Task Oriented Autumn

A few posts ago I mentioned that I had started going to a Mental Fitness For Men group under the auspices of Talk Club.  Our local pub landlord has arranged weekly Talk Club sessions and I have made it to most of them since they started a few months ago.  The sessions are of fixed format but the people who turn up each week vary so there is always something new to listen to as well as, usually, something new to say. 

I’ve found the meetings useful in that they help me frame what I am grateful for and what I’m going to do in the next week to make things feel better for myself.  However, I do often feel daunted by the lucidity with which most others in the weekly groups talk about the way they feel.  In comparison I tend to fall back into talking about things I have done and things I’m going to do.  I have explained to the group (and myself) that I tend to feel happiest when I am ticking off tasks on my to-do list but I suspect that I need to get deeper into how I feel about life rather than describing tasks.

Having said that, I have felt a certain contentment that, by and large, I have done what I said I would do over the last few weeks.  The tasks have varied from raking up the scythed and strimmed grass in the meadow (into piles I don’t quite know what to do with), to harvesting the last summer crops and gathering seed for next year, to production of a string of documents I promised for the local Climate Action Network group that I belong to. 

Not Quite A Crown Prince Squash. Grown From Gathered 2021 Seed And Reverted From F1 Hybrid – Tasty Though!

Today, post-Foodbank duties, I am even finally managing to get around to making crab apple jelly which is a task that has been on my to-do list for a few weeks.  Overall, October and early November has been a good month for tiny achievements amongst my retirement routine!

Making Crab Apple Jelly – Tree -> Apples -> Straining -> Jelly! (First Of Two Batches)

There have been a few other high points recently.  Middle Son (MS) and his partner have moved from London to Bristol – just 45 minutes away.  That means that we will see them more often.  For example, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I were delighted when they popped over for an impromptu dinner a couple of Fridays ago.  It was lovely to have a normalised drop-in-type arrangement with one of our sons rather than have to think about days packing, travelling and staying away from home. 

Not that those sorts of visits are not welcome.  We are off to Edinburgh again later this week and can’t wait to see First Grandchild (FG) again (and his parents!) for the first time in over two months.  It’s going to be a special visit this time to celebrate not only FG’s first birthday, but also Eldest Son (ES) and his partner’s marriage.  I’m so glad they have chosen a relatively low key way of getting married and celebrating that with a few close relatives.  However, the event is momentous nonetheless and it will be lovely to have all our boys, their partners, my Dad and my sister all together with FG in one place at the same time. 

We have also had some old friends come to visit us for a weekend.  We have been rather poor at inviting people over for almost anything since the Covid pandemic; we seem to have just got out of that pattern of being.  But it was great to see these long standing and close friends again.  We had an active but relaxed time with them that culminated in a delightful walk in the Slad Valley and then an excellent lunch at The Woolpack (of Laurie Lee fame).

The Slad Valley Near Stroud Between Autumn Showers

Much of the rest of the time in the last few weeks has been more routine.  However, I helped to advertise a talk that our village Climate Action Network group arranged with the Parish Council on rewilding and the impact of climate change on our local trees.  The theme of this talk, and a continuing series we have planned for next year, is ‘hope’.  This is to counteract the inevitable descent into gloom if we consider and talk too much about the climate and biodiversity emergencies alongside other current preoccupations such as the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis.

The first talk in the ‘Hope Talks’ series was almost wildly successful.  We have a hard act to follow as we go into next year.  The talks themselves bring the village together and just the fact they happen adds to the resilience of the community and its cohesiveness.  I edit a quarterly newsletter (another task done this week!) and submit articles to the monthly village magazine but these ‘Hope Talks’ hold out greater promise for conveying useful information while being a great relationship building mechanism.

Our Learned ‘Hope Talk’ Speaker – Local Resident, Dr David Bullock (With Props)

Of course, other continuing elements of my recent retirement routine have been steadfast support of local football teams (Forest Green Rovers but also Shortwood United and Horsley United) and more of the Autumnal walks I talked about in my last post. 

Local Team Shortwood United In The Process Of Winning 5-0

The Autumn weather has been so mild and, until recently, so dry that the walks have been particularly pleasant.  The colours in the trees have been changing quite variably from species to species.  That has meant that while the reds and yellows have perhaps not been as spectacular as in some past years, the blending of different colours across the valley slopes has been very attractive.

Local Walk Lined With Lime And Hazel Trees

I plan to keep up the local walks even as the winter weather closes in.  However, I do also plan to reduce the number of discretionary, extraneous things I commit to in the next few months.  At least that way I may be able to think more about abstract feelings rather than worrying about the state of my to-do list and the rate of knocking items off it.  I may even resort to that old trick of adding things to the to-do list that I have already done…..

Lovely Valley, Lovely Weather, Long Shadows

Active Autumn

As I walked through woodland this morning amid a cascade of falling leaves, it was clear that Autumn is very much here again.  September has been a time for harvest but also the last throes of summer-style travel and partying.  I now see October as a time for buckling down for some rather delayed home-based administration and task tidy up before our next trip to Edinburgh in November and then the excitement of Christmas.

Autumn Colour (In This Case, The Incongrouously Named Black Bryony)

September was certainly busy and was capped last weekend by a long-delayed visit to us by my Dad and my sister.  That was quietly relaxing and allowed my Dad to catch up with developments in our house since his last, pre-Covid visit, and meet up with a few other local relatives.  It also allowed us to jointly celebrate Middle Son (MS) and his partner moving into their newly-purchased, pretty, terraced house in Bristol.  A few days ago, that hard-won purchase suddenly seemed in jeopardy as the Government made a big misstep that caused interest rates to surge and mortgage deals to be pulled from the market.  Our very happy afternoon with MS and his partner was blessed by Virgin Money’s forbearance and lovely sunshine.

Earlier in the month, not only did I manage to visit London and Edinburgh, but I also attended Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) college reunion with a bunch of her fellow physiotherapy students 40 years on from their graduation in Leeds.

The reunion was held in Buxton which I had not visited for decades.  We stayed in a very comfortable and central hotel (The Buxton Crescent Hotel) which produced substantial breakfasts and very good evening meals for the group.  The whole event over a long weekend was an enjoyable mix of free time, a long walk across the local Peak District, and organised eating, drinking and socialising both in the hotel and in nearby bars and restaurants.  There were a few other (non-physio) partners of LSW’s fellow graduates in attendance so I didn’t feel too out of place.  There was a wide variety of personalities, and everyone was interesting in some way.  It was a nice thing to do and LSW really enjoyed the mass catch-up.

On The Three Shires Walk Near Buxton (Starting In Mist At The Cat And Fiddle Pub, Finishing In A Bit Of Sun)

Buxton itself is a lovely spa town with many impressive Georgian and Victorian limestone buildings – like a smaller version of Bath, which we know well, and similar to Harrogate which we visited on the way to Edinburgh last year.  The evening/night life was surprisingly lively and well catered for by a large number of busy and interesting craft beer bars.  We sampled a couple of those with and without the reunion entourage.

A Variety Of Attractive Buildings In Buxton

On our ‘free day’, LSW and I went off for a fairly long but pleasant drive to Hardwick Hall.  It’s an impressive late-Tudor building surrounded by attractive gardens that I recall – as I do Buxton – from holidays with my parents very many years ago.  The weather was kind, the afternoon was lovely and it was great to get value from the life National Trust Membership that my parents bought us so generously when, I think, we got married.

Inside Hardwick Hall

Back in our home village, my schedule has been peppered by the normal smattering of walks, gardening, short shifts at the local Food Bank, my team’s football matches and Men’s Mental Fitness nights (which have helped salve the depression cause by the poor football results!). 

A Local Walk Under A Luminous Autumn Sky

LSW and I also went to a film showing – ‘Drawn to War’, a film about the life and work of the painter and Second World War artist Eric Ravilious.  It was our first cinema outing together of the year and was very enjoyable due both to the content of the film and the novelty of the evening outing.

However, the recent Autumn highlight in the village was a substantial, superbly organised and hugely entertaining 50th birthday party of a friend of ours.  The invitees were a mix of her relatives, long standing friends and more recently acquired friends from the village like ourselves.  The entertainment was a combination of a bar, a wonderful buffet, an open sided marquee with a dance floor, a DJ, a couple of fire eaters (believe it or not – see below!) and varied, if increasingly inebriated, conversation.  I’ve not danced so much for a decade and LSW and I both had great fun.

Local Fire Eating!

September has also been a time when I have reaped a harvest of onions and potatoes.  Both have been surprisingly productive given the lack of rain during much of the summer.  That shortage of rain hampered bean germination but judicious watering has saved some of the squash and chard. 

A Fraction Of This Year’s Garden Produce

Also, the dry, hot summer enabled me to grow a lot of tomatoes in an open vegetable plot for the first time since I left my allotment in London 25 years ago.  Inevitably perhaps, most of the tomatoes are very green but, with our climate inexorably warming, I will try tomato growing again next year.

Finally, as I have in previous years, I find I have to comment on the late summer/early autumn flowering of our remaining two dahlia plants.  I have simply never enjoyed cutting flowers and then displaying them in our kitchen/diner so much as I have these Café Au Lait dahlias.  Their blooms are large, subtly coloured and, once they start, simply go on and on until the first frost.  Now we are in October, those frosts will come soon enough but, for now, these dahlias continue to be a splendid echo of summer and a thoroughly rewarding aspect of Autumn.

Retirement: Five Years On

Five years ago today, I experienced my first day of retirement after almost 40 years of corporate working.  I haven’t done a stroke of paid work since retiring and I haven’t regretted that for one minute.  I have been lucky that my health has been good (I know a few new retirees who have not been so fortunate) and that earning and saving during my working life has meant that I could retire in my early 60s and still live comfortably (again, not something that is possible for all). 

Taking The Retirement Step Five Years Ago: Mr Archer Has Left The Building!

I have also been lucky in that retirement moved me more permanently to our family home in a lovely part of Gloucestershire but that I could also keep a degree of access to my London flat for a few years.  That meant that I could wean myself off London cultural life gradually.  That London facility has just been sold and now I am tied much more to Gloucestershire day to day (something that probably means Long-Suffering Wife is a little more long-suffering these days).  However, while cultural exploits are now less frequent, the countryside here is highly alluring, the rural walks are delightful and the pandemic lockdown had already trained me to make the most of the local.

Long, Local, Countryside Walks – A Great Retirement Treat

Five years ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect from retirement (that was one of the reasons why I started this blog when I retired) and there certainly have been some surprises along the way.   The Covid pandemic has been a big one and that has curtailed a lot of the travel that I anticipated doing.  Middle Son’s accident a few years ago was also completely impossible to anticipate and has taken a while to recover from.  Now a needless world war is causing more widespread disruption in which to plan.

Pre-Covid Travel We Did Manage: South Africa 2018

Our sons’ locations have also been unpredictable and yet this has determined a lot of our travel.  When Youngest Son was in Australia we went there (twice); currently he is in Belfast and we have visited there twice too.  Middle Son remains in London so we have seen him there but we wait on tenterhooks as to where he will move to next and more permanently. 

Sydney 2019
Northern Ireland Summer 2021; (Typically Very) Early Morning Trip With Youngest Son

Meanwhile, Eldest Son is settled in Edinburgh with his partner and they have produced the loveliest retirement surprise – our First Grandchild – and so Edinburgh has become another regular destination.

Back Streets Of Edinburgh 2022

As I did a year after leaving employment, I have gone back to the initial impressions I had of retirement which I set out after the first six months (here and here).  To recap, the main personal lessons, in summary, were:

  • Work didn’t and doesn’t define me and I don’t miss it
  • There is plenty to do in retirement
  • There is still need for structure
  • Holidays (trips away from home) are more relaxing now
  • I miss London, but not as much as I expected
  • Summer Is A Good Time To Retire
  • Remember That Retirement Affects One’s Partner Too
  • Spend Time Getting To Know One’s (New) Neighbourhood
  • Don’t Rush Into Any New Big Time Commitments
  • Health, As Always, Is Critical.

Once again, I don’t see much to change or add to that.  I have certainly found plenty to do in retirement and have enjoyed getting involved more in the local community, but a key attraction is that little has to be done in a hurry.  Even though I have taken on a few commitments around the village, particularly regarding local climate action, and even though some of these have become quite substantial, the pace is much more relaxed.   As in work, there seems to be much to do but, in retirement, most can wait until tomorrow.

Our Meadow And Vegetable Patches: Varying Levels Of Untidiness

I have been able to create new routines and structures for my day primarily around walking, shopping and cooking.  They help provide some balance between doing and doing very little that create a feeling of busyness but with a flexibility on timescales that is just challenging enough for me.

That flexibility is perhaps the most attractive thing.  We can travel or not.  I can offer to help with something or not (I remain careful not to promise things I can’t deliver).  I can go out gardening today or leave it till later because Wimbledon tennis is on or it looks like rain.  I can take a long walk because the weather is nice or I can sit and play a computer game for an hour or two.  I can cook simply or take the time to explore into new cooking territory.  I can go to a Forest Green Rovers away game halfway across the country or sit nervously alongside the radio commentary. 

Who Wouldn’t Want To Travel Halfway Across The Country To See The New Forest Green Rovers Away Kit?

The choices are more attractive than when I was working, the execution of those choices is more relaxed, and it’s been a very good five years!

My Current Retirement Home

Laughing In Lyme

We had a great long weekend in Lyme Regis.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I started our weekend by meeting up with Youngest Son (YS) and his partner in Bristol on Friday morning.  They had stayed overnight in Bristol to check out the Bristol vibe and had found a café/bar adjoining a boutique hotel called Artist Residence Bristol.  It was perfect; great breakfast, service and start to the day.

Artist Residence Cafe/Bar In Bristol

We drove together down to Lyme Regis to stay in a flat overlooking the Harbour and the famous Cobb breakwater that protects it.  The stay was the result of a successful charity auction bid a few months ago when our village raised almost £14,000 for the victims of the war on Ukraine.  We had little idea of what the flat would be like but trusted that, given the owners had been so generous in offering the flat as an auction lot, it would be well appointed and comfortable.

That is exactly how it turned out and more.  The flat was indeed well presented, well provisioned, homely and just right for the six of us.  What was unexpected was the spectacular view from its windows facing Lyme Bay.  We were in the tallest building around the Harbour and overlooked it all.

View Of The Cobb From Our Flat For The Weekend

We spent the late afternoon over a late lunch (for me, an unnecessarily huge bowl of cheesy nachos at Swim) on the sea front and then walking around the town and along the seafront in gorgeous weather. 

Busy Lyme Regis Sea Front And A Big Arrow To Indicate Where We Stayed
Lyme Regis Beach

YS picked up Middle Son (MS) and his partner from nearby Axminster station.   While they freshened up in the flat, LSW and I set about pre-dinner drinks and a walk through the gardens overlooking the bay.  We then met up together for dinner at Mark Hix’s The Oyster & Fish House.  Again we had spectacular views across the bay and the food was very good (I just wish I had gone for the three types of fish for two people which MS and his partner shared, and which looked exceptional).

Next day, another substantial breakfast at Town Mill Bakery and Cafe was followed by a bit of crabbing by the youngsters.  I thought the chance of catching a crab off The Cobb was small but it was amusing to watch the enthusiastic early efforts.  I left for a walk along the coast to the west of the town and so missed the triumph that met capture of two crabs by both MS’s and YS’s partners.  There were a lot of photos of smiles (I won’t share here to protect the innocent!) and talk of doing more crabbing with the remains of the mackerel bait on the following day.

Superior Housing To The West Of Lyme Regis – Old, New and Strange

We joined up again for a walk along the east coast of the Bay.  Landslips had destroyed some of the paths but we were able to go far enough to get proper exercise in before retreating to the Town Mill Micro Brewery (again!) for some well-deserved and lovely craft beers.

The Jurassic Coast East Of Lyme Regis
Land-slipped Coast And New Sea Protection Walls Just East Of Lyme Regis

The only downside during our time in the micro-brewery was being told that, in preparation for the following day’s crabbing the youngsters had left the remains of the mackerel bait with the crabbing equipment in our block of flats just outside the ground floor apartment.  I felt a strong responsibility for making sure the neighbours of those lending their flat to us weren’t inconvenienced by rotting mackerel outside their front door.  So I strode quickly back to the flat to move the crabbing stuff up to outside our flat door so at least we would be the only people who would have to put up with the smell. 

I also picked up Heckmeck – a crazy dice game and one of our favourites and, as the weather drew in and it got appreciably colder, we moved to a tiny space indoors at the brewery for a rather noisy game. 

Heckmeck And Craft Beer

Back at the flat we restocked the beer supply, opened a few and played a new game called Twin It!  This team game is simple in concept but very fast moving and so stressful that we could only cope with one round.  I can’t wait for an occasion to play again though.  Fortunately LSW and I had time to calm down as the youngsters went off to pick up fish and chips from the renowned and family run Lyme’s Fish Bar and then we tucked in.  One more round of Heckmeck rounded off a full and excellent day.

Our final day started with the niffyness of mackerel as we left the flat and then, once again, a large breakfast, this time at the splendidly located The Lyme Bay

At some point during breakfast I learnt that, on the way to the cafe, the rotting mackerel had been discarded and crabbing was no longer on the agenda.   Why the crabbing equipment hadn’t been discarded the previous day was unclear to me but what a lot of ‘wasted stress’ I had expended the evening before!   Everyone seemed very amused at my discombobulation. 

Striding Out On The Coastal Path West Of Lyme Regis

Still, the lack of crabbing enabled time for one more walk along the coast before we headed off from Lyme Regis with some great memories and laughs in the bank.  It was great to have spent a full weekend with YS, MS and their partners.  Loved it!

Overlooking Lyme Regis From The East

Friends, Family and Parochial Busyness

Since retiring almost five years ago, I have frequently been surprised by how busy I have felt.  Late May and Early June have certainly felt that way although, when I look back, I’m not sure why. 

Certainly, I have done a one or two weeks of work on follow up activities relating to a Village Meeting that the local Climate Action Network group I belong to arranged with the Parish Council.  And, ok, we have had visitors other than family coming to stay for the first time since the start of the pandemic. 

We also had the festivities around the Queens Jubilee (though in our village, these only really stretched to installation of a new commemorative bench and, more engagingly, a four day beer festival in the village pub).  We even hosted a long-promised but long awaited drinks event for a few locals in our garden.  Plus we had a really lovely visit from our First Grandchild (FG), his parents and his other Grandparents. Oh, and the London Barbican flat that I used before retirement was sold!

Village Pub (The Hog) Ju-Beer-Lee Beer Festival

Does that sound like a busy month?

In any case, almost all of it has been a lot of fun and, in the case of the work on the presentations of the summary of feedback from the Village Meeting, I feel like I have achieved something worthwhile for the greater good.  I get to present most of it to the Parish Council next week so I hope they will feel the same way.

Lacing all these little events together has been the routine of shopping, cooking, gardening and walking. 

Shopping and cooking has been marked by an uptick (in my perception, at least) in the frequency and innovation of my evening meal preparation.  I am enjoying cooking more and more as I gain confidence in swapping out recipe ingredients for others to add variety and to use up vegetables otherwise likely to be wasted.  ‘Important’ meals for most visitors usually remain the in the ambit of Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) but no longer is this a golden rule and my (in)famous Coronation Chicken (courtesy of Thomasina Miers) got an outing when my Best Man came to visit during the village pub beer festival a couple of weeks ago.

This Coronation Chicken Recipe From Thomasina Miers Is Easy But Creates A Delicious, Colourful, Warm Salad

Gardening has been more fraught with the need to focus on the Village Meeting, days of relatively inclement weather, and early afternoon indolence combining to delay planting out of straggly, pot bound vegetable seedlings.  Now almost everything is in the ground the slugs are having a better time of it, but at least my seedlings have a chance of producing something.

Our Terrace Garden In Bloom

The local walks have been increasingly pleasant as the weather has improved on our way to the longest day and summer.  Plus I have got real enjoyment from using a mobile phone app that identifies birds from their birdsong.  The app is called Merlin Bird ID (although I understand from others I have spoken to that there are several alternatives).  When I first tried it a few months ago, I wasn’t sure it was accurate.  Now I believe it is and using it has begun to help me learn to identify birds before I even open the app and turn the recording/identification function on.  It’s adding another pleasurable dimension to my walks in much the same way the app Candide did for me from sometime last year as I tried to identify plants as I went.

Much Loved Sycamore At The Top Of Our Lane

LSW and I are off to Lyme Regis this coming weekend where, Covid permitting, we will meet up with Middle Son, Youngest Son and their partners.  I’m looking forward to that – and the break in my (busy) routine – immensely.

Last View Of The Barbican Flat – Empty And Sold!

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

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. 

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

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.

Old Friends

With the relaxing of the coronavirus lock down we have been emboldened to travel further afield to see friends and relatives.  At the end of last month we went to Nottingham and Edinburgh and last week we visited friends in Eye, Suffolk.  It had been over a year since we had seen these old friends and over two years since our last visit to Suffolk.  There was much to catch up on.

Unexpectedly Spectacular View At Diss, Just North Of Eye

Once again, we had great Suffolk weather.  That showed off to best effect the improvements to our friends’ house and outbuildings, which had continued up to the lock down last year, and the private allotments that they have recently purchased and taken fuller control of. 

The Entrance To, And The Developing Harvest Of, Our Friend’s Allotments

These allotments are tremendous; they are colourful, well-tended and, judging from the health of the vegetables on show, fertile and not by savaged by deer or badgers.  I am particularly jealous of this last point having seen all my Jerusalem artichokes on my own tiny allotment plot excavated and eaten by relentless badgers in recent weeks.

Since our last visit to the Eye allotments, the wife in the couple has extended her animal husbandry alongside the vegetables, flower beds and an orchard cum meadow.  There are now pigs in addition to the squad of chickens and a grumpy, blind duck. 

Happy But Unsuspecting Pigs

There has already been a cycle of acquiring pigs, feeding them up and sending them to slaughter that the current pair Oxford Sandy and Blacks/Gloucester Old Spot crosses are blissfully unaware of.  Given how friendly and enthusiastic for life that they are, I’m not sure I could bear the emotion of farming pigs in this way but I have to say that the pork we had at dinner on the first night of our stay was delicious!

Eye Church In Morning Sun

Eye itself is a pretty town in which the wife in the couple seems to know everyone.  The town is a good size with a market and a nice range of independent shops.  It is surrounded by a mix of chicken factories and old airfields that are starting to be homes for small businesses.  One such is Bruha Brewing which we were able to visit (following my first and rather precarious cycle ride for several years) to sample their very satisfying craft beer. 

Big Fields, Big Skies

The town is also surrounded by arable farms criss-crossed by lanes and footpaths and we took ample opportunity afforded by the sunny weather to get our steps up to normal levels after the long drive to Suffolk.  There was time, too, to visit Wyken Hall Gardens and have a lovely lunch (again) at its restaurant, The Leaping Hare.  We have a lot of shared history with our Suffolk friends and it was great to catch up in such relaxed and attractive surroundings.

Views In Wyken Gardens, Suffolk

Then, this week, we had a visit from my best man (BM) who is another long standing friend from university.  Again, the formula of a pub visit, walking and a nice meal was a good, solid backdrop for a great mutual sharing of recent events and life developments.  BM’s life rarely seems dull and a recent hip replacement and impending retirement added to the normal interest.  If he doesn’t move on to a new job after all, perhaps we will be able to catch up more often.

Some Big Fields In Gloucestershire Too!
And We Have Sandy And Black Pigs In Gloucestershire Too!

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are starting to enjoy and plan more trips and visits as Covid lockdowns are eased to allow them.  Last month, for the first time for me in ages, we visited LSW’s aunt, cousin and his wife for dinner.  It was an evening enlivened by their dog amusingly pinching a third of the quiche (the rest that he left for us was lush!) and a spectacular view of a sunset over the Severn valley from their house. 

Sunset From LSW’s Aunt’s House

Now we are starting to schedule trips to Ireland, London, Scotland, Bath plus dates for local get-togethers with local village friends and neighbours.  Normality in retirement is returning.