Isle Of Skye Christmas

I described our journey to Edinburgh and then the Isle of Skye in my last post.  Here I’ll relate some of the high points of what was probably the best UK holiday I have had since I was child.  We all (Middle Son, Youngest Son, their partners, Long-Suffering Wife and myself) had a fabulous Christmas period on the westernmost edge of the island.

Our Holiday Location

Our adventure started the first full day after our arrival.  As Youngest Son (YS) and his partner took up primary breakfast-making duty (a role they thankfully assumed pretty much throughout the week since they were very good at it), so the murky dawn dissipated.  Gradually, the full glory of our view across Loch Pooltiel to the cliff and waterfall beyond, became clear.  Then, after breakfast, we all opened the little gate separating the house area from the open moorland and set out for a walk.  Our hearts leapt almost immediately as we spotted a seal near the nearby salmon farm.

Little Gate From Our House To Peat And Cliffs

We wandered over ancient strip fields, boggy peat and wonderfully named craggy ridges: Biod Ban, An Ceannaich and Druim nan-Sgarbh.  The colours of the moss, lichen and grass underfoot were gorgeous and then, as we breached one more ridge, we were able to look south across unexpectedly dramatic cliffs.  It was a breath-taking moment.

South Facing Cliffs Behind Our Holiday Home In Lower Milovaig

Over the following few, rather grey days, I continued to walk around the local area.  The nearest village and shop was a pleasant but sometimes damp, 45 minute walk.  This was either along the loch or over the hills behind the house and between a mix of old crofts and new, designer holiday-let houses. 

The Surprisingly Well-Stocked Village Shop In Glendale

The infrequent copses of trees along the way dripped with lichen.  The landscape colours were a little mournful but somehow peaceful, comforting and easy on the eye.  They reminded me of some of the colours I recall from children’s paint boxes: burnt umber, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, crimson, teal green.

The Colours Underfoot

Between walks and other outings, we settled into chat, films and football on the telly, meals and games.  Monopoly Deal inevitably appeared but new games called Heckmeck (translates to ‘Nonsense’ in German) and Obama Llama were favourites.  I was ok at Heckmeck but hopeless at games like Obama Llama and Heads Up! which involved acting out – like souped-up Charades.  Simulating a penguin without speaking by waddling then diving onto the sofa (i.e. the icy sea!) was probably the low point for me.

Panorama South Of Neist Point

As the weather improved, we all headed out to see the most westerly point of Skye and the lighthouse at Neist Point (Rubha na h-Eist).  The lighthouse is, as expected, beautifully positioned among high cliffs.  The rocks, and plant life hanging onto them, were interesting and we spent a happy hour amongst these chatting and watching the waves.

Neist Point Lighthouse
Rocks (Basalt) And Lichen At Neist Point

By Christmas Eve afternoon, sun was beginning to peek between the layers of clouds more regularly.  To celebrate that and the impending Christmas, we scooted back out to Neist Point with a bottle of prosecco to celebrate the sunset over the Inner Hebrides.  We were taken aback by the strength of the wind – it made the prosecco hard to pour!  It was another very memorable time for our group. 

Sunset At Neist Point

Christmas Day morning started with Secret Santa present opening.  Long-Suffering Wife was my not-so-Secret Santa and she took the opportunity to give me a smart wash bag which replaced a perfectly effective, but admittedly unattractive, plastic shopping bag which I have used since a trip to South Africa almost four years ago.  LSW was overjoyed as that faithful plastic bag was discarded at last to hold kitchen waste and then be deposited in the rubbish bins.

We then postponed Christmas lunch until after dusk and, instead, used the hours of light to explore the Coral Beach (Traigh a Chorail) north of our nearest town (Dunvegan) and its coastal castle.  On the walk to the beaches, we saw a sea otter – the first I have ever seen. 

The Walk To Coral Beach (The White In The Distance)

The beaches themselves are made up of bleached fragments of a coral called Maerl that grows in Loch Dunvegan and which, when alive, is deep red.  The rising sun, bright blue sky, deep blue sea, rocky promontories and white beaches led to another batch of photos and happy memories.

LSW conjured up a lovely Christmas dinner from local vegetables and two very free-range chickens.  As per recent Christmas traditions, I provided a Christmas picture quiz and Christmas hats laced with sparklers, rather too many chocolate Brussel sprouts, jokes and (cardboard) party poppers.  As had been the case every day, the drinks flowed alongside extremely tasty and filling plates food including, of course given that it was Christmas Day, Christmas pudding with brandy butter. 

Christmas Gingerbread House, Tree And Droopy-Eyed Snowman Made, Enterprisingly, By The ‘Younger Ones’

The sky was so clear that night that when we turned off the house lights, went outside and looked up for while, we could see the Milky Way.  It was as clear as I have seen it since I was in remote Madagascar over 15 years ago.  We even saw a couple of shooting stars (but not the Northern Lights).  A very jolly time, enlivened by some sparkler waving, was had by all.

Our holiday crescendo was on Boxing Day – our last full day on Skye.  YS was very keen to take us to a mountainous area on the other north side of Skye called The Quiraing that he had visited on a previous trip to the isle.  The weather was cold and icy but there was barely a cloud in the sky, so off we set. 

Loch Dunvegan Near Colbost

The route to The Quiraing was beautiful.  It skirted island-strewn lochs and passed through small villages and fishing towns before we headed inland to the northern mountains of Skye.  As we emerged from our cars at the tourist car park, The Quiraing stretched out wonderfully before us.  It was one of the most jaw dropping landscapes I have seen in the UK.

The Quiraing, North Skye

The subsequent walk along The Quiraing to The Needle was just tricky enough in the patches of ice to be a challenging adventure but straightforward enough to feel safe.  The sound of collapsing ice sheets and icicles on the cliffs above added to the sense of drama. 

The Needle, The Quiraing

Everywhere one looked, the vistas were huge and we capped these views with a sighting of a golden eagle (another first in the wild for me).  In the distance, the snow-capped tops of mountains on the Hebrides were beautiful reminders that this was a rare sunny day and we were so lucky to have one on our last day. 

View South East From The Quiraing

Even the journey back to Edinburgh the following day was a final hurrah for sun-lit, mist-draped, snow-covered mountains. 

Loch Garry On The Way Home
On the Way Home

We had been so fortunate with the weather.  We had been fortunate with Covid and avoiding it.  We had been fortunate that all the holiday logistics had worked out well.  We had been fortunate in so many ways to have a Scottish holiday we will remember forever.

Sunset Over The Hebrides From The Cliffs Behind Our Holiday Rental

Getting To Skye At Christmas

On Christmas Eve 2020, shortly after we had smuggled our sons out to our Gloucestershire home just before the 2020 Christmas Coronavirus lockdown, Youngest Son (YS) suggested that we hire a house in Skye for Christmas 2021.  Everyone was extremely keen on the idea and, after a few quick texts, our sons’ girlfriends were enthusiastic too.  I handed YS my credit card and he immediately booked a brand new, designer house on the western edge of Skye with the hope that Covid would be long passed or at least largely neutralised.

A year is a long time in which much has happened.  Covid is changed but very much still with us and it is still hampering all travel, socialising and entertainment.  Also, our first grandchild – not even a dot when we booked the house in Skye – has arrived recently.  That meant that Eldest Son and his partner had to drop out from our 2021 Christmas adventure.   To compensate, we all decided to incorporate a stop in Edinburgh on the way to and from Skye so that we could all (re-)introduce ourselves to First Grandchild (FG) around Christmas.

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I travelled by train to Edinburgh.  It’s a long journey but we decided against using the electric car because, in Winter, it requires charging so frequently that the journey would have taken a whole day.  We decided again a flight from Bristol because the cost for taking our bags was almost as much as for us plus we are trying to avoid flying in a probably futile (but well meaning) effort to reduce our carbon footprint.  Fortunately the trains were entirely on time and, with the exception of some rowdy 20-somethings who got on at Darlington, mask wearing was common.  We felt fairly safe and comfortable.

Getting to Edinburgh a few days ahead of the others (staying once again in an excellent Premier Inn Hub with small but perfectly formed rooms) enabled us to spend more time with FG and his parents and have a couple of extra days in the city we are coming to love. 

Blue Sky View Across The Meadows To Arthurs Seat, Edinburgh

The weather was very mixed.  We had some wonderful blue sky days and some that were dull and moist – the local word is ‘dreich’. 

Murky, Moody View Of Edinburgh Castle

Regardless, at night the Christmas lights on the commercial buildings and between the curtains of the Georgian terrace houses and flats enlivened the atmosphere. 

Christmas Lights In Edinburgh

With the last-minute news that Middle Son’s cold symptoms wasn’t the result of Covid and that he and his partner’s PCR tests had proved negative, we all convened in an AirBnB armed with negative Lateral Flow Tests.  We were all able to have multiple turns at holding FG who was, of course, absolutely lovely.  He is engaging eye contact increasingly and, although he usually maintains a vaguely suspicious and curious look, is starting to smile.  And then we set off for Skye.

Beauty On The Way To Skye

First we loaded up two hire cars with our luggage and panicked a bit when we saw how little room was left for the planned ‘big shop’ to get food and drink for the following seven days on Skye.  In a further wrinkle to our plans, Scottish licensing laws forced us to split the shop for food from that for drink which we postponed until Fort William.  Ultimately, it was all good and we got what we needed (and more).

At first, the drive across Scotland was through the dreich weather.  Then, suddenly, we were driving through wonderful fairytale, mountain landscapes overlaid by miles and miles of hoar frost.  I have seen such frosts in local pockets before but never on this impressive scale.  It was a magical sight. 

(Blurred) Pictures Of Many Square Miles Of Hoar Frost From A Moving Car

Blue Skies Over Hoar Frost At Dalwinnie

Then, as darkness began to close in, we passed the romantically positioned Eilean Donan Castle, looking rather mournful in the descending gloom, and then traversed the Skye Bridge onto the island.  Remarkably, there was still 90 minutes of driving to go (MS and YS took the strain on that).

Eilean Dolan Castle At Dusk

In darkness we found the house we had rented, unloaded all our goodies, confirmed the high quality of the premises, allocated the bedrooms, got the woodburner going, stretched our limbs and enjoyed the first of the evening meals prepared on a rota among the six of us.  It’s so nice having young people around who have the energy and willingness to prepare a fish curry for six after driving for day; delicious.

Our House For Christmas Week: Wood House (https://harlosh.co/wood-h)

When I was working, Christmas was a time to wind down and chill out.  When I started out on my career, I tended to work around Christmas but the pace was usually slow since few others were around and I could relax (relatively) without wasting precious holiday.  Increasingly, as the boys arrived and the family home moved to the country, I realised the benefit of an extended break at Christmas.  It became a time of winding down. 

Retirement now seems to be bringing a reversal.  Recently, Christmas seems to be one of the most energetic times of the year.  Christmases have been increasingly busy, especially for LSW as she focused on Christmas lunch at our house with large numbers of family.  We stepped up the activity levels even further with our Scottish adventure this year.  In a subsequent blog post I’ll describe the benefits of that uptick in activity as we spent Christmas on Skye (spoiler: it was fabulous!).

Happy New Year!

The Lull Before Christmas

Life has been relatively quiet recently and, increasingly, I have dipped out of large social gatherings such as the Community Shop Christmas Party and the monthly local Pub Quiz.  This is in the hope that I avoid the latest Omicron variant of Coronavirus at least until after the Christmas period. 

Christmas too is going to involve fewer social contacts than usual but we do hope to see all our sons, their partners and our new grandchild.  It’s going to be a treat but a different treat from the usual.

The last few days have included a number of Christmas preparations (including my booster jab).  Our family are doing a Secret Santa again this year so little present buying is required.  But, despite the other differences to our Christmas Day this year, I am maintaining the recent traditions of home-made party hats and a Christmas picture quiz.  Both are now ready to go. 

Local walks have continued to be a Covid-safe feature of my retirement.   I’ve been on a couple of different ones with mates from the village.  That is always interesting, not only for the conversation but because, no matter how many times I traverse the local footpaths, they almost always take me on routes or to places that they know but which are slightly different from my normal haunts.

Local Woodland Old Spot Pigs – Well Fed By The Undergrowth And Rather Fatter Since The Last Time I Saw Them!
An Unusual, Local Double-Stepped Stile I Hadn’t Seen Before

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I also squeezed in a rather impromptu visit to Bath.  Walking past the Georgian Crescents and through the streets reprised a visit we did a couple of months ago.  Then, I visited The Holburne Museum and saw an interesting exhibition on (Dante Gabriel) Rossetti and his portraits of his muses and girlfriends (usually, they were both).   He certainly seems to like women with big, lustrous hairdos!

A Rossetti Portrait, Holburne Museum, Bath
View Of Great Pulteney Street From The Holburne Museum

This time, the main purpose to the visit was to try out lunch at the relatively new Landrace Bakery.  We have loved the Bakery and café since it opened well before Covid struck; LSW has been going there since it opened.  Landrace has more than survived the lockdowns of the last 18 months by evolving and shifting its focus to takeaway and, most recently, a small restaurant upstairs.  The lunch we had there didn’t disappoint.  The service was informal but excellent, the servings were tasty and of a good size and, despite the ‘London prices’, lunch was good value overall.  We’ll go again and we recommend it.

Georgian Crescents Overlooking High Common, Bath
Luke Jerram’s Impressive ‘Moon’ Artwork, On Show When We Visited Bath Cathedral

But now, attention turns to a trip to Scotland and to Christmas.  The socialising may have been scaled back in the run up and the numbers around the Christmas table will be less than a third of last year.  Nonetheless I am looking forward to it more than ever after the constraints of the last year and in advance of the restrictions that are likely to come as the pandemic moves to its next stage.  Hopefully we will get away with a great little Christmas!

I hope too that readers of this have a happy and healthy Christmas and holiday period. 

Momentous November

It’s been a very good month for me.  Early in November, our new, first grandchild arrived safely.  We were able to visit his city of birth, Edinburgh, to congratulate the new parents in person and hold and cuddle the little fella for the first time.  Even in those first few days we saw him change and settle into a routine that is destabilising and sleep depriving for his parents but which looked normal.  We miss him already and can’t wait to return to Edinburgh just before Christmas and again in 2022.

The First Of The New Baby Congratulations Cards

I’ve been looking forward to being a Grandad for a few years.  So far, it is just as I expected.  I feel proud and loving, but glad I can feel all that emotional warmth without all the challenge and awkward practicality of having to be a new parent.  That looks as demanding as ever but Eldest Son (ES) and his partner are more than coping and their rewards will be immense too.

It is so great that I’m now retired and so we can pop up to Edinburgh without having to slip the visits between any work commitments.  Also, the fact that the pandemic has curtailed any plans for exotic holidays abroad over the last year or so means that we can splash out on the rail travel and hotels without feeling too extravagant.  If our other sons have children too (say, in Belfast and/or Bristol) than I can see these sorts of lovely, spirit-lifting Grandad visits are going to become a major preoccupation!

Edinburgh On A Sunny Day

We saw Edinburgh this time in cold but mainly sunny weather – the haar was nowhere to be seen.  As before, we were impressed by the number of small independent shops and cafes.  Two of our three breakfasts (at Urban Angel and Union Brew Lab) were really excellent.  We even managed a lunch and a coffee break in a couple of cool and friendly places with a completely relaxed grandchild.

The Royal Botanic Garden and Inverleith Park were also lovely and the preparations for the Christmas light show in the former looked very promising.  We had a very pleasant time walking miles around the city and practicing our pram pushing skills.  We also were able to meet with the other grandparents again over a tasty Indian takeaway meal they provided while the little one snoozed in his Moses basket.  I understand that he snoozed a bit less after we left!

This month was also momentous for the passing of my Dad’s 90th birthday.  I was able to visit him briefly in Nottingham to celebrate this big milestone.  We marked the occasion with a very substantial and very satisfactory meal at Côte, which is an old favourite, and with a tipple or two from my Dad’s impressive collection of liqueurs.  He misses my Mum, as we all do, but we had a quietly relaxed and convivial time comforted by the knowledge that at least she was aware, earlier this year, that her great grandchild was on his way.

In between all this celebration, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I also managed a rather ad hoc visit to London to see LSW’s sister and then our Middle Son (MS) and his partner.  I love going up to London to catch up with developments around the City and the East End, visit the galleries and just absorb the bustle.

I Won’t Ever Tire Of The London Skyline

Of course, that bustle is reduced during the ongoing pandemic.  Nonetheless, the restaurant MS took us to (Sager & Wilde) was busy and had a great atmosphere (as well as good food) and the exhibitions at Tate Modern were booked up.  Still, I loved meandering around the Tate Modern.  The Turbine Hall had an interesting mobile exhibit and the general collection I walked through on the 3rd floor was, as usual, a little staggering in terms of the quality of the art.

‘In Love With The World’ By Anicka Yi In The Turbine Hall Of Tate Modern; Like Floating Jellyfish
Works By Emily Karne Kngwarreye And John Mawurndjul In An Exhibition Of Australian Art At Tate Modern

Back in Gloucestershire, in the gaps between all these excursions, I have managed to sustain the normal routines of watching my football team (Forest Green Rovers still ‘top of the league and having a laugh’), walking, cooking, a bit of garden clearance ahead of winter, and some activity around our local Horsley Climate Action Network (HCAN) group. 

Watching The Village Football Team On Weekends When Forest Green Rovers Don’t Have A Game

A particular relief is that, following the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), I have managed to write and publish our quarterly HCAN newsletter.   LSW and I plan to travel to Edinburgh on a more frequent basis next year to watch our new grandchild develop and we will also visit MS and Youngest Son when we can.  Therefore my commitment to HCAN may reduce to simply sustaining that newsletter routine.  It’s been a momentous month and momentum around family is going to continue to be the priority as we move towards, and into, 2022.

Autumn Colour On The Way Into Town

Overstepping The Mark To Normality?

Over the last couple of weeks I have done a number of things that have pushed my risk of catching Covid 19.  I haven’t caught it – presumably thanks to being double vaccinated – but have felt in jeopardy on a few occasions.  With the exception of our planned trips to Scotland (lockdown restrictions permitting) when Eldest Son and his fiancés’ baby arrives and then for Christmas, I plan to reduce my exposure to the pandemic a bit in the next few weeks.

For the first time since the pandemic struck, Long-suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to a large indoor event.  We attended two very interesting talks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival along with a few hundred others who were mostly masked and who were, by and large of the age that would have been double vaccinated.  Any feeling of risk of contagion was quickly overtaken by my interest in what was being said.

Feargal Cochrane And Patrick McGuire Discussing Northern Ireland At The Cheltenham Literary Festival

The first talk was about the Labour Party and whether it has any chance of winning an election any time soon.  The conclusion between three Labour party sympathisers seemed to be a resounding ‘no’ but the reasons and the possible deflections to that verdict were well set out in arguments that seemed to spill new thoughts and ideas every few seconds.

The second talk concerned the recent history of Northern Ireland.  This is of particular interest because Youngest Son (YS) and his Belfast-born partner are now making their careers and lives in Northern Ireland.  Having visited a couple of times, we love the country and want it to succeed.  The risks to that success are rooted in history there, recent disinterest in Westminster, and the touch-paper lit by Brexit.  It was a fascinating talk and increased my wish that the current difficulties around the new Northern Ireland Protocol agreement with the European Union can be resolved soon and relatively painlessly.

Then, last week, I travelled up to London.  I hunkered down in a corner on the train up and then walked across London to our flat.  On the way I visited the new Marble Arch Mound.  The Mound and the view from it was a lot less impressive than the scaffolding on which it is built but the light show inside was a nice bonus.

The main purpose of my London trip was to visit my dentist there for a check-up and hygienist appointment that had been postponed several times over the last year due to the pandemic.  The Covid protocols in the dental surgery made me feel very safe and I got away with just a couple of bloodied gums and some new dental hygiene advice.

I felt less safe on the tube to and from a football match (it wasn’t quite coincidence that my football team – table topping Forest Green Rovers – were playing at Leyton Orient the day after my dental appointment!).  Despite guidance that masks should be worn, only a minority did so.  Fortunately I only needed to be on the tube for four stops each way. 

At the match itself, masks were completely absent but the excitement of the football always swamps any feelings I have of Covid risk during games.

Celebrating Shared Spoils After A Tight Game (Nice Orient Mascots!)

The visit to London was a lovely break.  I visited an unusual and stimulating exhibition by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey.  His art there incorporated old maps (which I love), ideas about colonialism and the story of his renovation of a bat infested grain silo complex.  The White Cube is a wonderful space and it’s free to visit.

Variety Of Ibrahim Mahama’s Work At The White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey
Ibrahim Mahama’s ‘Capital Corpses’ – 100 Rusty Sewing Machines That Bash Away On Vintage Desks (Its Quite a Noise!)

I also got to see Middle Son (MS) and his partner at the football match but also for dinner and lunch.  It was great to catch up with what they are up to. Dinner at Bottega Prelibato was excellent and felt pretty safe. 

However, it was during that dinner that I decided that I would forgo another planned London trip the following week during which I was scheduled to see the band Tourist with MS.  The idea of being in a cavernous, enclosed space with several bouncing and singing, young and partially vaccinated people felt like an overstepping of the Covid risks.  MS and his partner were able to use the tickets and I’m left with regret but well-being.

Other safe events were a visit by YS and his mate on their way to a holiday in Wales and a simultaneous visit by a couple who have been decades-long friends from London.  All had gone beyond the call of duty by having recent lateral flow tests – something I need to get in the habit of doing – before visiting us.  It was an extremely convivial weekend full of chats, walks, good food and a local art exhibition by a West Country chap called Stuart Voaden.  His day was made too by the fact that our friends purchased some of his work.  We all had fun.

What felt less safe – although it was fun too – was a visit to the local pub last week.  For a few weeks now, since the weather got colder, I have been drinking inside rather than in the pub garden.  Even during the busy recent Quiz Night the environment felt relatively Covid-free.  However, the ‘Jam Night’ last week was a night of full blown sing songs and, as I left after a few noisy beers, I wondered if that had been my peak risk of infection during the last few weeks.  I’m going to go to the pub on quieter nights for a while.

Everyone has a different feel for the balance of risk in relation to Covid.  I know that I’m lucky that I can choose how much risk I take.  The last few weeks have been interesting in helping me determine what is and what is not ok for me in advance of my booster jab and, one hopes, a final decline in Covid cases.

Postscript: Just one more shout out for our Café-au-Lait dahlias which have given me so much pleasure as cut blooms over the last few months.  They will continue for a little while yet until they are blasted by the first frost. 

Also, I am pleased that my limited range of vegetable harvest has been decent again this year.  I can’t grow a lot of things since I struggle to protect them from mammals both large (deer, badgers) and small (voles, mice).  However, some basic fencing and conservative plant choices have meant we have plenty of squash, chard, beetroot, onions and potatoes stored in the old stables as we enter winter.

Home Grown Veg! The Crown Prince Squash (Top Right And 1 of 5) Is A Whopping Stone In Weight

Pre-Baby Edinburgh

Last weekend, we ventured north again to Edinburgh in our electric car.  We visited my Dad in Nottingham on the way. Then we had an overnight stay in Harrogate, and stopped briefly in Jedburgh, before reaching Edinburgh in time for pre-dinner drinks.  Apart from the brief catch up and lunch with my Dad, the main purpose of the trip was to see and stay with Eldest Son (ES) and his now very pregnant partner before the excitingly close baby due date. 

View of Jedburgh Abbey Across Jed Water

The journey was smooth albeit long due to the need to charge up the car every 100 miles or so, and to regulate speed so the battery didn’t get run down too quickly.  The charging of the car was almost without any problem.  Our relief at that was enhanced by the smugness of knowing that we didn’t have to search for, or queue for, apparently scarce supplies of petrol.  Having said that, we might not have got a ChargePlace Scotland charging point to function without the helpfulness of a Jedburgh resident.  We were a little lucky in an unpredictable e-charging world!

Stopping off in Harrogate, which is famous for its conference facilities, brought back some memories of a few corporate conferences I attended there back in the last century (it feels even longer ago than that….). On this occasion, the part of the town we were staying in was overrun by HGV company bosses and drivers who were attending a large lorry-fest. The lorries on show were for every imaginable purpose and all tremendously shiny – quite a sight!

Apparently A Current Rarity In The UK – HGV Drivers and HGVs (At A Show In Harrogate)

We loved Edinburgh this time as much on this trip as we did during our last one in the summer.  The scale, the architecture, the vistas, the proliferation of interesting independent shops, the history and the monuments are all attractive.  The excrescence that is the new shopping centre is a rare architectural misstep in the city centre and is rightly nicknamed by locals as the ‘golden turd’.   Almost everywhere else feels right, interesting or both.

Henry Dundas's Statue With The New Shopping Centre Peeking Out Rather Awfully Just Behind
Henry Dundas’s Statute With The New Shopping Centre Prominent Just Behind

We did quite a lot of walking and casual sightseeing. We retraced many of our previous steps along the Water of Leith that winds pleasantly through the city. This time, we managed to get to Calton Hill in sunshine.

Views Along The Water Of Leith
Arthur’s Seat From Calton Hill

On the Saturday I took a breezy walk around Holyrood Park and up Arthur’s Seat.  I was fortunate, given the intermittent, blustery drizzle, that it was reasonably dry on the way up and down since there was some slippery scrambling to do in places.  The view from the top was worth the effort and I look forward to repeating the climb on a sunnier day.

Central Edinburgh From Arthur’s Seat

Other highlights from the visit were a tour of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Royal Botanic Gardens

The Modern Art Gallery was a manageable size and contains some excellent and varied art.  Unexpectedly, it happens to contain one of Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) favourite paintings – ‘Lustre Bowl With Green Peas’ by William Nicholson (see below).

The current temporary exhibition was of paintings and related sketches by Joan Eardley. I had seen this had been reviewed favourably in the Guardian.  I loved the seascapes and landscapes which were all of a small village on the Scottish east coast where she had lived in, and alongside, some tiny, semi-derelict cottages.  That there were just two rooms of her work on show made the story around her art and the pictures themselves really accessible and absorbable.  The exhibition is on until early next year so there may be an opportunity to visit (for free) again.

Summer Fields (1961) By Joan Eardley

The Botanic Gardens were gorgeous despite the lateness of the season.  There were still splashes of vibrant colour and the gardens were exceptionally well maintained.  The rockery, in particular, was impressive and the Palm House, although empty and undergoing repairs, was beautifully proportioned.  An exhibition of photographs of unusual seeds was also interesting and we happily donated a bit of cash for the otherwise free visit. 

Late Summer Colour In The Edinburgh Botanic Gardens
Palm House, Route to The Vegetable Garden And A Greenhouse In The Edinburgh Botanical Gardens

ES’s partner cooked a lovely dinner when we arrived – she is a calm and excellent cook.  Next day we went to Leo’s Beanery  for a rather wonderful breakfast (see below).  We seemed spoilt for choice of breakfast eateries but this was a very good one that served up such substantial fare that I didn’t need lunch. 

Selection Of Breakfasts At Leo’s Beanery

Dinner on the Saturday was with ES partner’s parents (indeed, since our last Edinburgh visit, ES and his partner have got engaged so we should consider her parents as ES’s future parents-in-law).  The Palmerston was a perfect venue; the food, service (after an overly rapid start) and company were all very good. 

It was matched for quality by dinner on our last night in the north at Tom Kitchin’s The Scran & Scallie. My starter there included mushrooms, ox tongue, egg and bone marrow (still in the bone) in a presentation that made it one of the most interesting starters I’ve had for a while.

All these meals, walks and talks with ES and his (now) fiancée were enlivened with the expectation of motherhood, fatherhood, grandmotherhood and grandfatherhood in a month’s time.  How exciting!

Panorama Looking North From Carlton Hill, Edinburgh

Village Climate Action

The last few weeks seem to have been busy.  It’s funny how retirement has changed my feeling of what a busy life is.  I can dawdle through breakfast, stroll around the local area while ‘getting my steps in’ most of the morning, browse the newspaper for an hour, snooze a bit after lunch, and cook and watch box set episodes in the evenings.  Compared with a 45-50 hour week in a helter-skelter office, it’s a breeze.  And yet, working in our local, village climate action group, which generates the pressure of a few extra meetings, the need to manage a few peoples’ surprisingly acute sensitivities, a commitment to arrange and attend a couple of public events, the responsibility for our newsletter and the imperative of responding to a score of emails, my days can suddenly feel very full. 

Dawn This Morning On The Way To Town – Just To Prove I Do Get Up Early Some Days In Retirement!

I have enjoyed being part of our local village climate action group since I retired.  It has been a good way to become better known in the village, to meet villagers I didn’t know when I was commuting to London each week, and to feel part of the local community.  Our main objective is to keep the climate and ecological crises high on village residents’ radar.

To that end I have helped prepare for and then man a couple of stalls advertising our existence and interests in the last couple of weeks.  The first was in our local market town at the annual Nailsworth Town Meeting where we helped out our (big) sister climate action group.

The Nailsworth Climate Action Network Stall At The ‘Town Meeting’

The second was at our local village fete.  Given the size of our village, this fete (especially the ever-expanding dog show) punches well above its weight.  It also has the benefit of always having nice, sunny weather – I don’t know how the organisers manage that!

Horsley Village Fete Morris Dancers In Full Swing

While Long-Suffering Wife crowned days of organisation and food preparation by slaving away managing the teas and cakes service in the Village Hall, I stood in blazing September sun in front of or climate action group stall trying to catch the eye of passers-by that I could have a chat with.  Speaking to strangers is something I am not comfortable with but I now know enough village people well enough to intrude on their fun by saying a few words about the climate emergency before moving on to other village news. 

Our Climate Action Network Stall At The Horsley Village Fete

It’s more tiring than expected though – or again is this just because I’m getting soft in retirement?  I was glad that I had the excuse of a football game to see and could slope off well before the end (especially as my team, Forest Green Rovers, won to go top of their league).  I offset my feebleness and lack of stamina on our fete stall by spending a few hours afterwards collating the results of some informal surveys we conducted.  So I feel I did ‘my bit’.

A highlight in the activities of our climate action group in the last few weeks has been a visit to a local farm where the farmer is trying to farm sustainably.  It was a fascinating visit even though the weather was at the other end of the scale from that we had at the fete – cold, wet and windy.

The farmer is what he called a ‘generational farmer’; that is someone who is part of a family tree that has farmed the land for generations and who hopes to pass it on to his kids.  That is important since he therefore has a vested interest in thinking about the long term health of the farmland he owns and has a sense of stewardship for. 

View Towards Horsley Village From The Farm

He emphasised the need for corridors (such as overgrown hedges) for wildlife through what he called a ‘mosaic’ of different habitats and productive fields.  He strives for a balance between his responsibility to produce food for the nation (and make enough profit) and the need to maintain biodiversity and soil health (so there is longevity to that profitability).  Some of what he is doing is experimental.  In most cases, the sustainable agricultural activity has a clear, short term cost but an unclear, long term benefit.  It is an act of faith that is only justifiable to the farmer personally because he and his family hope to farm the land for decades.

Some Of This Year’s Milling Wheat Crop (Awaiting An HGV Driver!)

His 80 cows have so much space and are so semi-wild that we didn’t see them at any time during our 90 minute trudge through the drizzle.  Among the stretches of arable fields were re-wilded areas, copses, overgrown hedges, fields of colourful mixes of plants that encourage field birds, and of legumes that replenish the soil.  Some areas of poor soil have been turned over to natural grassland which has reduced erosion and allowed flora and fauna diversity to prosper.  Some harvested fields have been left to regenerate with spilled seed that protects the surface from the elements and provides a habitat for voles which are predated by barn owls and short-eared owls. 

Part of the Farm ‘Mosaic’: Untended Grassland, Legumes, And Field Bird Crops

It was a life affirming and uplifting visit.  Clearly there are many challenges in farming in this sustainable way – not least the uncertainty in bureaucracy and payments as we move from EU to UK farming policies, protocols and subsidy administration following Brexit.  Indeed, farming sounded like a lot of hard work.  Not like retirement!

Funeral Reunion

My Mum’s funeral last week was as emotionally moving as expected.  Dad did her proud with his arrangements.  Mum would have loved the music, the simplicity, the intimacy and the fact that all her close family were all there to say goodbye. 

I can’t actually recall the last time that we were all together on something other than Zoom; probably a decade or two have passed since we managed it.  It was great that all three of our sons could take a break from work to be there.  I recall how hard it is sometimes to get away from work for unplanned events but this one was a biggie.

Dahlias, Cosmos And A Proliferation Of Tomatoes In My Dad’s Garden

The celebration of Mum’s life was dominated by my Dad reading out a last letter he had written to her.  This was the last of 354 letters that he had written daily to her when Mum’s care home stopped taking visitors last year because of the pandemic.  Fortunately the care home had opened up again before Mum died so Dad replaced the series of letters with frequent visits and, charmingly, readings of short stories (mainly tales of Paddington Bear that Mum loved and which my sister and I had grown up with).  This last letter, though, was especially poignant.

By the time Dad had finished reading the letter I (and I wasn’t alone) was tearful and a barely managed my brief recollection of a few relevant memories and Mum’s quiet love for us.  My sister too said a few lovely words through the emotion.  Then we all retired to Dad’s house for lunch which was a very pleasant affair that was full of chat about memories and next steps.

Fortunately my sister has been able to work from my Dad’s house for a week or so and then will take some holiday.  They will continue the task of rationalising possessions acquired over decades but also, I’m sure, provide some mutual emotional support.  Then, I hope that Dad can come and visit us in Gloucestershire for a while later this year.  We move on…..

The flurry of activity around the funeral last week has folded back into the routine of quasi-lockdown life.  We are starting to do the normal forms of socialising but mask wearing in shops and social distancing from all but some relatives and close friends seems to be a permanent part of our way of life now. 

Youngest Son (YS) stayed with us before and after the funeral and between video shoots and we ventured to the local pub with him. We actually drank inside – such a novelty!  To remind us that the pandemic is not over however, that same pub is now shut for 10 days due to a positive Covid test among the pub team.  It ain’t over!

After taking YS back to the airport for his flight back to Belfast, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I visited Tyntesfield House Gardens in Somerset.

Tyntesfield House And Chapel, North Somerset

The house and chapel are Victorian and were built in a rather loud gothic style by William Gibbs who apparently made his fortune from trading guano as fertiliser.  The buildings are certainly a grand statement of his wealth and, on a less busy day, we will visit again and go inside to see the ornate rooms with their paintings and furniture.

Tyntesfield House And Gardens Including Chillies Drying In The Greenhouse And Impressively Long Straight Rows Of Vegetable Plants

The walled kitchen garden, orangery and dahlia beds were impressive and quite inspiring to walk around.  Some of the dahlias were gorgeous and we arrived at the right time to see them at their best. 

Dahlias At Tyntesfield House Gardens – I Wanted Them All!

We just have one dahlia in our garden (Café Au Lait which produces huge blooms that last well even when cut).  However, my Dad has a lovely one in his garden I may be able to filch part of and I will try to find some room for some others and then protect them avidly from frost.

One Of Our Cafe Au Lait Blooms – This One Slightly Pinker Than Usual

Tyntesfield House was acquired by the National Trust in 2002.  That LSW and I are members is thanks to my Mum and Dad who bought us life membership around the time we were married.  We both hold on stubbornly to our original membership cards that are so old that they defy the automatic card reader systems the National Trust have installed, and which attract knowing looks from some of the National Trust staff.  Those cards are still so valuable to us and are great reminders of the generosity and life-long interests of my dear Dad and, my now departed, Mum.

Parkland Adjoining Tyntesfield House

London Exhibitions At Last: Paula Rego and Jean Dubuffet

One of the things I have missed most during the coronavirus pandemic has been London and one of the things I enjoyed most during my London visits was going to the art and topic-based exhibitions curated there.  Last week, at last, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) visited London again for the first time since the first pandemic lockdown.  We both loved the blip out of our relatively rural semi isolation (notwithstanding our trips to Belfast and Edinburgh in the last year).

Back In London Among Its Familiar Landmarks!

During the trip, I saw two art exhibitions: one a life retrospective of Paula Rego (a contemporary Portuguese artist) at Tate Britain and the other a similar retrospective of Jean Dubuffet’s work at the Barbican (it’s now finished).  It was a welcome cultural binge.

The fundamental reason for our London trip was just to break up our routine for a couple of days.  Also, it was an opportunity to catch up with Middle Son (MS) and his partner in their new flat in Haggerston.  They recently moved out of their stop-gap rental of our flat in the Barbican, so that was available to us.  Although the flat is now bare and looking a little tired, it remains a very comfortable, central and convenient bolt hole for this sort of visit.  We are very lucky to still have it until we finally sell this retirement nest egg, probably, next year.

After driving up in our e-car (which in combination with the flat made the trip itself near free of incremental cost), the weather was kind enough to enable us to make a lengthy walk along the Thames Embankment to Tate Britain. 

The Thames: Bridge, Skyline And Unused Tourist Boats

There, the exhibition of Paula Rego’s work was substantial and comprehensive.  What I love about these elite retrospective exhibitions is that one can trace the development of the artists thinking over time while seeing the consistent themes beneath and between the changes in technique and subject matter.  Much of her work depicted the sexuality, strength and resilience of women in hardship; the Dog Women series was an example. 

Paula Rego: ‘Dog Woman’ (1994)

I enjoyed the exhibition a lot but suspect that was as much a function of the novelty of being in a classy exhibition as it was the art.

Paula Rego: ‘The Artist In Her Studio’ (1993)

The exhibition of French contemporary artist Jean Dubuffet’s work was also chronologically ordered to enable understanding of development of his ideas.  The work on show was more varied than that of Rego and I really only liked some of the series of work.  Again, though, some aspects of his style were satisfyingly constant – not least the strange, bloated heads on the figures in many of the works and the use of natural materials with unusual paint type combinations.

Jean Dubuffet: ‘Caught In The Act’ (1961)

The Barbican presented the works very nicely.  Some of the more colourful pieces were lit so they appeared luminous and the pandemic has made London art exhibitions less crowded than they were so there was plenty of room to view everything. 

Jean Dubuffet: Part Of His Performance Art ‘Coucou Bazar’ (1971)

However, although the Barbican tried, I didn’t really understand the Art Brut movement that Dubuffet first named and for which he was a lead exponent of through much of his career.  Maybe the video at the end of the exhibition that explained his counter-cultural aims would have been better placed at the start of the exhibition alongside Dubuffet’s quote (which sounded about right):

“Art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little.  Anything but bore”

Jean Dubuffet: ‘Les Vicissitudes’ (1977)

The weather was too nice to be indoors soaking up art exhibitions for too long.  Apart from the initial riverside walk to Tate Britain, LSW and I also tried out the new Uber riverboat service to get us back to our flat.  It was refreshing and it’s always good to see London from the perspective of the river.

Travelling By Uber Boat And More London Landmarks

We also went to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London.  We followed a newly signposted art trail (‘The Line’) south from the Park down the tangle of man-made and natural waterways leading back to the Thames. 

The area is, of course, changed out of all recognition since we lived in Bow in the 1980s.  Everywhere there are new complexes of flats but, in between, there are signs that the environment and leisure activity is being properly considered.  Certainly, the Olympic Park itself is a lot less bleak than when I last visited.  Now the planting and trees are maturing along the walkways.  I’m looking forward to visiting again and doing some more strolling around the Park and along the nearby waterways.

One Of The Sculptures Along ‘The Line’ Art Trail, East London (Thomas J. Price: ‘Reaching Out’)

LSW and I ate out at Smokestak which is an old haunt of mine and ours.  That was good but better was the dinner we had with MS and his partner at Bistrotheque.  East London seems to continue to be almost as well populated with good restaurants and cafes as ever despite the pandemic and the reduced customer numbers.  Drinking holes on the way to Bistrotheque at Signature Brew and, on the way back, at Ombra were conspicuously quiet.  But that just meant that we could get prime tables and attentive service; very nice!

I have a couple of long and often postponed gigs to see in September and October in London and, at some point, LSW and I will need to decorate the Barbican flat to make it ready for sale.  Those should all be opportunities to spend more time in London – even if these visits become swansongs – to take in more of the excellent exhibitions and art and architecture trails there.

The Olympic (West Ham United) Stadium and The Orbit

Meanwhile there is the significant and emotional matter of my Mum’s funeral.  Thankfully she died peacefully.  After a year or so in which she had, regretfully, to come to terms with being in a care home (a very good one as it turned out), in which she contracted Covid, and then in which she gradually faded, her passing was no shock.  Nonetheless, Mum’s funeral will be a sad closing of a long and fruitful life.  There will be tears and then we are compelled to move on with our memories.

Sons: Home And Away

We recently lost Middle Son and his partner to London.  They had been staying in our rental ‘tin house’ a couple of villages away from us while London stagnated and then started to bounce back from the Coronavirus lockdown.  Now he is back enjoying a resurgent but safer (I hope) London.  However, we have been compensated by a recent visit to Northern Ireland to see Youngest Son (YS) and his partner and then, over the last few days, a visit to us by Eldest Son (ES) and his partner on their way to a wedding.

Dunluce Castle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland; Emerging From Morning Mist

These contacts with our sons are priceless.  When I was working there didn’t seem much time for more than transactional exchanges with them.  Of course, now it is they who are time-constrained by work. However, since retirement, I feel more relaxed and have more time to understand their lives and what makes them tick.

Plus, they live in wonderful places.  We loved our trip to Edinburgh to see ES a couple of months ago Now, all things being well, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are planning further trips there later in the year pre and post-grandfatherhood/grandmotherhood.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has continued to surprise and our trip a couple of weekends ago to see YS there was lovely and, once again, enlightening.  We were lucky that our trip coincided with the rarest of events in Northern Ireland – a warm and sunny period of weather!  I’m joking, but certainly the weather was a treat and helped show off Belfast and surrounds in their best light.

Sunset Over Orlock Point From The Old Coach Road, County Down, Northern Ireland

YS was, as ever, keen to ensure we saw the best of County Down and County Antrim.  He planned an itinerary for us of forest walks, waterfalls, mountain walks and coastal walks and drives.  The trip was dotted with excellent breakfasts and dinners in cafes and restaurants run by young, creative entrepreneurs who have imported the best of big city cuisine to Belfast and the nearby towns.  The high quality reminded us of or meals in Australia when we went there.  Even in Ballymena which seemed relatively run down, there was a café, Middletown Coffee Co, selling some of the best breakfast fare I have had; the toastie was tremendous.   

In a similar vein, Boundary Brewing, which we went to on our first night in Belfast, was just about the best pop up warehouse bar I had ever been to.  A lot of Belfast is rather unreformed with architecture focused on function and security but pockets of Belfast are truly inspirational in the way they are taking off with creative businesses, eateries and drinking holes.

Boundary Brewing: Wonderful Space, Wonderful View, Wonderful Beer, Wonderful Pizza

Of course, YS maintained his reputation for taking us off to see wonderful sunsets and sunrises.  The sunrise we saw demanded a 4.00am departure but YS’s enthusiasm as he prepared everything the night before for coffee by a campfire as the sun came up, and his willingness to allow us all to snooze in the car as he hurtled to the 5.20am sunrise, was compelling.  We made it to a deserted White Park Bay just as the sun peeked over the horizon and through the just-enough-cloud that YS had laid on for us. 

Perfect Sunrise Over White Parks Beach, County Antrim

I think we will all remember the moment for ever; or at least until the next sunrise YS takes us to.

Finding A Spot For A Campfire and Coffee; Plenty Of Options At This Time Of The Morning!

Breakfast that day was also excellent; this time it was in Portstewart at Awaken.  By the time we had driven the coast road back to YS’s home we were ready for a quiet pint in a local pub, a gentle stroll in a nearby park, a nap and a pause in eating before setting out to another well-appointed new restaurant, Yugo East.  There we had a multi-course, fixed-price menu of considerable sophistication.  I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this level of quality in Belfast but I am coming to do so.

Our forest walk was at Glenariff Forest Park which was delightful and which we will return to when there is more water to gush through the narrow ravines and over the numerous waterfalls. 

One Of The Many Waterfalls In Glenariff Forest Park

We then walked up a mountain, created from a pre-historic volcanic plug, called Slemish.  This dominates the landscape between Ballymena and the coast and provides great views.  We didn’t need to rush in the warm weather, there were occasional cooling breezes, and the panorama from the top was a great reward for the scramble up and down.

Looking North From Slemish, County Antrim

Our final day was quieter since YS and his partner had to return to work.  After another great breakfast at General Merchants  in East Belfast, LSW and I simply boarded a public bus and travelled from the far west side of Belfast via the Falls Road and back again.  The bold murals lining some of the route are a clear reminder of Belfast’s past.  The burnt patches of land resulting from the Battle of the Boyne bonfire celebrations in mid-July are a reminder than there are still strong tensions below the surface of Northern Irish life. 

Some Of The More Modern Murals In Belfast

We took in an architectural tour of the city centre and had a final fill up at Established Coffee before a last walk with YS down the Comber Greenway (the first of a large network of such cycle/walk ways being implemented across Northern Ireland) built on the route of the now defunct Belfast and County Down railway.  YS then whisked us off to the airport and home. 

Both trips we have made to YS’s new home in Northern Ireland have been great and we know there is lots more to see.   We will be back again soon but armed with waterproof clothing since surely we can’t be as luck with the weather again?

YS Even Laid On Dolphin Watching At Portstewart!