Thursday, September 27

Family memories

This evening I stayed late at work starting a little job for my dad. After the death of my gran (she of the famous fruitcake recipe) he gathered together many family photographs with the intention of getting them scanned and copies made for those who wanted them.

When he told me he'd taken them in to Boots and been quoted a FIVER for each copy, I nearly fell off my chair; I told him that I would sort them out for him. Luckily our design studio has a good quality scanner and processing software, and it only took me an hour or so to scan almost 50 prints of varying sizes and qualities.

I've ordered a couple of them as prints from Photobox (12p each!) so that I can assess the quality and make sure my dad's happy with them before I order the rest, but in the meantime I thought I would share a few with you.

Here's my dad and his young brother Julian in the garden at the back of my gran's house. She lived in the same house for almost all of her life, from being a teen, getting married and living there with my grandad and her mum, eventually scraping together enough money to buy the place, until the day she died.

My grandad played football apparently, something even my dad didn't know till he found this photo! He's on the far left of the middle row.

Granny and grandpa on their wedding day outside Eynsham church.

My all-time favourite; granny and her sisters having a laugh in the back garden. She's second from the right. I think she really looks like me on this picture.

Monday, September 17

Scottish sojourn part II: Edinburgh

The second part of my Scottish holiday was spent in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, which is four hours by train south of Inverness. It might sound like a long trek but it's one of the most glorious train journeys I've taken - mountains and glens and seaside and valleys, the contrast of remote wilderness with pretty little towns that appear every now and again, and the last dramatic approach to Edinburgh as the train heads along the opposite side of the estuary before swinging round to carry you over the iconic Forth Railway Bridge.

My host in Edinburgh was also a friend I'd made through conservation work - Allan and I were co-leaders of a weekend break about 12 years ago and recently got back in touch again via Facebook. I got to lodge in his lovely flat in the New Town and be waited on hand and foot - he's been there less than a year and the novelty of entertaining guests has not yet worn off, as he himself admitted!

It was utterly charming to stroll around the streets admiring the architecture and enjoying the sunshine, and I was able to continue my holiday themes of walking, swimming, ale and good food in a contrasting urban setting.

At Glenogle baths we swam in impressive Victorian surroundings; the water considerably warmer and the soundtrack much different to my last two dips, since we shared the pool with the local school kids.

Food played an important role but whereas the first half of my holiday was all about veggie comfort food, the second half was a mix of haute cuisine and top notch home-cooked grub.

Standout meal was at Castle Terrace where we took advantage of the special lunch deal. It was a quite incredible meal combining beautiful presentation, incredible flavours and a touch of theatre in the surroundings and service. For all that, a bargainous experience.

Starter of sea trout cannelloni with a little nub of hot-smoked salmon and lemony moussy stuff, buttery tomatoey sauce (yes I know I will never get a job writing menus).

We chose different mains - my partridge was beautifully presented....

...but as soon as I saw Allan's choice I immediately had plate envy. He went for a selection of different pork cuts which were imaginatively served in a frame of artichoke puree filled with gravy (well probably some kind of posh 'jus' or other, I doubt it was just gravy). He was kind enough to swap a bit of the pork belly for some partridge breast so I got to discover that the food was even tastier than it looked!

Pudding was a total revelation, with the flavours and presentation of this blackberry cheesecake far exceeding expectations, and I particularly liked the intense little green dabs of mint that were dotted around the cheesecake to contrast its sweetness.

With all the food and ale being partaken of, it was a good thing Edinburgh has some handy hills to climb and long walks to sample.

Thursday night was a trip up Arthur's Seat with a dozen or so walkers; we just about managed to avoid the rain but it was damn breezy up at the top! It was comical to watch the three young tourists in their rather flimsy kilts hopping around the rocks and every few seconds striking a pose like Marilyn Monroe as the cheap fabric proved no match for the Scottish weather.

Mind you they had taken the precaution of keeping their boxer shorts on, which turned out to be very wise.

The Water of Leith walkway is a substantial leg stretch of 13 miles, although the vast majority of it is flat, and so we broke it up with a couple of pub stops along the way.

The burn changes character every few hundred yards, with little dams and weirs creating very still, reflective stretches upstream and bubbling, churning waters below.

We found Giant Hogweed along the upper stretches, now gone to seed and looking all dramatic in silhouette, and we saw about four herons on the lower section, some of them at very close quarters.

There's even a tunnel through the hillside, originally built for the railway line that the upper section of the walk follows. 

Dean Village is a particularly picturesque part of the route, which winds its way past a number of Edinburgh landmarks such as Murrayfield stadium and the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art before reaching Leith Docks.

Dean Village

One disappointment of the walk for me was that we only managed to find one of the six Anthony Gormley statues that are on the route as part of his work 6 Times, and it was face down in the water (they are designed to fall over in high water). Of the others, we didn't go to the sites of two of them, but there was no sign, erect or otherwise, of the other three that are supposed to be standing in the water.

When we finally reached Leith after about five hours (four of actual walking) we found it bathed in evening sunshine, which gave me a bit of a Proclaimers earworm that I considerately kept to myself.

All of which meant I felt I had thoroughly earned my breakfast the following morning...!

Sunday, September 16

Scottish sojourn part I: Mellon Udrigle

Just back from a long week in Scotland, my main holiday of the year and a particularly delightful one this year. It's been a long while since I had a proper holiday up there, and this year I decided to exploit the generosity of friends by taking up their kind invitations to visit two very different places.

The first half of my holiday was four nights in the little hamlet of Opinan, right next to Mellon Udrigle in Wester Ross. Otherwise known as the end of the road. I guess this is a bit vague since there must be a lot of places in the Highlands that match that description, and I've already been to quite a few!

My friend Dee, whom I met about 15 years ago on a conservation holiday in Derbyshire, was my host, and she welcomed me the first night with cold beers and an invite to walk along the beach. I even paddled!

Her lovely cottage was decorated with autumn flowers from the gardens and surrounds, including mint, Devil's Bit Scabious and rowan berries.

Each night we lit the wood burning stove, mostly for amusement value rather than heating requirements, and sat drinking local beer, talking late into the evening and creating our own session of made-up songs that got more vulgar as the night wore on.

We spent some time working in the garden, cutting back the overgrown shrubs and burning all the bits in a massive bonfire; the sea offered a brief, refreshing dip to wash away all the fire smoke and sweat, the stunning location marking it out as one of the most glorious places I've ever swum. 


The rocks are a major feature in this windswept area, I loved the shapes and textures and colours that they add to the landscape, and the beach was littered with lovely orange shells of all hues. 

Another day we walked 5km along a track to the deserted Slaggan Bay where I dipped in the sea once more before turning back at a quick pace to try and outpace the gathering rain clouds. 

We slept well and ate well and let our bodies adjust to the shortening days and the cooling temperatures. Swallows fed their young on the electricity wires next to the house and the buzzard dropped by once or twice, keeping an eye on things. Half a dozen times in a day a car went past to one of the few houses further along the road.

It was a very restful break and I was sad to leave, although on the day I drove back to Inverness for the second part of my holiday, the two hour journey was through torrential rain, which made it easier to go!

Wednesday, September 5

A question of sport

Sport has been very much in the public eye this summer, for obvious reasons, and living in London it has been impossible to ignore the impact of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In general I have very little interest in watching sport either on the television or live - while I love to walk, cycle and swim these are very much fitness activities for me, and any competitive spirit I feel is only in terms of improving my fitness and stamina against my own standards.

So I was quite surprised to find myself drawn into the excitement of the Olympic Games, regularly watching highlights on the TV and local big screens, and even trying to get last minute tickets. I didn't manage it for the Olympics but last week I finally got to go to Greenwich Park to watch one of the heats in the team test, which basically involved a dressage round.  

There was lots of queuing involved in getting into the park, and once you were in, lots of queuing for food and drink, especially if you didn't time it right. We only had to queue for about 10 minutes for our cup of tea...

The event was not the most scintillating, but the views from the stands were lovely even with the dark skies which threatened, and eventually delivered, heavy rain. My ignorance of the event and how it is  marked meant it was difficult to know when someone was doing well, except by the marking at the end of the round. I guess that's when TV commentators can be useful - if they are good, they can explain why someone gets marked up or down or whatever. Without any commentary, I was a bit lost, as I suspect were many others.

On Monday I went to my second Paralympics event - this time in the Olympic Park, which was a fabulous experience. So well organised, efficient and friendly I couldn't quite believe I was in the UK!

I loved all the banks of wildflowers around the stadium and the waterways and their bridges. Only got chance to go in a couple of the venues - the square ones unfortunately - so just had to gaze longingly at the groovy ones and listen jealously to the roars of excitement coming from within.

Wheelchair basketball - pretty damn vicious!

We stayed until the lights came on and enjoyed a more chilled out park, beautifully lit and glowing. Shame the generic 'ale' that was sold in the beer tent was so poor we didn't want to hang around for a second one!

Sport has also been on my mind in a different way. A few weeks ago was the start of the premiership football season and it was a strange one for me this year. Soon after taking up with the Curse a decade ago, when the extent of his football obsession began to be fully revealed to me, its annual arrival became marked by the feeling of a big cloud of gloom descending on me. Until I met him, I had never been in a relationship with anyone who was really interested in football - and certainly not to that extent. I never understood how anyone could let something rule them so comprehensively, something they had no influence on, or control over. When you generally have the power to change things for the better in your own life with decisions about where you go, who you see and what you do, why let a team of footballers control whether you are going to be happy or sad when you wake up the next morning? Holiday travel and weekend events had to be planned around matches, and often when we were away there would be at least one evening when we had to seek out a pub with Sky Sports where he could watch the game.

Over the period of our relationship I became much more knowledgeable about the sport, not just the rules of the game but how each competition, league and international worked, group stages, knockouts, etc etc, the transfer season, the FA and FIFA, the influence of Sky on kick-off times and match dates, the whole business side of the premiership and its teams and so on. I found myself moderately interested in it as an impartial observer, and I even travelled with the Curse to visit cities where European matches were to be held - Rome and Bordeaux, for example - although I usually came home before the match itself. Yes I did go to a couple of matches at Stamford Bridge to see what it was like, and although I enjoyed the spectacle and the energy in the stadium, I couldn't imagine building a life around it.

The summer break would be great for me if there was no competition going on, but by early August, the Curse would be bored and fractious, anxious for it all to start again. The kick-off weekend would generally be marked by watching as many matches as possible and I would be reminded of the months ahead. I usually found it pretty depressing.

There are many things I miss about him and our life together, but this is definitely not one of them. This year's start to the season has passed by almost unnoticed, leaving my mental health so much the better for it.