Category: Christmas

Storms

We hear on the news that Scotland will soon be battered by storms again. But what action to take, this is the problem. When someone shouts “Warning!” or “Look Out!” then we all know to duck down behind the sofa or jump out of the road, whichever is more appropriate. But here we are close to the shortest day, most of Winter still to come, right in the firing line for the latest depression, and it is difficult to know what exactly we should be doing.

Maybe there is some action I should be taking in preparation; a checklist is needed.
Is the house roof fastened on securely? Well it was OK for last week’s storm and the one just before that so it should stay put for this one, shouldn’t it? It survived last winter’s gales too when dozens of our electricity pylons crumpled and fell over.
Will the garden fence survive? Not a problem as we don’t have wooden fences here. They are far too vulnerable, an open invitation to be blown over. A wire mesh fence is what is needed, something that lets the wind pass right through.
Is the wheelie bin tied down? We have always kept it on a leash, tied by a rope to an eye screwed into the wall just by the back door to prevent it from flying around the garden – this is just the way we do things around here – so nothing needs to change there then.
What about preparing for the inevitable power outage, the sort of thing that happens when a spruce tree uproots and topples over onto the power lines close by? Well let’s see now… Candles? Check; Portable gas heater? Check; Camping gas cooker? Check; Freezer full of food? Check; Kindles on charge? Check (a bit of a giveaway this as it shows just how bang up to date we are with technology. We both use Kindles, his and hers, which mean we can read books in total darkness. Strange behaviour really so we don’t brag about it).

By now our excitement levels are right against the stop. Dire warnings of impending doom are broadcast on all the media. The ‘Met Office Amber Alert’ thingy is ringing in my ears and I am running out of preparation-y things to do. There really is little else for it. We just have go out to see what is really going on.

The noise we hear when we step outside the house is of the trees, leafless though they are, growling and whistling as they thrash about. Leaves, or the remains of them, instead of being blown away are collected rather neatly in a small circular pile where the wind has formed a vortex on its path around the garden shed. The burn at the bottom of our road is full, but no more so than normal, although the water is being blown upstream in the gullies beside the forest track and there are pine needles spinning down to form a pale brown layer on the mounds of sphagnum moss. Amidst all the noise from the trees there is something else in the background, like interference on a radio set, a hissing, roaring sound carried to us on the wind from Carradale Bay.Storm at mouth of Carradale Water

The tide is high at the beach, almost at maximum, but this is the sight that we came here for, to watch the white surf pounding in from the south. My glasses fog over with salt spray and white spume floats over my boots, continuing up the beach to the dunes beyond as we stand and admire the power of the sea where it meets the river, a boiling mass of confused water leaping in all directions. All along the tide line where we walk there are bundles of tangled seaweed into which are mixed the delicate shells of heart urchins, hundreds of them, ripped away from their comfortable homes by the storm. Large baulks of timber, some clearly natural, some fashioned by man, are thrown up randomly, the sand and sea having stripped the bark and smoothed the surface like a fine emery. As we walk along the beach the wind is now more on our backs so we barely notice the wave which launches itself at us coming up the beach at speed. If it could it would try to take us back with it, to mix us up with the foam and weed but we make a frantic dash up the beach, which would appear amusing if there were anyone else here to see it. But who else is crazy enough to venture out on a day like this. Very few, it has to be said.

Back home and inside the house things should be much quieter but the plastic sheet which covers the flat roof above our dormer windows has become loose and flaps about madly in the wind. Afraid of losing it completely – it is there to keep the rain from leaking through – last week found me climbing precariously up an extending ladder to try to tame the thing. But how can you control such a wild thing without nailing wooden battens across it, in the process making more holes in the roof for the water to leak through. Perhaps some heavy weights up there might hold it; but then I remember the power of the wind, the weight of it, the way it was throwing the sea about, picking up even wet sand off the beach, the way it bends trees to breaking point and beyond. Nothing I can think of (that I can physically lift up to the roof) would be heavy enough to resist being tossed about, thrown off the roof to the ground. For the moment the plastic sheet stays in place, until the next gale, or the one after.

Ordinarily we might be upset by this but another event has rather overshadowed things.CH boiler delivery Christmas arrives just a few days early when this delivery is dropped into our front garden. It doesn’t stay there long as our plumber, Tom, comes early the next day armed with spanners, blowtorch and determination. The heavyweight parcel contains our new central heating boiler, a modern, super-efficient machine which will give us plenty of warmth for years to come, a fine present from Santa and his elves.

And so to Christmas

Morning over Ailsa

A pre-Christmas dawn arrives gently to reveal Ailsa Craig sitting out there like the milestone it is, pointing the way so that our family can find their way to our house. When Christmas morning arrives, all our three sons are with us for the grand present opening and our living room floor gradually disappears beneath layers of discarded wrapping paper. Our lives follow convention (to this extent at least) and the sun makes an appearance too, low on the horizon but beaming right through the house.Naomi's jumper

For many weeks now Kate has been counting rows and clicking her knitting needles, working away to create a masterpiece in twisted wool for Ben’s girlfriend, Naomi. It fits her form perfectly and is received with so much delight that she would have worn it right through Christmas lunch had our house not been so warm. Our cast iron stove is lit every day to provide heat for the whole house and we are now burning our way through the log pile we stacked up under cover outside the back door twelve months ago. The ruddy glow inside helps us forget the cold and wet outside, the short days and the winter winds.

On Boxing Day our motor caravan, Ducky, comes into its own as a people transporter so we can visit the ancient capital of Dunadd, once the centre of power and commerce for this whole area, located today in the middle of a wilderness. It is a cold day, the wind cuts through us as we climb the twisting path to the top of the dun, but the reward is just to stand there and imagine the world as it was some 3000 years before, to put back the people, the houses, the trees too and the boats that brought in goods from across the known world and to let our minds try to make sense of the landscape spread out beneath us. View from Dunadd with lichen treeThere are marks and shapes down there that could tell us the story of the people who once lived here, if only we could read them, but in reality the impressions they left on the place have faded away to almost nothing. Maybe the most we have left from that time is in the blood of those living today who are descended from them, and no one can know whether they have this in them or not.

Cold as it is, our van’s new gas heater enables us to huddle inside and lunch in comfort beneath the dun. Without this we would have been driven away too soon and we would not have been able to offer tea and warmth to a gentleman called Bill who is visiting the dun on his own and looks like he needs company. He is full of tales of a long life working as a nurse in the military and tells us how he is drawn towards Seil Island, which lies beside the Firth of Lorn, and is a place where his late wife’s family came from. The conversation moves on and it isn’t long before between us we have put the world to rights, solving the energy crisis, voted on Scotland’s independence and misted up the van windows with good craic.

Before returning home, and just before the forecast rain arrives, we visit a few of the places along the Crinan canal where Cirrus spent so much time a few years ago. Bellanoch is unchanged, it was a quiet, damp place then and still remains so. The village of Crinan itself is as attractive to our eyes as it always has been so we drop in on friends Roger and Veronica who helped us through the summer and autumn of 2009 and whose simple philosophy for life we admire greatly. We gaze in admiration at their home beside the sea from which they can look out across the Sound of Jura and watch the sun as it sets, light their wood-burning stove and sit cosily as the weather blows by.

Off we set towards home and the heavens open on us just as we reach Tarbert, the single-track road along the coast of Kintyre becoming a challenge to navigate in the windswept darkness. Somehow we manage to miss the worst of the potholes and keep the wheels on the narrow strip of tarmac that leads us home to Carradale. Ben & Naomi on the shoreOur day out has taken us into the world as it was a few thousand years ago and then seamlessly back again to the present day.

Ben and Naomi stay with us here in Carradale for a few days more then load up their tiny car with all the musical instruments they brought with them, guitar, violin, mandolins, concertinas and of course Naomi’s harp. Incredibly the musicians’ car takes everything and we wave them farewell on another damp windy day. This Christmas has enabled us to renew our bonds with our scattered family and push aside the world outside, at least temporarily.


A week or so before Christmas my mother, despite having only just recovered from a mild chest infection, left Scotland and set off south on a long-planned voyage on a cruise liner heading for the sunshine-blessed Canary Islands. Saga SapphireThis might have seemed like a a good idea at the time of booking, to leave higher latitudes during that period when at midday the sun only rises high enough to skim the roof of the house across the street and when its rays make zero contribution to domestic heating bills, but sadly for her the holiday was to be cut short by yet more illness. Not long after the ship had left British waters and had endured the crossing of the notorious Bay of Biscay she was taken ill again. With only limited medical facilities on board the ship she soon found herself lying in a hospital in Casablanca, Morocco, probably the last place on earth she would have chosen to spend Christmas.

Back here in Scotland this news comes filtering through by phone so that throughout the holiday period we find ourselves waiting expectantly for calls from abroad with information on her condition, on how long she is likely to be incarcerated there and on whether her insurers can make arrangement to bring her home. From her perspective this whole episode must seem like the traveller’s worst nightmare; stranded in a foreign land where the languages spoken are not your own, the customs strange and disconcerting, discovering that your ship has left port without you; a far cry from the comforts of the luxury cruise she signed up for. Fortunately the excellent health insurance cover she took out before leaving and the helpfulness of the cruise company do succeed in bringing her back to Scotland, albeit on a rather roundabout route, and we now await news on her condition from the Glasgow hospital she now graces with her custom. 2013 is continuing, so it seems, to have a hospital-based theme to it.

Weather windows

As they tend to, the latest storm has moved on elsewhere for the moment and as I write, the air has calmed down just a little back in Scotland. Campbeltown 2011-12-10We know this because even whilst away the Internet gives us access to the Campbeltown webcam which has survived the big storm to give us this lovely shot of the Christmas lights coming on behind the harbour. Unlike a few days ago when the surface of Campbeltown Loch was being picked up and thrown about by the wind, rain spotting the camera lens, now twinkling lights are being reflected off the water and the boats are looking snug and safe.

Meanwhile, in Worthing we gaze at the sunset from the window of our Tony’s flat,Sunset at Dorchester Gardens not a million miles from Kintyre but a rather different skyline to the one we are used to, the one which often has eagles glaring at us from the skies above who I often imagine to be drooling at the sight of prey they see far beneath them. Worthing has a large population of very large gulls which soar overhead then swoop down on chip-wrapper leavings before settling on the rooftops at night. There is also a large elderly population here, not that dissimilar from Carradale really, but here they must be generally less mobile as so many of them are rampaging around the streets in their electric wheelchairs, bouncing up and down the kerbs and risking life and limb crossing busy streets. There are so many of these contrivances that a booming sale and repair market has spring up, bringing new life to the business community. I can’t make out whether it is just my imagination but it seems that a rider’s grim face always appears along with the whining sound of a mobility scooter. Perhaps one should not underestimate the degree of coordination required to pilot one of these chariots, steered as they are via the smallest of joysticks and for an elderly person not brought up on the wonders of Playstation or the Xbox, guiding this machine around pedestrianized streets must represent a significant challenge. So the serious face may be nothing more than concentration, with a touch of blind panic thrown in. I do wonder, however, whether the faces might also be reflecting our disapproval, as if we, the able-bodied, make the rider feel they are doing something antisocial, as if we are saying “You are a menace to us all on that thing!” or “Surely you’re fit enough to be walking!” Perhaps it is just that society hasn’t quite made the adjustment to accept this relatively new form of transport as a part of our lives. Perhaps the first person to ride on a horse also had a grim set to their features that were misinterpreted by those around them.

From Tony’s place we move on to Ticehurst to visit my mother, herself of a venerable age but as yet not having succumbed to the mobility scooter. She has always been a good walker, striding along towing others in her wake, and few people in her own age group have ever been able to keep up with her. Approaching ninety now she complains at her failing faculties but she still wants to get out and about in the countryside whenever she can. It frustrates her that she cannot do this as often as she likes and wintry weather in particular cramps her style. She has made the right choice in living in the most benign corner of the country, weather-wise, a place where rainfall generally comes in fitful sprinkles or sometimes not at all and wind barely ruffles the hair.2011-12-13

Or so we thought…

Yet another of those bizarre Met Office overlaid maps with their threatening amoeba-like blobs of colour tells the story of wind and rain for the next few days. It seems we just cannot escape, no matter where we go. We now need to time our journey home so as to slide between the yellow growths as they shuffle across the country, not an easy thing to achieve. Somewhere in the past, before the advent of amoeba-covered charts, we would have set off blindly and got home safely without the stress that comes from worrying about where the predicted rainstorm is going to strike or when the forecast wind will carry us away. Are we really better off today with the help of all this information?

In the end our journey home proved far more acceptable than the forecast led us to expect. Some rain showers did find us and there was some wind but somehow we managed to avoid anything really nasty. Back here in Scotland the landscape has changed in our absence but our house has survived whatever has been thrown at it whilst we were away. Only the windows bear testament to the storm, spattered as they are with a salty residue, a little bit of Atlantic Ocean transported across Kintyre, no doubt.

We have barely recovered from our journey but can’t wait to get out and about so we can see what effect the onset of winter has had. There are white tops on all the summits now and with ice on the path up Deer Hill, some care is needed. View south from Deer HillWhilst tradition dictates that we bring a tree inside the house at this time of year, it wasn’t difficult to find a suitable one outside for this picture… and the halo on top came free. So we wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and Ailsa in the forestbest wishes for 2012.

 

And regards from Ailsa too.

 

 

New Year forecast: showers

As we move into the final phase of our house refurbishment we start it with a new spring in our steps because it is an important transformation we are about to make. The plan is to install a shower in a large fitted cupboard connected to our back bedroom. We bought the pieces for this some weeks ago – the shower tray, the shower cubicle, two large plastic sections to make the walls watertight and a funny little waste trap – so all we have to do is to connect these bits together and its done. Easy really.

Except that this is a first for us both. We are complete virgins when it comes to shower installation, babes in the wood. So the first task is to convince ourselves that we can do it! Well we can check that one off because we did all the convincing necessary months ago before we started on the whole project. A shower is a simple thing after all, water flows in through some pipes and goes out through some other ones. Kate stripping wallpaperA shower cubicle is merely a means for airing the water for a short period, the time it takes to get the human body clean, and then it allows the used water to escape the house under gravity. Simple really.

Next comes the difficult bit. Where does one start on a job like this? Well there is the cupboard space to make ready, wallpaper to strip off (Kate loves doing this), some wooden bits to demolish (I’m getting good at this) and then… Well sooner or later we’ll need some holes for all those water pipes so this seems to be a good place to start. Gravity is the medium by which the water will flow away so this means that the pipes will need to be slanted downwards. Hmm, this is suddenly a little more tricky as the shower tray, by its very nature, is already level with the floor. So either it will have to be raised up higher in some way or else the pipes will have to run under the floor. A decision has to be made before we can go any further.

At this point we decide to read the instructions. Sadly this is not like assembling kitchen units where there is a clear path starting with “Stick the little round plugs in all the holes on part A” and ending with “Now fit the legs”. With the shower there is no one clear thing that has to be done first, no natural order. So after much deliberation we finally decide that the shower waste water must flow down the same pipes as used by the bath, which is in the next room, and I begin by making a hole in the wall at what I hope is the appropriate spot. This is by no means easy as our walls are solid but after a lot of noise and banging, whirring away with the drill, chipping away with a chisel, there is a passage through which a pipe can pass. Straightforward really.

But the other piece of this part of the project is the bathroom, the same one that lies just beyond the far end of the hole I have made. We have a whole host of ideas for smartening things up in there, starting with the pine ceiling boards (may they rest in peace) and moving on through new tiling and replacements for the sink and the toilet, both of which are cracked. Oh, and we have already bought those bits, too. There is just so much to focus on, too much is buzzing around our heads. We need to re-group our thoughts, take time off perhaps, and let our unconscious brains come up with a plan.

So we leap on an early morning bus headed for Taunton and treat ourselves to some New Year’s Eve shopping, not really our style at all but enough of a distraction to give our heads a rest. After a cold day ducking in and out of shops to find warmth Kate comes home with a nice new outfit and some shoes while I manage to force open my wallet sufficiently to buy a matched pair of cup shaped pieces made from a soft silicon-rubber. Be careful not to let the imagination wander here; these are PoachPods, the latest cooking tool for making perfect poached eggs. They float like green lilies in boiling water until four minutes later the egg is cooked right through and waiting to be flipped out onto its toast underlay. Quite exquisite.

En route home from Taunton we drop into our local pub, the Great Western, to sample some ale and we slip easily into conversation with the owner of a dog which has the head of a Great Dane and the hind quarters of a Bulldog. When this perfectly proportioned beast turns her large brown eyes towards us we are done for, trapped in their gaze, but she is fickle too and the next person to arrive gets the same treatment. She has a habit of leaning gently against your leg and will actually fall over if you move away, making you feel the guilty party. We like this pub because of the random nature of the customers and their willingness to chat to whoever comes in through the door. An itinerant portrait artist called Peter modestly starts to show us his latest sketches and talks too about dinghy sailing. He is about to head off to London for the New Year festivities whereas we stagger homewards to warmth, hoping for an early night. Fat chance! There is a party happening across the road. This and the fireworks make sure we are still awake for the start of 2011, which is sort of nice.

Soon we’ll be back at work after our short break. One thing we can forecast for this year is that there will be lots of showers.

Happy New Year all!

Not about the weather

Perhaps I have commented enough in this blog, no, more than enough, about the weather in Britain. Now each time I am tempted to write more I exercise all the restraint I can muster, forcing the text down other avenues. So despite the exceptionally low temperatures we have all endured here, cold so intense that the lying snow (it fell from the sky more than two weeks ago) only slowly evaporated into the dry atmosphere, transitioning from a white solid to an invisible vapour without actually melting, despite the snow which covered pavements and roads being compressed to ice, changing from white to translucent, frozen water, despite our friends Kyle and Maryanne who are over-wintering on their boat in Preston cleaning their hull by walking around on the frozen surface of the water in which it sits, I shall not mention the weather subject again. (No, I don’t believe this either!)

Anyway, all good things must come to an end and finally when we poked our heads outside just before retiring to bed one night we stood for a while, listened and heard a sound we had not heard for many days, the sound of water dripping. The change had crept up on us silently, stealthily, with no warning, warm air from the Atlantic finally sweeping in towards the British Isles, the South West being the first area to feel the benefit but soon to affect the whole country. By the following morning we were in a changed world, one no longer totally dominated by the colour white. By afternoon only the most persistent lumps of ice remained and the ground was covered with a layer of grit, dust and leaves, natural fallout which had been held above the ground, suspended in the snow for so long. Warm air coming into contact with a still frozen lake caused moisture to condense out and an unnatural mist floated just above it but apart from such isolated blocks of cold, the grip of frost has now left the land.

Mal with pandoro

In fond memory of last winter we prepare the Christmas pandoro that we found in our local Lidl supermarket. For the uninitiated this is a type of sweet yeast bread, traditionally eaten at Christmas time in Italy and is served with a dusting of icing sugar so that it resembles the snow-covered peaks that make up the winter backdrop there. The Lidl version is packaged with a large plastic bag so that the sugar-dusting process can be carried out just before serving (see the picture) and the colour within the bread is just as the name suggests, golden. The taste is exotic, light but very rich.

So this just about sums up the full extent of our Christmas festivising for 2010; our main pleasure has been just enjoying having a smart new kitchen as a present from Santa. The house refurbishment tasks have continued, but at a more leisurely pace, as we both feel that we would not want to be thought of as house improvement fanatics. We now have new wooden floor boards covering the hall Hall floorwhich nicely insulate our feet from the cold beneath but these did not go down without the assistance of a few blasphemies. There is a foam underlay with one sticky side covered in a plastic film which is designed to be peeled from beneath the boards as they are held in position with both hands. (Read this again and you’ll get the picture.) Just how this process is achieved by an ordinary human being only blessed with two hands is best left to the imagination but as the film slides away the glue makes contact with the underside of the boards and sticks hard, instantly, leaving no margin for error or later adjustment. There are some choice words that I am now able to recommend for use when the plastic film breaks off unexpectedly or when the hands slip so that the boards are stuck in the wrong position, words you will not find on the fitting instructions.

Despite these problems we are pleased with the final results – the real wood adds a touch of class to the place. But not all wood is welcome in our house. No sooner was this job done then I found myself up a ladder in the bathroom tearing down the varnished pine cladding which was nailed to the ceiling there, a job I have been looking forward to for some time. When we first started our project we had to make ourselves promise that we would tackle each area of the house separately, completing one area before moving on. One consequence of this was that every time we lay steaming away in the comfort of our bath we had to gaze up at the hateful sight of those pine boards. We could only rip them all down when we had finished the previous jobs, the kitchen and the hall but when the time finally arrived the experience was all the more pleasurable and satisfying for all the waiting. The generations of spiders who had made their home in the small space above the cladding were sucked up in a vortex of vacuum cleaning and whisked away to a better place. Or so I like to think.

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