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.

Edinburgh: Athens of the North

There is an additional geographic centre of gravity in my life: Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh Castle

Eldest Son (ES) and his partner moved to Edinburgh from our flat in London in the New Year.  They have settled there and are due to have a baby there in November.  Last weekend, following relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over the last few weeks in both England and Scotland, we got to visit them and to see the city.

Their flat is in the heart of New Town.  This central area is the epitome of the town planning and developments that have given Edinburgh the moniker of ‘Athens of the North’.  Like a few other residential areas of Edinburgh, it is grandly Georgian with broad, airy streets.  It has well preserved, tall terraced buildings with colonnades and porticos redolent of Greek architecture, secluded communal gardens and, seemingly, a vista of a monument or an imposing public building at the end of every street. 

Dundas Street, Edinburgh. ES’s New Home

In ES’s partner we had a host who has lived in or near Edinburgh almost all her life so we had an excellent guide to the subtle differences between the different parts of the City.  The famous Princes Street has some great views of the castle and the Royal Mile is distinctive, but we preferred the adjacent, less crowded areas that were dominated by bustling, small independent cafes and shops rather than tired chains with their overblown price discount hoardings.

Princes Street, Edinburgh

ES’s flat is on the third floor of their building and the stairs are going to be challenging during his partner’s late pregnancy and, then, when the baby arrives.  So, as we walked around the city, we were considering the possible location of their next flat.  However, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I also found ourselves peeking at estate agents windows and thinking about our possible future move – for at least part of each year – to Edinburgh.

Looking Over The Water of Leith, Edinburgh

There are many steps to negotiate before any such move – not least some firm decisions from Middle and Youngest Son on where they are going to settle since we want to be close and accessible to them all.

Alongside The Water Of Leith

We also need to come to terms with the colder and greyer weather in this ‘Athens of the North’.  We were fortunate that the weather was dry and sunny but we also experienced a misty haar that came in from the North Sea every morning to fill and darken the imposing streets.  That gave us a helpful taste of the climatic difference between Gloucestershire and East Scotland.  We are lucky to have options like Edinburgh as a place to live to think about but the weather has to be a consideration.

Calton Hill, Edinburgh In A Morning Haar

We met ES’s partner’s parents while we were in Edinburgh and it was lovely to meet them at last.  They gave us a sample of the warm local hospitality and excellent restaurant quality.  Then on our final night in Edinburgh we went with ES and his partner to Timberyard which was one of the best restaurants we have ever been to. 

Timberyard, Edinburgh (Pic Courtesy Square Meal)

It was a memorable and lovely city visit – all the better for the delayed gratification caused by coronavirus.

On the way up to Edinburgh we took a detour to visit my Mum and to have lunch with my Dad in Nottingham.  Mum’s care home has, of course, been considerate but restrictive on visits until recently out of respect for the pandemic.  Although my Dad has been visiting Mum increasingly frequently, this was the first time I had seen her for a year.  Mum is frailer now following a bout of coronavirus but it was great and fulfilling to see them both.

After Nottingham, we stayed overnight in York in a very comfortable Scandinavian-influenced boutique hotel with a Viking name (Jorvik House) that LSW had sought out.  We had the time and the sunny weather to take in the main central sites and to have a relaxing drink or two overlooking the river. 

York Minster And Other Buildings Of York

We also indulged in a stop off on our way back home from Edinburgh.  The Tebay Services Hotel was very functionally comfortable and convenient.  Happily, we had time to slip off the beaten path home down the M6 with a visit to Orton Fells near Appleby and the town itself.  While walking by the river there, by very lucky chance, we followed the sound of a distant PA system and stumbled upon a very impressive harness horse race event.  We got to it just in time to see the big race and came away from the town exhilarated by a new, vibrant, energy-filled experience.

Unexpected Harness Racing At Appleby-in-Westmorland

LSW and I have been lucky to have escaped the worst disruptions that this blasted pandemic has thrown at us all.  Nonetheless, travel to see friends and family has been curtailed and, now those restrictions are relaxing, we are planning more trips like that to Nottingham, York, Appleby and Edinburgh last weekend. 

This week will be spent catching up with local village matters (including preparing for and manning of our local Climate Action Network stall tomorrow), personal administration and essential gardening.  Then we are off again – this time to see friends in Suffolk and a very different ambience to the ‘Athens of the North’.

An Anthony Gormley Statue In The Water Of Leith, Edinburgh

Birthday Past and Birthday Future

The last few weeks seem to have had a quickening pace.  Gradually, the easing of lockdown is formally (within the rules) and informally (just beyond the margins of the rules) opening up more social contact.  Spring is moving on apace and the garden is requiring increasing amounts of attention.  Our local climate action group has become more active and more of a time-suck.  And it has been my birthday!

Yellow Fields Between May Showers

My birthday week – and it did feel like the celebration was spread over a week – was full of lovely activities and moments. 

Youngest Son (YS) came to visit with his partner for a few days on his way to a video shoot in London.  Middle Son (MS) and his partner, living temporarily out of London and renting our ‘Tin House’ in a nearby village, came over to help celebrate, help YS get games started (he does love his Monopoly Deal!) and enjoy the birthday food and drinks.  On the day itself, Long-Suffering Wife’s younger brother, his wife and youngest daughter came over for dinner; we haven’t had so many in our house at one time for well over a year and it was great fun.

Birthday Fun In The Local Pub

Even the (birthday) walks in the local countryside felt special in that week.  We were joined on one of those walks by one of YS’s best friends and, so, one of ours.  He is an Australian rather stranded in London by the pandemic but as upbeat and entertaining as ever.  Stumbling through playing a Pub Quiz and then walking back through bluebell woods with him, YS and his girlfriend before collapsing in front of a cheesy film on the television, will be a lasting memory. 

Birthday Walk Through Kingscote Graveyard

To crown the week, my football team, Forest Green Rovers, won their final game of the league season to qualify for the promotion playoffs.  The last few months have been a struggle for the team but anything could happen over the next two or (if we get to the Wembley final) three games.  Next week will be tense.

Peak Bluebell Season

Even better, now the relative excitement of my birthday week has passed, is that there is a far more important birthday to come.  I could mean LSW’s in June but actually it is the real birthday of a grandchild!  If all goes to plan, I will be a Grandad by November. 

I’m so thrilled by the prospect and another lasting memory will be Eldest Son (ES) and his partner telling us on a Zoom call.  I shall also always cherish the recording of ES separately telling his brothers – that interaction was both funny and very moving as it captured the emotions of the moment between siblings so wonderfully.

ES and his partners’ joyful news has heightened our excitement around our upcoming trip to Edinburgh to stay with them for a few days.  We can’t wait to see their new flat there and how they live (while recognising that the latter will be rather disrupted later this year!) 

Local Wildlife – A Grey Heron

Life seems to be accelerating again and I just hope the coronavirus variants don’t slow life down again before we get to Edinburgh.

Paths Among More Yellow Fields

Nearing Pub Normality

Yesterday, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to the village pub: The Hog.  Whether relieving the coronavirus lock down at this point in vaccination programme and while new coronavirus variants are swirling about is sensible or not, I’m not sure.  But after almost 6 months of missing out on going to the pub, it felt like progress.  It felt like near-normal fun!

The Big Red Bus Bar Parked In The Garden Of Our Local Pub

The pub was well organised in catering for an excited bunch of villagers amid the continuing social distancing guidelines.  The pub garden was very tidy, new table service app worked, the sun was shining and the beer tasted good. 

The pub management are a lovely village family who have been very resilient during they took over the pub lease just before the first lock down last Spring.  They have done a lot of work to make the place a pub with a traditional, drink-focused and village feel.  The improvements inside and out look judicious and practical and all we need now is good weather without onerous social distancing.

Hopefully lock down will continue to be relieved (with just cause) and we will soon be allowed use of the inside of the pub as well as the (still rather chilly) garden area.  That way, we customers can benefit from all the effort and investment the management have made and the pub can again become a full, vibrant focal point for the community and for impromptu gossip and discussion.

The only downside is that the re-opening of the local pub will put pressure on my alcohol consumption.  I’ve done so well in the last year to reduce my alcohol units consumption and to increase alcohol-free days as advised by doctors and the press.  Hopefully the restraint of the last three months, in particular, has left me a sufficient contingency as I strive to meet my New Year resolution targets for 2021.  I can certainly see those targets are going to come under pressure now the pub has reopened, and I am enticed by the long awaited pleasure of beer drinking after weekend walks and on days of celebration – like pub reopening day, yesterday!

Recent life has otherwise been fairly unremarkable, although we did go on a new (for me) and delightful walk last weekend around Sapperton and Edgeworth a few miles north east from where we live. 

Walk From Sapperton (Top Right) to Edgeworth; Lovely!

I have also continued to busy myself with local village activities.  The Neighbourhood Plan which I helped develop many months ago, is finally being presented to the village for a referendum for approval or rejection.  After so much effort by so many over several months (nay, years!), rejection cannot be contemplated so posters and leaflets have been prepared to encourage a ‘yes’ vote.  I’m discovering some previously unknown nooks and crannies in the village as I deliver some of the leaflets.

More From That Sapperton To Edgeworth Ramble

Work with our village climate action group has also rumbled on.  Somehow, involvement has crept up to, I estimate, an average of over an hour a day.  The focus in recent weeks has been on a phone around of people in the village who have expressed interest in the group and who receive our seasonal newsletter.  Now the focus is on the Spring edition of that newsletter and on following up the points raised during the phone around including discussion of how we embrace the Ecological Emergency as well as the Climate Emergency. 

None of this is exactly earth shattering but it all takes time and, despite the availability of almost infinite discretionary time in retirement, I do need to maintain boundaries around this stuff.  Otherwise, I can see I will get frustrated by lack of attention to other areas of pleasure such as walking, reading and gardening (nothing gets in the way of watching Forest Green Rovers!).

I have also, rather fleetingly, been involved in a proposal to establish a Community Land Trust in the village.  The idea was to find funding from the village, loans and other financial means to enable purchase of a house and its 13 acres of woods and fields, and then run the assets from a Community Land Trust that would provide affordable housing and preserve the excellent biodiversity in the fields and woods. 

The opportunity was precipitated by the death of an old and rather famous activist in the village who had been generous with both the house and the lands by providing young people with accommodation and allowing community cultivation of some of the surrounds.  Unfortunately, the scale of the financing for the purchase and the short timescales in which the funding needed to be raised proved to be insurmountable obstacles. 

Entrance Sign For the Horsley Orchard On The Site Of The Land Proposed Community Land Trust

The idea has therefore died for now.  However, the need for affordable housing in rural areas like ours and the desire to increase local biodiversity remains and finding out how Community Land Trusts work was engaging.  It was good, too, to make some completely new and interesting acquaintances during the ultimately aborted process.  Maybe there will be a chance to get involved in similar projects in the future.

The Horsley Orchard – Now At Risk Of Further Abandonment Following The Demise Of The Community Trust Idea

Meanwhile, another trip to the local pub needs to be scheduled…….

A Jab In The Map Of Perfect Tiny Things

Dawn Walk – Perfect Start To The Day

A couple of weekends ago, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I streamed and watched a film called The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.  It was a slight but charming fantasy about a couple of teenagers in an ordinary American town experiencing exactly the same day over and over again.  The repetition of events allowed the teenage boy to map out a series of funny or spectacular moments that occurred during the day and then schedule to view them, or interact with them in different ways, during each daily repetition.  It was Groundhog Day with teenagers rather than Bill Murray.

A Little Film With A Good Message For Me

The ‘Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ was entertaining enough, but what made it memorable was that it resonated with our current situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  We are in what sometimes seem like an endless lock down; every day feels, rather weirdly, very much like the last. 

The film reminded me that we need to appreciate all the good things – even if they can often only be little things at the moment.  I need to do more of that despite, or perhaps because of, the back drop of the pandemic (and even while railing against all of the inequality, strife, climate emergency concerns and political shenanigans of the world).  What we can all do is take comfort from the tiny pleasurable moments in each locked-down day.

A Perfect Walk Among Tall, Straight Beeches In Conygre Woods, Kingscote

Those moments might be the sighting of a kestrel or a group of buzzards during an airy walk across the Cotswold Tops, or seeing a flock of chattering long tailed tits in the ivy opposite our house.  Recently, while on a walk with Middle Son and his girlfriend – in itself, a set of (slightly illicit) lovely moments – I saw a dipper and then, later, the iridescence of a kingfisher.  Another perfect thing might be coming across a particularly attractive moss-covered tree, or suddenly spotting the semi-wild but inquisitive pigs snuffling around in the local woods. Another perfect moment was seeing the result of my recent and hugely overdue haircut (courtesy of LSW).

Perfect Moss, Moss, Moss

Then, today, I had a welcome tiny moment when I had the first of my anti-coronavirus vaccinations.  The moment of the jab itself was painless but it still felt like an important instant that signals the start of a new phase.  Lock down may still have some weeks to run.  For a few weeks yet, meetings with friends and Middle Son and his girlfriend may continue to be chilly snacks in the garden, or bracing walks, rather than gatherings around cosy wood-burners or indoor dinners.  However, change and more frequent, and more obviously perfect, tiny moments are coming.

View Over Stroud While Waiting The Advised 15 Minutes Post-Jab

In any case, the progression of the seasons has helped provide a structure for time spent – we aren’t really living at a standstill.  Spring is here and every warm and sunny day now provides a hint of the summer to come.  The buds in the hedgerows are swelling and bursting, the birds have long been active and noisy, and the fading snowdrops are now outshone by anenomes, crocuses and daffodils.

Perfect Snowdrop Carpet

For me, the football season has also provided a structure to the chronology and a sense of progression over time. My local and favourite team, Forest Green Rovers, are doing very well. Watching every one of their games through an internet streaming service (now physical attendance at games is prohibited again) has been a real boon. Indeed, on the coldest football evenings, I’ve been very glad to be able to watch my team from the comfort of our living room rather than the frozen stand in our stadium. I am finding that the football season is providing a way – albeit a tense one – through the repetition and drift of time in pandemic lock down.

This has been my first post to this blog for a few weeks.  In part, that has been due to distractions due to a busy period with our local climate action group and, more recently, involvement with a local Community Land Trust project.  Also, though, those weeks have been dominated by a routine of relative inactivity so as to avoid the coronavirus risk.  There hasn’t seemed much to say. 

Walkers View On The Way To The Shops

I think I need to pay more attention to those transient, tiny, perfect moments in my routine and make the most of them.   But, also, I am hoping that my vaccination jab, and the end of lock down over the next several weeks, paves the way to a new context for those moments.  That context will include, once again, proper socialising, travel and substantial events; a map of large perfect moments.

Hope and Resolve in 2021

Yesterday, Storm Christoph, which has been battering and flooding many parts of the UK, brought us a dramatic combination of rain, wind, thunder, lightning, snow, bright sunshine and then a great sunset.  I suspect that we might see a similar drama in events and a variety of ups and downs in 2021 as we wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of Brexit and the normal hurly-burly of life.

Sunset Over The Garden After The Storm

Currently, the rather boring but necessary lockdown continues and Winter life revolves around meals at home, shopping for them, walking the local lanes and fields, reading books, listening to the (voluminous and ever changing) news, watching TV dramas in front of the woodburner, and sleep.  But the delivery of vaccines is providing some hope that, in a few months, we will be able to resume adventures around the UK and meet people normally again. 

Morning Mist On The Cotswold Tops

Yes, there are new variants of the virus and, yes, the death rate will rise yet further before it subsides, but there is expectation now that the current pandemic will pass (or, at least, become a lot less disruptive) during 2021.  Of course, I am dearly hoping that is the case.  However, I also hope that the Government does not hide behind an effective roll-out of the vaccines (assuming they manage that).  We must learn, and make transparent, the lessons learnt from doing almost everything too little and too late to combat the virus.  After all, this is hardly likely to be the last pandemic we need to deal with and we need to do far better next time.

Against the uncertain backdrop of pandemic and Brexit, it is hard to set concrete personal resolutions for the New Year.  The lockdown has induced a gentle lethargy in me (I’m one of the lucky ones).  I think it is going to take the fine Spring weather and an end of the lockdown to generate some proper enthusiasm to break that ennui.  So my resolution process this year is really to just continue on the path set over the last couple of years. 

For example, I will maintain my target of walking an average of over 15,000 steps a day.  Apart from a bit of garden pottering, that is really my only substantive exercise these days.  So, it’s good that I exceeded that target again in 2020 and I plan to do so once more in 2021.  That should be achievable, and be thoroughly enjoyable to achieve in our lovely countryside, provided I stay healthy.  Hopefully, many of those steps will be taken a little further afield than was possible in 2020.

Evening Mist In Our Valley

The 2020 resolution achievements I proudest of in 2020 were those relating to increasing alcohol-free days and reducing average alcohol units per day.  I beat my target of 40% alcohol free days by more than 10% – well over half or 2020 was alcohol free!  I also thrashed my 10% reduction target of decreasing my alcohol unit intake.  My tracking on the Drinkaware app has shown that I managed a 35% reduction in alcohol compared to 2019 and I now average 22 units/week.

That still leaves me well above the recommended limit of alcohol intake (14 units a week); so there is more to do.  However, there is a balance to be struck here.  Until I really can’t drink whiskey, wine or beer for precipitate health reasons, I need to weigh the benefit to my feelings and mental health with the physical risks of exceeding the rigour of what is recommended.  So many pleasures have been curtailed during this pandemic, reducing further the pleasure I get from what is now a relatively occasional drink is not in my set of 2021 targets.  I will just aim to at least repeat what I achieved in 2020 – that will involve will power sufficient to be challenging enough.

That, plus the continuation of walking, should help with my perennial objective of getting my weight below 11 stone.  By the week before Christmas, I had managed that.  However, for the second year in a row, the combination of mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, brandy butter and a major Christmas dinner – lovely as that all was – tipped me over the edge of the 11 stone marker just before year end and just as it did in 2019.  My resolution this year is to reduce my weight to such a degree by mid-December that I can enjoy those Christmas excesses without jeopardising target achievement.

Other resolutions from last year have been a bit of a washout.  I failed to listen to the news on the radio less and listen to music more.  There was just so much news from the pandemic, to Trump, to Brexit, that I just couldn’t stop taking it in.  Plus I failed to reach my target of reading 20 books (I managed only 13, a poor show given how much discretionary time I now have and how much I enjoy good fiction).  I resolve to do better in 2021.

Long-Suffering Wife and I failed, for obvious reasons, to achieve our resolution to get out together around the UK more.  We made it to Belfast for the first time but other holidays to Cornwall and Wales were planned then cancelled.  This year, when the virus allows, we will revisit Belfast where Youngest Son is establishing himself, and visit Eldest Son in his new home in Edinburgh.  We also have booked, rather ambitiously, a family Christmas on the west coast of Skye; if that comes off, the world really will have returned to something like normality.

Memories Of Exploring The UK In 2020; Belfast Lough

This time last year I said in these blogs: “I think that 2020 is going to be a far better year than 2019”.  In some ways it was in that we had no sons in near fatal accidents.  Now, I really do think 2021 will be far better than last year but who knows what it will throw at us.  Good job my resolutions are not critical work targets that must be met; I can relax, be flexible, go with the flow and just be content with pushing myself just a tiny bit.

Early Snowdrops – A Sign Of A Brighter Future?