’s evening.  The following day the rain was non-stop and torrential. Visiting David’s allotment was out – we did a drive through as a token gesture – and touring the city wasn’t a great option either, so we plumped for visiting Salisbury cathedral instead. The impressive medieval building was started in 1220 and completed around 1266.  The spire was added later, around 1320 and has been the tallest in England, standing at 123m, since the 16th century.  The building is impressive and worth a visit.  It’s amazing to think of the skill and time it took to build in a period with little mechanisation.  The model of the construction is fascinating, giving some idea of how many people were employed in its building.  It brought to mind ‘The Spire’ by William Golding, loosely based on Salisbury cathedral’s construction and fraught with human desires, aspirations and failings.  The workforce would have formed a community in their own right and there would undoubtedly be plenty of stories to tell.  We had plenty of our own stories to tell, and catching up with friends, chatting, eating and socialising was a huge part of the enjoyment of the trip.

There were many highlights on our journey around the UK, and food provided some of both the high and low points.  In Salisbury we were introduced to Lebanese food at Baroushka where sharing and solo mezze dominated the menu.  The food was hearty and interesting.  Apparently simple dishes were layered with flavours and textures and quite unlike anything else we’d tried before.  If you get the opportunity to try authentic Lebanese cuisine, give it a go.

2 weeks, 2,2oo miles – aka Our Honeymoon – Part 1: Highlands to North Yorkshire

Our trip around the UK was ambitious.  We had already decided to cut out London and the South East due to time constraints, disappointing a few friends along the way, and missing some of the attractions of the capital city and my old stomping ground.

The trip originally started as a crazy idea to see a few people who weren’t able to make our ‘Big Day’ earlier in the summer, and have a bit of a holiday at the same time.  We planned on seeing parts of the country neither of us were familiar with. Lots of friends had asked if we could meet up, stop off or stay over in various places in the UK, and these, along with a few bookings with Airbnb, determined our route.  Broadly, we headed south down the East side of the UK and back home to Scotland via the West side.  Our choices of where to stay when we weren’t with friends or family were based on being in areas of outstanding natural beauty, so we chose National Parks: Northumberland, The North York Moors and The Peak District. Areas we normally drive though on a north to south trip but rarely stop in, for the rush to get from A to B.

We had 2 nights in Northumberland, close to Hadrian’s Wall, a place we’ve often seen on the signposts on both the east and west of the country, but not a place either of us had ever been to.  We chose a sunny Sunday morning and trundled to find a place to wild swim, namely Broomlee Lough.  Despite over an hour’s trudge we didn’t manage to reach the water due to the rough terrain, and as we got closer, the boggy ground as a result of the previous day’s heavy rain.  Instead we spent a happy few hours rambling along Hadrian’s Wall and footpath.  I say rambling, some of it was quite strenuous, especially as we were carrying wet gear.

The place was busy with tourists.  I’d always thought the vast open skies of Northumberland would be sparsely peopled, tourists or otherwise, and was surprised by the volume of walkers, both serious and uncommitted, like ourselves. We enjoyed the mix of history and wildness and vowed to return for a longer break.

On our way down through Teesside we stopped in Redcar for lunch at a natural food deli and were delighted by the quality of the food and level of service.  An unassuming place, they were clearly popular and we queued for a table.  Sadly not all our dining experiences were as memorable, or at least, not for the right reasons.

A dip in the water at Runswick Bay, with the thermometer hitting 26 degrees, was a welcome respite before we checked into our barn accommodation at Glaisdale in the North York Moors National Park (NYMNP); a converted barn on an organic livestock farm, and our home for the next 2 nights.  The place was remote and beautiful; only 20 miles from Whitby yet as far away from people and civilisation as you might want to be, on what was after all, a sort-of-honeymoon.

As the distance between our stops was considerable, and we were effectively doing the length of the UK – twice – we’d taken the decision to keep our forays local and cut down on car miles. A trip to Goatland, less than 10 miles from where we were staying, and home of the North York Moors Railway, provided plenty to see and do, and some superb walking   The last time I was there only a handful of visitors were there, mostly railway enthusiasts, so we were surprised to find the parking limited and costly, and the place heaving with people.  Apparently Goatland is the place the 1990’s TV series ‘Heartbeat’ was filmed.  Not only had I never seen ‘Hearbeat’, I’d never even heard of it.  Clearly plenty of other people had.  The main focus seemed to be taking pictures of the village shops and an old Ford Anglia Police car parked outside the Post Office.  Tony did have his photo taken with the car.  After we hightailed it to the station and then onwards to Darnholm and a pleasant circular walk around the village.

After a restorative sandwich, we headed on another jaunt to find the Mallyan Spout: a towering waterfall that has formed a ravine with 70 foot vertical walls.  It should have been less than a mile, but in typical fashion for us, we missed the sign and carried on towards Beck Hole, another Waterfall a couple of miles further on.  We ended up walking 6 miles instead of 2, in blistering heat.  The tea and cake at the Mallyan Spout Café was justified.  Later I enjoyed dabbling my feet in the icy waters of West Beck, as the heat left the day, and Tony sat and contemplated in the peace.

For somewhere so close to our holiday home, we spent longer than was strictly necessary getting back.  We weren’t lost, we were admiring the scenery, and the place names.  North Yorkshire is not alone in its variety of interesting place names, but in a competition it would be close to top spot.  Fryup was a couple of villages along and other delights included Westwang, Bugthorpe, Huggate, Fangdale and Sinningdale.  We added the NYMNP to our list of places to visit again and continued south.

Poetry instead of Tea

Today there was poetry in the afternoon, instead of tea.  The instigator of the Poetry in Motion group, Clio Gray (author and library assistant at Tain library), read from Gerald Manley Hopkins. The subject was ‘birds’ and she selected ‘The Woodlark’ to read. These poems are written to be read out loud, to be listened to.  The writing is full of sound and movement and puts you right there, seeing and hearing what the poet sees and hears.

It reminded me of what an interesting and original poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was; he invented new words and new forms. His language was always vibrant, lively and very visual.  In spite of the era, and his religious leanings, it is still very relevant and accessible.  He is definitely one of our great nature poets. Sadly most of his poems weren’t published until 1918, well after his death in 1889; he was little read in his own lifetime.

He suffered from depression’ like John Clare, and wrote a series of what he called ‘terrible poems’ about those ‘dark’ days, which may not be his best known, or finest work, but still have much merit.

I’ve not read any of his poetry for years, and this is a good excuse to revisit it. He is well worth reading, and I’ll certainly be looking out my dog-eared Penguin copy of his poetry and prose.  I’ve written this to share his poetry with you, if you don’t know him, or remind you of it if you do.

As a taster, here is perhaps one of his best known poems – apart from ‘Inversnaid’ – ‘The Windhover’ (a lovely old name for the kestrel).  Enjoy.

 

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

 

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

 

My New Normal

 

The question was simple, casual:

“Would you like to join us for a drink at the bar?”

I’d been to one of my regular jaunts into the Highland capital for a literary meeting, and the kindly folk were being, well, kindly.

The answer however, was not simple.  The answer was complex.  It was at that moment I realised how far from normal my life has become.

I didn’t give the complicated answer, of course not.  Who wants to know that I can’t drink alcohol, or caffeine, or in fact anything at all after 7pm; that I have to be in bed before 10pm to stand any chance of getting anywhere near enough rest; that the effort involved in getting a train into town and walking to the meeting saps my energy and renders me good for nothing for at least 24 hours, and often longer; that my poor long-suffering fiancé has to drive into town to pick me up – an hour each way – because it’s too much for me to get a train back home?

So I smiled.  Declined politely.  Wondered if they thought I was rude, or weird. Or both.  They didn’t need the in-depth explanation.  It’s neither warranted nor helpful. It doesn’t make either of us feel better.

But sometimes I’d like to explain. Sometimes I’d like to clarify – that my constant leaving of the room is to go to the loo.  I’m not sneaking out for a fag or a drink; I’m not being rude and I’m not bored.  My bladder disorder means that I am unable to retain urine in my bladder without being in extreme pain.

I’d also like to point out, that however offensive it might be, my sweating is not something I can help.  The pain causes the sweating.  It’s autonomic.  I don’t like it any more than you do.

I might also stress that my lack of sociability is down to exhaustion.  I can’t volunteer to do things because I would not be reliable.  I can never guarantee from one day to the next what my energy levels are like; when I’ll have a good day or a bad day. And my good day might be a very bad by your standards.

So, I will continue to smile and answer the question simply.  For your benefit.  For my benefit.  I will continue to live my nowhere- near- normal, normal-for-me life. And when I see people who look sad or troubled, or in pain; when I see people giving the simple answer – although you can see the complication in their eyes – I will not judge.  I will wonder what trials and tribulations they are going through.  I will signal my solidarity to fellow sufferers of invisible chronic illness, who look so very normal but whose lives are anything but.

 

 

Photo by Debbie Mathews.  Installation by Sophie Cave, Kelvingrove Museum Glasgow.