Back in Southwest Scotland

A coach-load of Rangers fans en route to the Old Firm match in Glasgow, accompanied us on the 7.30am Larne to Cairnryan ferry.
They were very well-behaved despite some having cider for breakfast but G4S security were lurking in the background just in case. As we disembarked there was a police presence at the port. We were heading for Wigtown, Scotland’s book town but en route stopped at Torhouse Stone Circle. It is about 4 miles west of Wigtown and dates from the Bronze Age. It is thought to have been designed to represent the midwinter sun. There are 19 granite stones. The three large upright stones in the centre of the circle are known as King Gauldus’s Tomb (he was a mythical Scottish king). This type of stone circle is most commonly found in north-east Scotland and unusual for this part of the country.

At Wigtown we browsed in the shop which says it is the largest bookshop in Scotland, Byre Books in a cowshed surrounded by greenery and Reading Lasses which is devoted to women’s literature. Another was holding a reading as there is a festival on this weekend so we could not look in there and one was inexplicably closed.

Laden with books and a few plants from a market stall we drove into Newton Stewart to find Elmlea Plants, a nursery specialising in perennials and grasses. More purchases were made for garden renovation projects at home. The A75 follows the edge of Wigtown Bay amongst gently undulating fields with the southern uplands ahead. We cut inland to Kirkcudbright where we had arranged to spend the night. In the harbour fishing boats were returning and the tide was coming in.

We visited Broughton House, the former home and studio of the artist E.A Hornel. He was influenced by Japan, used photographs rather than drawings as the basis of his paintings, collected books and was also interested in local history. Here is his studio which has his palettes and paintbrushes as well as several paintings.
Kirkcudbright ‘Castle’ in the centre of town is really a fortified townhouse dating from the 16th century. the original castle down by the river was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1313 and destroyed. There were attempts at excavating it in 1913 to 1914 but many of the stones had been removed by the townspeople for building projects. Hornel had a collection of some maps, drawings and dig notes from the excavation which was never completed because of the First World War. At the back of the house is a long garden extending right down to the marina. The house and garden are now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

We stayed in the Selkirk Arms which dates from the 18th century. It has been claimed that Robert Burns wrote the Selkirk Grace here in 1794 but this has not been confirmed. Just before we left we visited the plant sale in the centre of town and found a few more unusual plants for my woodland garden. There were only two stops on what was a quiet run home from Kirkudbright. The first was at Dundrennan Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery.

The last stop was at Annandale Distillery so that I could add some shots to the Book of British Distilleries I am compiling for James. This was only reopened recently after closing in 1918. They have excavated the place the old stills stood when it first opened in 1830.

Northern Ireland: wandering around County Antrim & County Down

On Wednesday morning, we drove the 12 miles to the Giant’s Causeway. In the last few years the visitors’ centre and entrance has all been re-developed. It was not too busy and we enjoyed a walk along the longer of the two trails looking over the coast. Fulmars were building their nests on the top of some of the columns but the oystercatchers have not yet arrived. The rain had cleared and the Mull of Kintyre was visible in the distance. We would like to walk some of the coastal trail at some point.

Afterwards we continued along the coast to Portrush, had lunch overlooking the bay and then walked along the east strand.

We popped into the secondhand bookshop once he had opened after lunch (many of the other shops were on half-day closing). I did not find anything to buy but spotted a book with limited appeal – a text devoted entirely to knapweeds and their taxonomy. I also heard today of an event which took place last weekend in Scotland and was new to me – the European Rock Stacking Competition in Dunbar. The winner managed to stack 33 rocks on top of each other. I am not sure how long they have to stay up before falling to qualify. A guy from Spain won and can now enter the World Competition in Texas.

Thursday saw us heading south into County Down to visit Mountstewart, a stately home and gardens now under the care of the National Trust. In the morning, you can join a tour (they run every half hour from 11.30) and after 1pm can wander around on your own. I have seen a few 18th century interiors in the last six months but never fail to appreciate them.

The grounds are extensive with a formal garden, a lake and paths among the trees and shrubs. There is a small chapel which is open only rarely and not on this visit. There are red squirrels here but we did not see any.

Out of the grounds and on the shore of Strangford Lough are the remains of the old gas works, the only surviving domestic gas works in Northern Ireland. It was built in 1850 by the Marquis of Londonderry to provide fuel for the estate.

Heading north again we stopped off at Scabro Tower. It sits on a hill now within a country park and was built in 1857 in recognition of the 3rd Marquis’s concern for his tenants during the famine in the mid 19th century.

On a site just below the summit, the remains of huts and a large hill fort have been found indicating people living on the hill around 5,000 years ago. The tower was closed when we visit but when open you can climb 122 steps inside and there is more information and displays about the local history. There is a golf course on the lower slopes and a woodland walk. The views from the summit are over the Lough and the towns with the Mourne Mountains in the distance.

There was a sculpture by the car park.
We drove back into Belfast on the Newtonards Road past some of the Unionist street art in the east of the city, before we joined the motorway and then endured the roadworks before reaching Ballymoney.

Northern Ireland: Belfast

The train takes an hour to travel from Ballymoney to Belfast, which we have not visited for several years. On arrival, we walked down to the riverside and crossed over to the Titanic Quarter. There are several art installations along the way. This one is in Thanksgiving Square

and another, Big Fish by John Kindness in Donegal Quay.

The Titanic Experience is well-presented. You can join a tour or view it independently which is what we did. After wending your way around the first floor of exhibits you take a lift to the fourth floor and hop into a car which moves fairly rapidly in three dimensions with sounds and low lighting depicting the building of the ship and all the different trades.

The remainder is devoted to the launch, journey and sinking of the ship, the survivors, the inquiry and the depictions of the story in the media. I used to work in Stoke on Trent and Captain Smith hailed from the city. It now has a brewery called ‘The Titanic’. Outside is SS Nomadic, the sole surviving ship of the White Star Line. It can also be visited with the same ticket.

By the time we emerged, it was lunchtime so the nearby Dock Café which operates with an honesty box filled us up. It has a small art gallery and a prayer room for anyone who needs one. We then wandered back into the city centre and found Keats & Chapman, a secondhand bookshop at 21 North Street. There is only a small front on the street but the shop extends a long way inside with a large selection on many subjects. James found a 1930s Ward Lock Guide to Belfast & Northern Ireland. There is another secondhand bookshop opposite the Linenhall Library but it is not so well-stocked. We had no intention of seeing all the sights on one trip so the library will wait for another time as will some of the other buildings despite walking six miles in total. Here are the exteriors of the City Hall and the Municipal College of Technology.

The Crown Bar is well-known, dates from 1849 and fantastically decorated inside and out.

We could not resist a cold beer. You could spend a whole day just looking at street art and graffiti for example and we did not get as far as the Botanic Gardens, the Museum and Art Gallery, the cathedrals. It was soon time to get our train before the mass commuter exodus.

Southwest Scotland: driving to catch a boat

We spent a couple of days in Edinburgh shopping and catching up with friends under blue skies and cherry blossom before travelling to Northern Ireland.

Cricket was being played in the Meadows in the sunshine. However, the return of winter weather was forecast and by Sunday evening the clouds were appearing. We did have some rain overnight but left early the next morning with blue sky again. After the motorways, we continued down through Ayrshire on the A77. Just south of Maybole, there was a good view over the surrounding landscape. Sheep and cattle were enjoying the sun.

While enjoying the view I could hear a woodpecker drumming over in a stand of trees but could not see him. I have also recently heard that some crows can mimic the sound of a woodpecker but did not see any crows either.
At the south end of Girvan beach we had our first sight of the sea and the Ailsa Craig. This unpopulated island provided the granite to make curling stones. It is now home to gannets, guillemots and also puffins. It is an RSPB reserve and can be visited by boat. Tours run from Girvan and Campbeltown during summer.

Further down the coast, there was quite a high wind and the waves were getting up. It might not be a very smooth crossing.

Our boat was due to leave from the P&O port at Cairnryan which has its own small lighthouse.

As we are seasoned crossers of the Irish Sea and the Minch, the slight rolling and pitching of the boat did not bother us. On arrival in Larne, Facebook friends were posting snowy photographs from parts of northern Scotland. We managed to get to our destination before the hail and rain caught up with us for a short time in the evening but the sun is peeking through the clouds again this morning.

Finding books in Bakewell

My early childhood memories of Bakewell in Derbyshire are being taken there by my grandparents to feed the ducks and swans. The River Wye runs through the market town. Feeding the waterfowl is no longer allowed as bread is not nutritious for birds and can also cause problems including algal blooms in the water. There were still plenty of birds on the river in the town centre when we arrived : mallard, mute swans, coots and moorhens and a few Canada Geese.

We were in the town to attend a provincial book fair. These take place at different locations around the country and are particularly good for unusual and antiquarian books. Most can also be found online but they are also an excuse for a day out. The fair was taking place in the agricultural market building just across the river from the town centre. This is modern and clearly a well-used venue. Our local agricultural market recently closed and a housing estate is to be built on the land. We arrived a little early while it was still cool and the market cafe had not yet opened so wandered across the bridge and into town. The bridge padlock craze which begun in Paris has reached Bakewell. You can buy a padlock and have it engraved at the nearby key cutting and shoe repair shop. Several city authorities around the world have removed the locks as the additional weight became dangerous or they were deemed unsuitable.

The town has a few independent shops amongst the high street and outdoor chains and also the original Bakewell Pudding shop and tea room. We picked up a few essential items and then returned to the fair where I added three volumes to a collection and enjoyed browsing and chatting to the booksellers. We also discovered another antique map seller who is not very far away from home. When we emerged, the town was getting very busy and Morris Dancers were getting ready to perform. The sun had at last come out. Driving back over the moorlands was also busy as there were lots of cyclists on the road and walkers parked up near the local trails. The campsites were open and very busy. 50% of the population of England live within 50 miles of the Peak District so if you want peace and quiet, don’t come on bank holiday weekend. We did find one empty space in a lay by so that I could get a couple of shots of the landscape.

Dubrovnik: Lokrum Island

On our last day in Dubrovnik we decided to cross over to Lokrum Island. It is only 600m from the Old City and an hourly ferry makes the 15-minute journey. This a shot taken this evening from the harbour. On the way over this morning cruise ship groups on the dock and a French school trip on the boat somewhat obscured the view.

There are numerous paths through the woodlands, the lower ones having views down to the coast.
Austrian archduke Maximilian once had a holiday home on the island. A monastery and a botanical garden survive from that era. The monastery had been damaged in the 1667 earthquake and the monks left in 1798. It was further damaged in the 1991-95 war and there are pieces of stonework lying among the trees. It is still undergoing renovation so not all the ruins were accessible. Part of it has been converted into a restaurant.

The archduke also introduced peacocks which potter around and are not at all camera-shy. In fact they are even more forward than pigeons and gulls when you are trying to eat your picnic.

The botanic garden dates from the 19th century. It lost all its scientific records and work still needs to be done in the garden and it needs a spring tidy up of dead material but there were some flowers.

Fort Royal stands on the island’s highest point at 96 metres above sea level and was built by the French. We walked up the steep path to it. This is in the process of being improved but many stretches have lots of loose rocks. Interestingly on a weekday, there was no sign of anyone working on it but there was a huge pile of bags of cement at the back of the fort. After descending we walked along a path by the coast and past a cross erected to commemorate the men of the Austrian Navy ship Triton who died in 1859 when the ship exploded while anchored in front of Lokrum. We had our lunch by the rocky coast, four peacocks in attendance.

The sea is clear in the harbour and you can see small fish. It also appears clear around the island. Transparent kayaks can be hired and glass-bottomed boats also run trips from the harbour. Looking into some of the rock pools by the edge of the island I did not see very much in the way of life. No doubt the vast cruise ships contribute to pollution. There are plenty of rabbits around who are not afraid of people and presumably there are no predators. We did see some European blackbirds and I tried to photograph a Croatian Finch but it was spooked by some passers by and flew off. Most of the island is a nature reserve and a number of native species of bird can be found there. We took the ferry back in the afternoon to get some packing done as we leave to tomorrow morning. After an early dinner we joined Dubrovnik’s equivalent of the passeggiata along the Stradum. Children were rolling along on scooters and segways.

We then had a final stroll round the now much quieter harbour.

Dubrovnik: last day in the Old City

Our wanderings today took us first around the centre of the city past the clock tower which we can see from our window. The bells keep time for us throughout the day.

At the top of the steps we had our evening meal by the other night is the Church of St Ignatius and the Jesuit College. They are on the highest point within the city walls. Construction of the church began in 1699 but was not completed until 1725. There are two alcoves on the front of the building which are empty. Apparently the ship carrying two statues that were to sit in the alcoves sank en route.

Inside, there is one central aisle with side altars. After completion of the building, the decoration commenced. The walls and ceiling of the sanctum which depict the death of St Francis Xavier were painted by Gaetano Garcia who took three years to finish his work.

The foundations of the college next door were laid in 1662 but the work was destroyed in the major earthquake of 1667 and did not begin again until 1670 and was completed in the 1690s. There was a pile of rubble in front of it today so I assume more renovations are underway. Tomorrow we are planning to visit the nearest island which has a nature reserve and as our museum ticket covers it, we popped into the Natural History Museum. It is small and has areas set out for children (a school trip arrived just before we left). As it is situated in a coastal city it focusses on marine life although there was a large display about the endangered Balkan Pond Turtle. Upstairs there were a few birds and butterflies on show and only one mammal, an otter. Afterwards we had a cold drink at the nearest of the two Buza Bars which has sea views.
Continuing up and down steps and through the narrow side streets we found the Ethnographic Museum. The ground floor was devoted to a large exhibition of the work of Mateo Kalć, a photographer working in the early twentieth century. The upstairs galleries were devoted to farming and home life and costume. It was very quiet with only one other person visiting. Working our way back towards the harbour via the narrow lanes and a detour due to building work we found the Atelier Pulitika, a small gallery. On our visit one room was devoted to an installation entitled Time by Ana Požar Piplica which was created this year and a replica of Duro Pulitika’s studio (he died in 2006).

Lunch was by the harbour. A cat was curled up under the table when we arrived but as a man set up to start fishing nearby, she moved over and watched him closely. He was unlucky and gave up after a while but the cat scrounged a fish from elsewhere and returned to eat it next to us. Our meal this evening was at a restaurant just outside the Pile Gate with views over the sea.

Dubrovnik: history and modern art

Two books have accompanied me on this trip. The first is the 3rd edition of Marcus Stanver’s ‘Croatia: a history forged in war’ and the second is the 11th edition of ‘Dubrovnik in War’ edited by Milenko Foretić. Staying in the old city has also focussed us on history so far as it is all around us. Today we need a change so headed out of the walled city through the gate we had entered on Monday on to the road behind.

A flight of steps took us up to the station for the four-minute cable car journey to the summit of Mount Srđ (412m). There are great views over the Adriatic and inland to the mountain ranges.

There is some history up here, the remains of a Napoleonic Fort and the white cross which was destroyed in the 1991-1995 war has been rebuilt. I noticed a switchback path on the hillside emerging from the pine forests so walking up is also an option which I had not known about. Doing it in mid-summer would have to be early in the day and with lots of water as it is exposed for most of the route. After descending we walked along the road to the Museum of Modern Art housed in what was a ship-owner’s summer villa built between 1939 and 1949 in a similar style to some of the palaces in the old city. There are exhibitions on three floors with the current focus on their collection from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day. Most of the works are paintings with a few prints and numerous sculptures. There is a terrace overlooking the sea with sculptures

including this one by Frano Kršinić entitled ‘Mother’s play’ from 1965.

The museum ticket gives access to eight more around the city so we will explore some more tomorrow. Just below the museum were steps leading down to a small shingle beach. Huge piles of sunbeds suggest that it will be crowded in mid-summer but this morning it was quiet with only a few people around. I found some sea glass and admired the view over to the walled city while James made a new friend as yet another cat wandered over to see him.

Afterwards we sat by the harbour enjoying the sun while some pigeons were bathing in a puddle left by the rain a couple of nights ago. To make us feel at home one of the many boat trips you can take from here is in a craft shaped like and called ‘Yellow Submarine’.

Stepping back into history we visited the maritime museum which is housed in the Sveti Ivan Fortress. Noticing how many ships in the 18th and 19th century were built in Glasgow, Belfast and Northeast England was a potent reminder of what our past ship-building industry was and what we have lost. There were also a couple of physicians’ chests from ships on display.
This one from the 18th century included a treatise on the management of scurvy. The 19th century chest had many more bottles of potions and instruments.

Outside the inevitable cat was resting on a cannon.

This evening we ate at a restaurant called ‘The Taj Mahal’. Despite the name it serves Bosnian not Indian food. Sunset photography was not on tonight as it started to rain while we were eating.

Dubrovnik: walking the walls and exploring churches

Today was overcast and rain forecast for the afternoon so we set off to walk around the city walls first thing when they are quieter. There are good views over the town and the Adriatic, a few runs of steps to the viewpoints and Minčeta Tower which are good exercise and some spring flowers.

There was a small cafe in the walls providing a welcome espresso and others near the St John Fort and Maritime Museum where we started and finished our circuit. Wandering back along the Stradum I noted that a number of the places we have visited or are about to have been film sets for either Game of Thrones or Star Wars or both and here there are plenty of shops to buy souvenirs. Very few destinations are without an Irish pub and I have seen two of these so far. We had a look in the cathedral where there are some modern paintings depicting the stations of the cross

and then the church of St Blaise which has stained glass windows by Ivo Dulčić.

In the early evening we were wandering around trying to decide where to eat. As we we are a little out of season some places are not open. James was not keen to hang around the harbour until sunset at 19.17 so we headed back towards the centre of town and found a place (Konobo Colosseum) right next to Croatia’s equivalent of the Spanish steps.

Discovering Dubrovnik

Spring was in the air as we drove down to Gatwick. Oilseed Rape was in full bloom turning the fields yellow and lambs were enjoying the sun. I even had to put my sunglasses on. After a night in an airport hotel and an early start, we had an uneventful flight with some good views of the snowy Alpine peaks and a quick passage through immigration and baggage claim. Our taxi driver was waiting for us and we were soon on our way to Dubrovnik. There was building work at the airport and new hotels going up all along the coast. The driver told us that we had made a good decision coming in early April rather than in July and August when it is so busy. I have heard that passes for access to the old city are being considered. As in other coastal European cities, cruise ships arriving can disgorge hundreds or even thousands of passengers at a time, causing crowding.We met our host and we had settled into our apartment which is in a building in the old city wall. After a rest we headed out to explore, looking at the buildings and some of the interesting side streets.

We also met some of the residents, including numerous cats

and a few parrots. I did not see a dog until we were walking back from our evening meal and a few small dogs were having their evening promenade.

We passed the home of Ivo Grbić, an 85 year old painter. His house had been hit by incendiary bombs in 1991 but he has rebuilt it and now has a gallery of his work.

Following an alley through the city wall with the following written on it

led to the Bužar Bar. We sat by the rocky shore opposite Lokrum Island with a beer listening to the waves and the Rolling Stones. Apparently the bar sometimes has to close if the sea is too rough.

Today’s outings were concluded with dinner at Azur, a Croatian/Asian fusion restaurant nearby which was excellent.