Category: family

Favourite people and places

If ever I were asked for a list of my favourite places then Newton Bay is one that would be very close to the top. It is part of Northumberland’s North Sea coastline and is a place given natural shelter by a rocky reef, where the sand is soft, the sea is invariably cold and the light has a special quality about it.Dunstanburgh Castle

Some years ago, with our young children on board and just as the daylight was fading (so rather later in the day than we might have liked) we can recall piloting our sailing boat into Newton Bay, following closely behind a friend in his shallow draft cruiser. Although we bumped our keel on the rocks which give the bay such fine protection from the North Sea swell, no harm was done and we were soon anchored safely. In those days there was rarely a sailing trip we made that was without some incident, some excitement, which raised the blood pressure for a short while. This being the early days of our family sailing we were learning steeply, each trip taught us a new lesson, this one being “Never assume it is safe to follow another boat”. Our keel was made of iron and suffered little from its encounter and the wound we made in the weed-covered rock no doubt also healed over quickly. Maybe we inadvertently dislodged a crab or two, for which I belatedly apologise, but the day was one of many memorable ones on board our tiny boat, ‘Noggin the Nog’.

Today the beach at Newton is just as it was then; there are the dunes which hide a small haven for wildlife, there is the same small collection of houses and there is the pub, closed to us then with our small children in tow and closed again as we revisit the place, it being mid morning. The ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle also still stand on their rock overlooking the sea, little changed in the thirty years since our last visit nor indeed since being abandoned back in the 16th Century, by which time the Scottish border was considered to be stable enough, England no longer feeling under threat from those north of the border. Today the position is reversed, of course.

We visit this familiar place not specifically on a jaunt down memory lane, however. It is simply that having travelled so widely around the coast of Britain we inevitably find ourselves revisiting old haunts, our exploring genes ensuring that we rarely pass by without broadening our experience inventory.

Mal&Kate at StAbbsSo it is that we find ourselves taking a selfie on the  very highest point of St Abbs Head, which also juts out into the North Sea and overlooks the mouth of the Forth of Firth a place past which we sailed on more than a few occasions. We have crossed the border into Scotland now but the wind that we lean into blows mild air from the south giving the impression it has crossed a much warmer sea than the one stretched out before us. We are perched up here on the edge of Winter but the season itself has yet to arrive. There is, however, a battle going on in the sky above us, one that followed us south a week ago and which still rages as we make our way homewards. Back then we would be driving through torrential rain with the sun in our eyes then five minutes later on the dry road would be overshadowed by black rainbow-spewing clouds.wild skies

As we head west the rain lashes horizontally across the road, our campervan staggers to the gusts, while I pull at the steering wheel to keep us moving in a straight line. We are en route home now heading for our nearest branch of B&Q where we have a mission to accomplish. It is  a little over one hundred miles by road from where we live to this, our closest DIY superstore, so I have saved up a little list of things I need for my latest project, adding some wooden decking around Ducky’s carport (something we now affectionately call the ‘Bus Shelter’). Our mobile home now becomes a builder’s van as we load up with large pieces of wood, bags of cement and a few other bits that were not on the list. Once loaded, the extra weight on board means the gusty wind can barely affect us but the rain falls in great floods as we negotiate the final turns in the long and winding road back to Carradale.

In a little over a week we have completed a 1700 mile trip around Britain, visiting a sample of our scattered family and friends along the way. In Bristol we bumped into a rare coloured gorilla and met up with our youngest, Ben, just back from an American tour with hgorilla in Bristolis band, Frogbelly and Symphony, and still somewhat jet-lagged. Having recently moved into this city, Ben has set himself the challenge of creating a new music scene there where  none currently exists, so watch out Bristolians! Down in Cornwall we dropped in on my sole surviving aunt, Jessie, who we would love to take back home with us but fear this might not sit well with the rest of her family. Instead, we gave her a gift of some Edinburgh rock and as much of our company as she could stand. In Worthing our eldest, Tony, took us for a walk along the shore to his favourite beach, a place where the flint pebbles look like old dinosaur bones, then in Yeovil, Kate’s brother, Peter, offered us a comfy bed for a few nights while his wife, Liz, fed us in style.

Back home now the season has definitely changed as brown leaves are stripped from the trees by the wind. Our stove is alight, ready for its first full winter trial, and if we run out of logs then we’ll just start on the furniture.

Neither meat nor fish

More than thirty years have passed since Kate and I decided we would eat nothing more that came from the bodies of slaughtered animals. We became, at a stroke therefore, vegetarians.

Since taking this step, one that we felt to be neither difficult nor particularly radical, our eating habits have served us up some surprises along with many disappointments along the way. By doing so we instantly placed ourselves amongst a misunderstood minority in a world of carnivorous humankind and a consequence of choosing to live our lives this way has been to place us apart, to put us in that slightly oddball category where one might find religious fanatics or politicians, something we hadn’t anticipated at all. Perhaps it was the fact that we already felt ourselves to be in this category, before foregoing meat, that made the transition so easy for us. At the time I would spend my weekends windsurfing from the beach at Felixstowe, hardly a sport that conjures up mass support, and we had a young family growing up fast and taking up every waking moment of our day. We had also moved into this area of the country very recently, we were incomers with only new found friends to call on, and as with outsiders everywhere, trust comes only slowly.

When asked, we like to say we eat neither meat nor fish, rather than use the term ‘vegetarian’, not least because this is one of the least understood words in the English language. If I had a penny for every time I have been asked the question “So do you eat fish then?” I would be quite wealthy by now. Or else “What about chicken?”, as if somehow birds are excluded from the animal kingdom because they are descended from dinosaurs and only have two legs. It turns out that there is a whole library of words out there which can be used to describe different diets and a ‘pollo-pescetarian’ would happily eat both fish and poultry although nothing else from the meat counter. Then again, never shy of inventing new words when they seem to be needed, the Americans have come up with ‘flexitarian’ to describe someone who has ‘occasional indulgences’ of meat eating, which I suppose must be a bit like eating the odd chocolate bar whilst trying to lose weight.

We have ceased to puzzle over what part of the word ‘vegetable’ is so difficult to understand and by now have come to terms with our place in the culinary world. Not for us is the pleasure of struggling to choose from a long menu at the restaurant table. The ‘vegetarian option’ (what a ghastly expression!) usually sits on its own bearing a tiny ‘V’ symbol and when it is something other than vegetable lasagne, the lazy chef’s choice, it will be accompanied by a side salad or occasionally, if we are very lucky, some risotto rice. If we do ever fancy a little mashed potato or, heaven forbid, a crisp Yorkshire pudding with gravy (something I often have a craving for), a vegetable filled pie or, strangely, even vegetables such as peas or carrots, then we must eat at home, cooking these things for ourselves, as we know from long experience now that these will not be on offer in most restaurants. None of these items need contain any animal products, and indeed nobody could possibly argue that peas, carrots or potatoes are anything less than vegetables, yet a lack of imagination or understanding on the part of the chef invariably leads to our kind being treated as an afterthought on the menu. Hardly surprisingly therefore, we do not eat out very often.

By contrast there is a world out there where we are made to feel more than welcome, where our eyes boggle at the choices before us, like children in a sweet shop. I refer, of course, to the vegetarian restaurant, that rarity which caters solely for our habit, with no apologies. The fact that their tables will often be full of non vegetarians (carnivores) who will also enjoy the good food being served serves only to emphasise the strangeness of the modern world, for if these people are there by choice then when faced with a menu in a ‘normal’ restaurant, presumably they would like to have the same food items on offer. So why aren’t they.

To find a vegetarian restaurant one must take to the internet. No amount of wandering the streets or asking taxi drivers will do it for they are invariably tucked away down some backstreet or hidden in a basement somewhere. It would be a mistake to wait until you are hungry to try to find one. Even using Google they can be difficult to pin down. In an old part of the city of Hull we once discovered Hitchcock’s, an unusual but perhaps not untypical specimen. The restaurant is housed on the first floor above what used to be a forge, and the front door could be the entrance to a private house, you would walk past without realising it was there. The single sitting for food begins at eight in the evening (pre-booking is essential) and the menu is determined by the ‘theme’ for the day, which might be Spanish, Italian or something else, the food being served buffet style, all you can eat and more spread out on large tables. Our own visit was on Cajun night so many of the dishes were a mystery to us, anything coloured red being far too hot for our palates. But at least we could eat anything on offer, no picking our way around dishes that might have meat in them. As a dining experience it is unique. That it happens to serve purely vegetarian food was a delight to us.

If Britain is a place where we are misunderstood, then further abroad there are places where we are shunned. France comes to mind as one of the most meat-loving countries in Europe. We once so baffled the checkout person in a motorway restaurant (considerably more upmarket than anything found on this side of the Channel) when we chose only the salad from the buffet, without a meat selection, that he had no idea what to charge us for our food. On another occasion the restaurant manager was so clearly offended when we refused any of his deliciously cooked meat dishes that he could barely speak to us. Survival itself must necessarily involve eating meat in one form or another, he believed, so our bodies must be craving for it. How could we deny such a basic urge. Well, strange as it may seem our thirty year diet seems to have done us no great harm. My hair and teeth are showing signs of ageing but no more than my contemporaries and I can still find enough energy to walk up the odd hill when I feel the need to. I don’t cower away from the sunrise and my reflection still smiles back at me from the mirror so I presume I have not passed over into realm of the undead. What I can do, however, is gloat all I want when horsemeat is found in beefburgers or chicken is tainted with salmonella. These things really don’t concern us any more although I might offer up a small prayer for the animals concerned. I am very happy sticking to my veg and two veg and letting the rest of the world fuss over the meat content of the average sausage.fruit stall

A little deception

Ben&NaomiNot for the first time on our trip around Britain we find ourselves visiting a house built hundreds of years ago from materials which would be scorned by modern builders. Cob, a mixture of earth and straw, was once a common building material in the South West of England and in the home of our son Ben and his partner Naomi we find this material packed inside its immensely thick stone walls. We seem to be in the middle of nowhere once again and cannot quite understand how it is that so many of our friends and family live so deeply into single track road country. Drivers on these roads can face the most unlikely situations. Today we are held up by sheep escaped from a field, yesterday we paused to avoid an otter and tomorrow we may be stuck behind a hedgehog, none of which hazards are strongly featured in the Highway Code.

From the moment of our arrival at Ben’s home some secret plans are being hatched relating to giving Kate something she has privately yearned for for years but never been crazy enough to buy – a harp. Several days later we find ourselves with Ben and Naomi driving around Devon and into Cornwall once more. The real purpose behind this day has been kept secret from Kate but by late morning we find ourselves trundling down yet more single track roads to reach the home of Naomi’s former harp tutor. buying the harpThis time we are at the end of a road that crosses several fields, leading to a place so remote it is unknown to any GPS navigation system. The house has a massively beamed banqueting hall, complete with minstrel’s gallery, built on one end and we are invited inside to a room full of musical instruments, mostly harps of various sizes and shapes. Very soon the true purpose for our visit here is revealed to Kate, who is temporarily over-whelmed, but eventually she recovers enough to choose one, money changes hands, and she walks away with one under her arm (so to speak). After this little deception Kate’s secret desires are fulfilled and our large vehicle, with its harp-sized space inside, is now replete.Naomi playing for Jessie

 

 

Since Naomi is already a talented harpist our next stop is at my aunt Jessie’s home, our second visit in only a week, for a short recital. Jessie sits open-mouthed listening to the beautiful sounds coming from the instrument. Kate can now barely wait for the opportunity to be on her own with her harp, to wrap her arms around this creation in maple, to delicately pluck its strings and maybe find a tune of her own lurking within.

 

 

 

On our last night in Devon the whole of the county lies spread out in the late afternoon sun, the pink afterglow heralding a cool night which holds no fears for us tucked up snug inside Ducky. In the morning we finally leave the West Country heading to the south-east corner of England where more adventures await us.View from Brindiwell Hill

East from Cornwall

Our primary reason for driving seven hundred miles through all weathers to reach CornwallJessie at home is to visit Jessie, my sole remaining aunt, who at 92 years of age is my family’s supreme matriarch. The remote cottage she inhabits is far older than she is but it has been extensively adapted and is able to provide for her every need, right down to the semi-tame pheasant who conveniently comes to her back door and takes away any stale bread she has lying about. Jessie feeding pheasant

The driveway of Jessie’s home, however, was not really built with campervans in mind and at first sight it appears that the gateposts are simply too close together to allow us to pull in clear of the narrow lane. With careful manoeuvring we soon realise that we can fit Ducky’s stylishly designed hind quarters through the gate with an inch to spare either side although a scraping noise tells me that in doing so our roof is making contact with an evil hedge built from coarse Cornish vegetation. With Jessie’s permission I begin to cut back the offending wildlife with pruners and shears in order to permit passage for our high-sided vehicle but I soon find myself under attack from some of the sharpest and most virulent flora on this planet. It is the hawthorn that does me most damage, fighting back with every spike, until my hands and arms are bleeding and scarred and I have thorns sticking out of me here, there and everywhere. But I win in the end, if success is determined by the damage I inflict on the hedge, and we are able to pull our van off the road far enough to allow us to spend a night there.

The lane outside her house is barely wide enough for our van to squeeze along although strangely Jessie refers to it as the ‘main road’, which makes us wonder what the minor roads are like nearby. Everywhere the trees are flush with chirping birds which Jessie has taken it upon herself to feed from her garden. At one time or other the majority of Cornwall’s garden bird population appears just outside her kitchen window and the antics of these creatures provide endless entertainment whilst washing up or cooking, such that her only complaint in life is that there is never enough time in the day to sit and watch them. Her advanced age and a good memory for detail allows her to look back to a time when the world did not operate in quite the same way as it does today, a viewpoint that is inevitably different from most of those around her. She is interested in everything and seems to welcome the opportunity to sit and talk, keeping us up till midnight when the tawny owl sings out from her birdsong clock. Sadly we take to the roads later the next day, leaving her to her birds. If she can remember my instructions on how to operate her computer she may be able to read about herself here; the Internet is one of the few things that arrived a little too late in her life for her to cope with easily.

Sunset at West Bay

Several days later we find ourselves on a visit to Dorset’s West Bay with Peter, one of Kate’s widely scattered siblings, and his wife Liz. This is a favourite haunt for them and we all need the fresh air after eating a substantial Bangladeshi meal with them the previous evening. In the interim Ducky has been fitted with a comfortable new front passenger seat, ordered some months ago and stored beneath the stairs in Peter and Liz’s home in Yeovil. We dump the old, rather modified, front passenger dual seat which cramped the spine of anyone sitting on it for any length of time and Kate now luxuriates in a stately posture next to me while I negotiate yet more narrow lanes down to the coast. Dorset lanes are not simply narrow, they are deep too, chasms formed by tall banks which are a serious challenge to drive along. I try to keep as far over to the left as I can without our nearside wing mirror ploughing a furrow through the hedgerow but don’t always succeed.

East Cliff West BaycropWe like West Bay so much that we decide to stay for a night in the enormous caravan park which dominates most of the town. We check in then are directed to pitch #100 which is high up on the hillside, affording a view towards the pale East Cliff and Portland Bill beyond. Some 185 million years ago the sand was being deposited here in multi-thousand year cycles over immense periods of time, forming the layered structure that is visible today. The jury still seems to be out on what caused the whole process to repeat so often, forming the successive layers, or how they came to be separated by harder bands of calcified rock, but the view from the sea is striking, especially when the sun casts shadows on the cliff. This being the Jurassic coast it is impossible to escape the geology here; it just jumps up and bites you.

The camp site is impressive. For only a small fee we take in the view, dine in our own home, we skip the evening Country and Western show as we felt our costumes might not be up to it but sleep in total peace then get up and have an early morning swim in a warm indoor pool before heading off the next day.

Britain is about to be hit by the first equinoctial gale of the season so a quick visit to Lyme Regis to brave the wind blasting across the Cobb seems appropriate before we retire to Yeovil where Peter and Liz have the kettle on the moment we come in the door.

The end of a difficult year

Last night neither Kate nor I slept well, our minds forever running over the events of the day before. The process of ‘letting go’ was proving to be much more difficult than we had foreseen. Yesterday Kate and I took our leave from a very treasured friend, the boat that has kept us safe at sea for the past thirteen years, the floating home we have always felt comfortable in, no matter where we were, no matter what the weather was doing outside.Cirrus Cat off North Foreland

When we first made the decision to sell Cirrus Cat around the middle of last year it had seemed such an obvious thing to do, brought on as it was by the changing circumstances in our lives recounted here, We always knew that a buyer was unlikely to be found quickly, given what we are told is the shaky state of the world economy, so we sat back and waited, thinking that time would allow us to adjust to the concept of her not being ours any more, of not having a sailing boat, not having this particular sailing boat. So when the day finally came when a man called Niclas crossed over from Sweden to take a look over (and under) our pride and joy we took this in our stride, telling ourselves how lucky we are that Cirrus would be going to a good home where she will be looked after and cherished. Until, that is, the moment came when the deal was done. Everything on board had been explained – how this works, how that fits together, what this rope is for, what that piece is for – and it was time for us to leave, time for us to wave farewell not just to our boat but also to this chunk of our lives. Time to walk away. Then it began to hurt.

It had been a tiring day. We had arranged with the harbourmaster in Tarbert to use the facilities of his port to dry out in the morning so that a year’s accumulation of barnacles could be scraped or blasted from Cirrus’ hull. She would not be going far with that lot on board. Goose barnacles up to 30mm in length had made the bottoms of the keels their home and they must have been very disappointed, even aggrieved, when the pressurised jet of fresh water stripped them from their anchorage. Ordinarily I would make a point of apologising to them for my behaviour but after an hour or so crawling about beneath the boat, in the rain, soaked with spray from the pressure-washer, I had little apology left in me. While we waited with Niclas, his brother Matz and son Simon for the tide to return and float us off we chatted (thankfully in English) about their plans for their new acquisition whilst showing them around the boat, letting them explore every nook and cranny and every piece of equipment they could find. When Cirrus began to float we fired up the engine and motored to out to sea for a short test sail, which proved to be a longer one, so that Niclas could see that everything worked as intended and happily Cirrus did not let us down once, despite the winter of relative neglect, proving once again why we have kept and loved this boat for so long.

Back on our marina berth, all that remained was to pass over the Bill of Sale and shake hands with the new owner. Suddenly we found ourselves without a reason to be on board, we were on someone else’s boat! Full realisation did not come until much later, in the early hours of the following day, when it began to occur to me that I had left our boat in the hands of someone with only a novice’s knowledge of her handling. Manoeuvring a catamaran, particularly at slow speeds and in a tight space, is a black art which I have, sometimes painfully, learnt over the years we have owned her. I can say, with no disrespect to Niclas, that nobody else has that knowledge. And yet he is about to embark on a passage back to Sweden which will start with a traverse of the Crinan Canal, a narrow yet busy waterway, with hazards to negotiate on either side. The wind will try to take charge, requiring rapid actions and precise solutions. What have I done, I thought, leaving our beloved Cirrus in the hands of someone so inexperienced in her moods?

By the time morning came our tired brains had more or less sorted themselves out, and we feel happier now about what we have done. We have begun the process of letting go, of moving on, looking forward to exploring the Highlands from the land instead of from the sea. In a few months time our son Mike will have had his last chemotherapy treatment session and a difficult year will, we hope, be at an end. It will be time to start reclaiming our lives for ourselves.

Mal & Graham at the Rest

The farewell to Cirrus comes soon after saying farewell to my mother, whose funeral took place earlier this month. Fashion dictates sober dress on an occasion such as this, something that does not come easily to either my brother Graham nor myself. I feel my mother would have appreciated the effort we made and would have seen humour in that together we could easily have been mistaken for a pair of Mafiosi.

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