Monday, 29 November 2010

More frost than snow - as yet

I've not been able to access the internet on this laptop for days now, which stops me from reading other people's lovely blogs and leaving comments, or writing my own (I just don't have time during the day; it's an evening activity and one to which I so look forward). Suddenly I can get on-line and up popped one of my earlier posts, with a snowy pic; so I copied it! Lazy I know but by the time I rush upstairs, access my photos in the unheated 'office' - once a child's bedroom, and come back downstairs, the connection may have disappeared.

So all I can say for now is I hope the cold and snow is not causing you problems (UK readers), unseasonal as it it. Minus 9C is not really so cold - we're used to it, so long as the electric blanket does not fail and we can get to the hens to feed and water them. The 'up' side is lack of traffic roaring past the house, which is bliss, and like the old days, when snow-drifts used to block the roads and reach high above the road signs. We would walk our daughter the three miles to school, where luckily she could stay overnight until the lanes were cleared by snow-plough, so we only had to do it the once! That was, let me see, early 1980s.

We haven't had snow here yet, just icy winds from the north-east and frozen locks which R. decided to thaw with a blow-torch! It's forecast for tomorrow. We've chopped up blocks of eucalyptus from the one felled in the summer (still a little green), bits of oak offcuts from the door frames R. is making for our daughter and son-in-law, and a dead apple tree from the orchard; but hopefully we will have the new oil-boiler commissioned on Friday. It's been a month since we started looking for a new one and installation has been tricky as all the pipework R. used in the 70s for the original, now defunct boiler, was of course still imperial and now we are metric and nothing quite 'matched'. He's done a wonderful job and fortunately, until this week, the weather was kind.

It's a good time for working indoors, or catching up on research, hence this pile of books (another replacement pic). Sorry.

Herbs are my passion, but this research isn't all work; I am planning a fabric 'herbarium' and have been doing so for some time.

P.S. I think I need to change the blog heading to something more wintry; the birds have eaten all the elder berries! In fact I took a photo of golden leaves on a silver birch all ready or a late-Autumn heading, but the branches are now bare. Lovely though; I may try them instead.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


view from our bedroom window

This  picture has nothing to do with the promulgated subject of this post; those that I have taken associated with the topic are too boring and you might switch off - you might anyway but I'll take a chance on that. Normally, at the time when I took this photo, I would have been at my desk, writing; but I am 'between years' and re-organising myself, at the same time as (supposedly) downsizing. Whilst I was in the throes of so doing, right outside our window flowed The Hunt (our house is so old and low-set in relation to the present road that the huntsmen can look right in to our upstairs windows). 

Baying of the hounds, the followers behind in decrepit cars, muddy land-rovers and even quad bikes with trailers in which rode chaps in ancient tweeds and caps the like of which my grandfather would wear, pretending to be a gentleman farmer, which he wasn't, though he was a gentleman. And all those sprightly men and women, young and old, spic-and-span upon their horses; the women with netted hair below their hard-hats. They congregated outside the pub (The Norman Knight) milling around, dogs barking. I decide to record this moment, for any second they will be up and away. Only vantage point is our bedroom window; I lean out precariously regardless of my feet already slipping on the polished wooden floor. If I fall, I'll break my neck for sure, landing on the flagstones below. Hence, the photo has a) camera shake, b) a telegraph pole that appears at a rakish angle and c) the mist and rain of a typical November day. I close the window against the rain, and continue with downsizing. Later, as dusk falls, the huntsmen return, clattering up the hill to where they have no doubt left their horse-boxes. One young man (is he 'master of foxhounds'?) rides back and forth alongside the village green, hallooing. Have the hounds gone missing? One elderly gent rides past, out-of-breath and red in the face, his horse a slather of sweat.

Such an English scene, never mind what the Hunt had convened for; I could write plenty on that, but end the evening with the sound in my ears of another English tradition: the ringing of church bells - for Tuesday is practice night. It takes my mind back a few years to the Millennium when Raymond and I went along with others from the village to see the final two of eight bells cast (at a bell-foundry in Loughborough), and subsequently transported here and hung in the bell-tower. That was in my pre-digital-camera days, but somewhere I have negatives and prints of the whole process; when - in my downsizing - I find them, I'll post them on this blog. Of course, if I was wearing my journalist hat, I'd have ferreted them from wherever they are stashed, along with my photos of the Church, and even, perhaps, those of our village Millennium celebrations when we turned a farmer's barn into a feast house for a medieval gathering. Ten years ago; it seems but yesterday.

But that's another story, as is 'downsizing'; and the bells are lulling my senses as I turn back the years. I'll leave you with the photo that begins my saga of de-cluttering this old 16th century farmhouse. It's surprising the unfulfilled dreams you uncover when you reach below the surface. Just the two of us now, rattling around in so many rooms, so many nooks and crannies; and all filled with memories that have to be disposed of - or at least the visible evidence of so much of our life here.

beginning downsizing (I'm rather ashamed of this)

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Northern Ireland magic

a place of pilgrimage - Slemish Mountain, and old volcanic plug where it is said St Patrick herded swine as a boy

Moving on from my last post - a belated 'second serving' of our June week in Ireland with the Caravan Writers' Guild, I come back in spirit to the part of the visit that covered Northern Ireland. Of course, Ireland is one island and whatever I may think personally of the political and religious divisions that divide the country into two parts, my dual-accounting is simply one of expediency, so as not to make any one offering too long.

You might like first to read what I posted in June (just click on the month-link to the left of this post; and also on my two other blogs. I could not then (in June) recount the whole story, for I only had limited time, and that courtesy of the ferry company Stena Line who offer free WiFi to passengers. Since then, other things have been on my mind, and good intentions frequently fall foul of circumstances beyond one's own control.

The 'Whale' stand at the NEC

Fast forward again, as in my last post, to the here-and-now (actually mid-October when I began writing this post at the NEC in Birmingham: the 2010 International Caravan & Motorhome Show). We stopped by the Whale stand to say 'hello' to Patrick Hurst (MD), steadfast Kate (his PA) and the indefatigable Sarah (marketing). Whale specialise in "heating and water systems for recreational vehicles." Technical subjects are not my forte; but I will never forget the hospitality of Patrick and his staff when the Caravan Writers' Guild was given a conducted tour of the Whale factory, in Bangor (just outside Belfast) during our summer visit.

June 2010: a CWG presentation to the Whale staff outside their factory in Bangor, Co.Down

Whale hosted much of our time in Northern Ireland and took such care of our well-being with much delicious food and a hamper of local Irish specialities when we left at the end of the week. We had arrived late at our campsite, having driven from the one south of Dublin to the Camping & Caravanning Club site on the shores of the idyllic Strangford Lough. We were cold and tired (we had stopped off for a motorhome picnic and dawdled the rest of the way). As we pitched, our first sight was of an on-site marquee alongside, with a number of chaps in white coats and black-and-white chequered pirate-style bandanas cooking the magnificent barbecue that was to be our evening meal. That was the first time we met Patrick and some of his staff. It isn't often that you are catered for and served by the MD and fellow directors of a successful firm, but this first evening was to be indicative of the care that was lavished upon us by Whale and their staff.

Whale directors prepare a delicious barbecue for the Caravan Writers' Guild

(It didn't escape our notice as to just how hard all the staff worked - Raymond spent a whole day at their request photographing their exhibition stand at the NEC; the directors and staff hardly sat down for a minute. A long day and a long week.)

seen from the Antrim coast road

Back to my memories and June notes. We covered much milage in Co.Antrim, and were all shepherded around in a very modern and comfortable coach. One of the coach drivers had a fund of anecdotes: do you for instance know why the cows dance in Antrim? (Because they are fed on potale - the spent grain left over after the distillation process when making Irish whiskey! Or so we were told.) We ate well at Bushmills, and I was asked to participate in a whiskey tutorial. In fact we did a lot of drinking one way and another in Ireland visiting two distilleries and three breweries. Those who were not on the whiskey inspected another caravan park which seemed to meet with everyone's approval.

sampling from these bottles of smooth, soporific whiskey was an education and a delight

The drive down the Antrim coast road was spectacular - 100 miles or so along the high coastal north-facing plateau, past the the Giant's Causeway, then winding in and out of the seaward mouths of each of the Glens (nine in all) and so gradually, seemingly, downhill to Belfast, as if the whole plateau was gently sliding into the sea. I had been blase about the Causeway - and anyway it was raining so pics were difficult, but I was captivated by the wild-flowers growing between the huge hexagonal chunks of stones. Sixty million years old and forty thousand stones; though their geological importance did not seem to impress a party of teenage schoolchildren who spent the time leaning against the rocks in a long line sending text messages to each other!

The NT are funny about journalists taking photos on 'their' properties - you almost have to sign your life away! They will supply stock photos, but then you are using images that have appeared over and over again, rather than ones that are unique to whatever you are writing about. We were only allowed to use a camera if we had the permission of any people we photographed; these fellow photographers said they didn't mind. I took lots, but all the others were of plants and geometric shapes, like a three-dimensional patchwork quilt; a bit cold and heavy! And it was raining.

Belfast had its moments: I posted back in June about the new Titanic museum that is due to open in May 2011. That as you will read (click back) was particularly poignant and we were privileged to be given a preview. But I would have liked to visit Belfast City Hall where in 1966 my father (Maurice Miles) was appointed conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. There wasn't time, and instead the coach drove us around the location of 'The Troubles' - the Falls and Shanklin roads. I felt we were intruding; and it was sad to see two small girls hefting lumps of mud at each other. Perhaps animosity is ingrained from long before birth.

murals in Belfast; there's a whole wall of them, and on the sides of many of the houses as well

Raymond and I have actually been back to Northern Ireland since June, in connection with a magazine commission - a feature that is due out next year. (BBC Countryfile magazine, April 2011: 'Discover the Antrim Coast and Glens').

You can fly to Belfast City Airport with FlyBe, on the site of the old dockyards) from many UK regional airports; they operate jets as well as turbo-props

I promise myself I will return yet again, one day, if for nothing else than my 'fix' of Dunseverick Harbour! Pied wagtails tail-flicking on the slipway; golden and seal-grey lichen clinging to the rockfaces; the pull and pluck of the tide. Memories. Sunshine on the hills, the sea, and flooding down the green and fertile glens. Wherever we have been in Ireland (four visits in five years) in mist, sun or the soft gentle rain, we relish the space, the quality of the light, the peace, and the welcoming and friendly people. North, South, East or West, it matters not, for the "spirit of the past lives on and remains all around us”. 
Dunseverick Harbour, on the north coast of Antrim

a rather indifferent photo I took in 2005 in one of the Glens when I was out 'motte-hunting'. Double-click on the pic so as to enlarge it, and right in the middle you should see the mound upon which Doonan Castle sits (at least I think that's it's name)

Time to leave this magical country. The aircraft climbs away into the setting sun, over Belfast docks and the slipway where the fated Titanic was launched in 1911 from the Harland & Wolff shipyard, one hundred years ago. I peer into the growing dusk, hoping to catch a last glimpse of the uplands and coastal road, but the pilot has turned south, the sun has gone and it is too dark. I can almost feel the tug of the land and the pounding sea willing us back, but know it is purely my imagination.