Arran: last day in Brodick


Our last day on Arran began with a visit to Brodick Castle. The current red sandstone building dates from the 19th century with some 13th century remains. It is said that a fort stood on the site from the 5th century and the numerous conflicts and wars since then have led to damage, demolition and rebuilding. The castle was given to the National Trust for Scotland in 1958 and sits amidst gardens and a country park which includes the mountain Goatfell. At the time of our visit the castle itself was under renovation and not due to re-open again until spring 2019. The gardens are open, so we contented ourselves with exploring them. At first it did not look as if this would be a very peaceful experience as the lawns were being mowed and a tree being cut down with chain saws. Fortunately, this did not last too long. Below the terrace that the castle sits on is a walled garden which was built in 1817.

George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward were plant hunters and some of the plants they brought back from their expeditions are in the gardens at Brodick: there is a Plant Hunters path through some of them. Some are rhododendrons. I had always been familiar with many of them in gardens and the escapees that are in the Scottish countryside and assumed that they were all large bushes. The first time I went to India in 2009 and saw rhododendron trees in the Western Ghats I was amazed. There is at least one such tree here, but it was not quite in flower yet. Other plants were flowering:
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Towards the bottom of the garden, overlooking the road and the sea is the only remaining Bavarian summerhouse of several that used to be on the site. James remarked that it looked like something from ‘The Hobbit’. Inside the walls and ceiling were decorated with thousands of pine cones.


One recent construction is a large adventure play area which the person on reception told us was not just for children. There is also a red squirrel hide. They are not native to Arran but were introduced and as there are no grey squirrels on the island, they have done well. They do tend to feed in the early morning and in the evening, so it is less likely that they will be seen at this time of year during the opening hours. There are lots of birds and we spotted this swallow near a nest in a summer house.

Some of the information boards had an interesting approach to history. One described all the conflicts the castle had been involved in and went on to say that the 18th and 19th centuries were peaceful times. I do not think that the people who lost their homes and farms or were forced to emigrate to Canada or move to Glasgow during the enclosures and clearances that the Dukes of Hamilton initiated with would regard it as a peaceful time. There was a dispute in 2017 about a display in the Arran Heritage Museum which was reported in the National newspaper. A tour guide felt that describing this as ‘an agricultural revolution’ was not appropriate or accurate but the museum did not change the display. We did not manage a trip to the museum on this visit.

Back in the town, I visited Books and Cards which in addition to these, stocks other stationery supplies . It has books and maps on Arran and Scotland, fiction, non-fiction and a good children’s section. I picked up Thorbjörn Campbell’s Arran: a history, the Rucksack Reader for the coastal walk and another book on walking. I am always happy to support an independent bookshop. Our time on Arran is coming to an end and tomorrow we will be back on the boat to Ardrossan.

Discovering England’s Book Town


Many people are aware of Hay on Wye in Wales and Wigtown in Scotland but I suspect fewer are aware of Sedbergh which now promotes itself as England’s Book Town. It is only six miles from the M6, 10 from Kendal and sits just inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The transition is dramatic, leaving the busy motorway and driving along a two-lane road flanked by drystone walls and with hills in the background. It is upland farming country and Sedbergh is a small market town. The town sign said it was twinned with a town in Slovenia which seemed a little unusual. Apparently it featured in a BBC documentary series, ‘The Town that Wants a Twin’ in early 2005 and subsequently was twinned with Zreče in Slovenia. It has a narrow main street with shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants plus a small market on the day we visited. I was quite amused by the spelling mistake on this shop front.

There are six bookshops, the biggest of which is Westwood Books which has two floors and more than 70,000 books. Others combine bookselling with outdoor gear sales and focus on walking books and local subjects (Sleepy Elephant) or craft, fine arts and textiles (Avril’s Books). The Dales and Lakes Book Centre in the middle of the town is a co-operative of dealers and also has some new books, maps, cards and gifts. I added two volumes to my New Naturalist Collection in there. Outside the cherry blossom in the churchyard was wonderful.

The private boarding school and the local state school are the major employers in the town, although some say that is now changing and local small businesses are increasing. In 2015 it was designated a “Walkers Welcome’ Town, sits on the Dales Way: an 80 mile trail and there are many other local footpaths. Like many rural places it had to recover from the devastation caused by the foot and mouth epidemic in 2015. There are many local groups and clubs and a community orchard planted to the south.

Many of the conifers here and in the surrounding area were quite brown and I initially thought this may be some disease but after noticing it mainly on the east side of them, assume it was early new growth that was caught by the Beast from the East storm earlier this year.

All too soon it was time to leave as we had to get back to the M6 via a B road (Slacks Lane)to Tebay. The road runs parallel to the River Lune and also connects with various footpaths. The Lowgill Viaduct is one remnant of the old Lune Valley Railway which closed in 1954. It is an area well worth revisiting when we have a little more time. We might even walk the Dales Way.

Almost 24 hours in Manchester

Or just over 22 hours to be precise. Our train pulled into Piccadilly Station with enough time to settle into our hotel in Dale Street before sunset. The sun disappeared quickly behind the buildings and lights came on accompanied by the sound of distant fireworks.

This part of the city reminds me a little of the garment district in midtown Manhattan which we visited last year. There are even a couple of wholesale fashion houses in some of the side streets. One more recent addition is Chapter One at 19 Lever Street; an independent bookshop which opened in 2016. Their website notes that in 2013, over 1,000 bookshops in the UK closed down and from 2013 to 2015 not a single new UK bookshop opened. It is also a cafe, welcomes people who want to sit and work and has interesting decor. There are not a lot of books on display but they also sell online and host a weekly creative writing group.

The main reason for visiting Manchester was to see some live music recommended by friends we had made at Cornbury Festival in the summer. Rusty Shackle are a Welsh indie rock group who were performing at Gulliver’s pub on Oldham Street which regularly hosts live music. En route we had an early evening meal at Turtle Bay, a Caribbean restaurant near the venue.

We arrived at the pub before the venue door opened so had a beer downstairs in the bar. It had some interesting light fittings.

The venue upstairs appeared to have been made by combining three rooms with ceiling roses, chandeliers and painted a deep red colour. It chimed with Rusty Shackle who have standard lamps on stage and one by the mixing deck. The support act was a group from Colne called Folkestra who describe themselves as ‘a punk-driven rock-fuelled folk machine’. My musical preference was for Rusty Shackle who came on at 9.30pm. In addition to the usual guitars and drums, the bass guitarist also played a trumpet and one of the other guitarists did some percussion as well. Here they are setting up.

The next morning we headed wandered around the city centre doing a little Christmas shopping. The Christmas market stalls were under construction but it is likely to be after Christmas before we have another day in the city.

Ireland: wandering about Cork


We began our day in Cork with coffee. The aim was to plan our day and this cafe near our hotel was very appropriate for me as a writer, reader and someone who does voluntary work in a bookshop.

It did not disappoint and Having topped up the caffeine levels, our first destination was Cork Old Gaol on the other side of the river. We took a slightly circuitous route along the Mardyke Riverside Pathway which is a tunnel of green. This is the Mardyke Bridge.

This part of path we were on is entirely within the city near the university. It took us past Cork Museum which is situated in a park with sculptures among the trees and plants. The museum is free to visit.

Our next destination was Cork Old Gaol which was closed in 1923. You can go on a guided tour or by yourself with an audio guide or guidebook. We chose the last option.


Some of the rooms have models and furnishing depicting life in the gaol and there are also displays about notable prisoners. If you wish, you can have your photograph taken in the stocks. Caffeine levels were topped up again at the cafe here before heading back towards the city centre. We were aiming for the Crawford Gallery but in the block on Lavitt’s Quay just west of it is Vibes and Scribes, a bookshop selling new, used and secondhand books. We found a few gems in the secondhand store. It also has a book group which meets weekly and an arts and craft store across the river in Bridge Street. At the Crawford Gallery which is also free to visit (donations are invited) we saw Harry Clarke’s drawings for stained glass windows entitled ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and based on Keats’ poem.

The display also included two of his stained glass windows. We also watched Aideen Barry’s 2015 stop-motion film ‘Not to be known’ looking at the role of the ideal homemaker and working woman as she is seen by the media and enjoyed Danny McCarthy’s installation ‘Beyond silence: a bell rings in an empty sky’ is composed of ceramic and other bells he collected at car book sales and is on display until the end of August.

There is also a good collection of Irish artists’ work in both oil and water colours dating from the 18th to 21st centuries. We did not look at everything as we were beginning to flag and so wandered back towards the hotel picking up a late lunch at the indoor English Market in the city centre. One of the fish stalls had this large fish on display.

This evening we are off out for some food, drink and music which should not be hard to find in this great city where there is so much to choose from.

Ireland: two days in Dublin


We had had a trip to Ireland with a couple of friends planned for several months. They arrived last Friday evening and we drove to Holyhead to catch the early afternoon ferry to Dublin on Saturday. The crossing was smooth and we managed to navigate our way to the hotel which is on the banks of the canal. We had a reservation at Chapter One, a Michelin starred restaurant in Parnell Square. I had eaten there many years before but none of the rest of the party had. Aside from being a little slow to take our order and one of us thinking their starter was uninteresting, it did not disappoint. The centre of Dublin was very busy as we took a taxi back to the hotel. On Sunday morning we had breakfast in a nearby cafe and then walked into town. We passed an interesting shop.

It made me wonder if my local hardware shop would consider branching out.
We had a look around the grounds of Trinity College but the Book of Kells exhibition needs to be booked in advance – the queue today was extremely long. We will visit the next time we are here in the autumn.

The next stop was Merrion Square which is described as Dublin’s prettiest. It has statues of a number of people including Oscar Wilde and is situated in the southern Georgian quarter.
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Later in the afternoon we walked along the canal and explored the National Art Gallery. We looked a the permanent collection which included many 16th and 17th century paintings and some more recent Irish ones plus some stained glass. There was an exhibition of the work of Margaret Clarke, a 20th century artist that I was not familiar with. We also saw the exhibition of the work of Vermeer and his contemporaries in the Netherlands who influenced him. Fortunately it was not as busy as the exhibition we saw in London the previous weekend. In the stairwell were these 1996 paintings of Felim Egan entitled ‘The Four Seasons’.

After a couple of drinks including the obligatory Guinness in the Ha’penny Bridge Inn to escape the rain, it was time for dinner. Tonight we were dining at the Winding Stair Restaurant. It is on the banks of the Liffey and on the ground floor is one of Ireland’s oldest independent bookshops – The Winding Stair Bookshop. Unfortunately as it was Sunday, it was closed. This meal was very enjoyable (we even sampled some Irish haggis) and finished off the evening well. I have made several notes of other places to explore on future trips.

Catching some culture in London


The day before we left for London, the West Coast Mainline was closed for a while between Watford and Milton Keynes due to an incident and the British Museum had been evacuated because of what was later discovered to be an unfounded security scare. The media were obsessed with this being the busiest weekend of the year as schools in England and Wales break up for the summer holidays and our airspace was described as full with more aircraft taking off than ever before. Fortunately our early morning train journey was without any problems. We walked up to Islington as James was keen to ferret about in the antique market in Camden Passage. We found a gift for some friends on one of the stalls. Chatting to the proprietor of an antique print shop we heard how floods had hit both his shop and his home nearby in December 2016. Caffeine levels were topped up in a cafe with a tiny sun trap at the back.

The next stop was at the Southbank Book Market which is close to Waterloo Bridge. I did not find any books but instead bought an 18th century map of Africa. When we were heading back over Waterloo Bridge, a large posse of Vespas passed underneath. As we waled up to Covent Garden we met numerous Italian and Chinese school trips all wielding selfie sticks and umbrellas at eye level. My destination was Stanfords to study Australian maps and atlases for our big lap next year. Afterwards we popped into a bar on Tottenham Court Road so that James could catch up with some football. That evening we had a pre-theatre dinner and then saw ‘The Ferryman’ at the Gielgud Theatre. This recent play written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes is set in Northern Ireland in 1981. It lasts three hours and was very well done. On Sunday morning we walked to the Tate Modern, crossing the Embankment in the middle of a cycle race. We had tickets to see the Fahrelnissa Zeid exhibition, getting there early enough to avoid the long queues for security searches.

The exhibition covers her largely forgotten work from early figurative painting, her move to abstract and back to figurative work. The building is also interesting.

On the way back to our hotel a cold beer was needed and in a Covent Garden pub we met someone from Alsager who also volunteers in the Book Emporium. Dinner that night was in Chinatown. The wine list in the restaurant raised a smile at the spelling of ‘Congnac’. In the nearby market, a man was explaining Durian, known as the world’s smelliest fruit, to potential customers.

Soho has largely been gentrified but there are still glimpses of the old area down some side streets as we were heading back to the hotel. On Sunday morning we had tickets for the very popular Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum.

It was very busy but still very enjoyable.
We met up with some friends and looked at some of the marbles from the Parthenon before escaping for lunch.

Fresh air was needed so we took a ferry trip on the Thames
and after disembarking at Westminster, walked back past the Houses of Parliament to St James’s Park.

As always there were plenty of waterfowl including this pair of black swans with their cygnets.

Our return train journey was on time but there were notices all over Euston Station reminding people that there will be no trains on the August Bank Holiday Saturday and Sunday.

New Zealand: Auckland in midwinter


While the northern hemisphere is celebrating the summer solstice by touching Stonehenge and other rituals, the 21st of June is the midwinter solstice down here in the southern hemisphere. We drove from Hamilton to Auckland for our last few days in New Zealand. The sunsets just after 5pm behind the city so we walked down to the harbour to enjoy the evening light.

Someone I was at school with has been living in Auckland for many years and had invited us over to their house in Devonport for an evening meal. We took the 10 minute ferry with all the commuters returning home in the dark and had a very enjoyable evening. The following morning the forecast rain had arrived so we decided to visit the museum which sits in Auckland Domain and had a very wet walk there. The neoclassical building was constructed in 1929 and is Auckland War Memorial Museum. Most of the top floor is devoted to the war memorial collection. However, it contains many other gems. On the ground floor Maori and Pacific Islander artefacts are on display.

In the ancestral meeting house (remove your shoes to enter) a restoration project was underway.

Although New Zealand had its own potteries from the late 19th century, we found a link with home as Royal Doulton and a tile manufacturer in Hanley produced china and tiles with Maori decoration in the early 20th century. There were also silver teaspoons from Birmingham. Other exhibits were Wild Child: childhood in New Zealand, sections on volcanoes, natural history, 20th century Japanese ceramics and a very powerful photographic exhibition entitled Being Chinese in Aotearoa chronicling the experiences of Chinese people in New Zealand in over 90 photographs from the first settler in 1842 to the present day. Unfortunately, we will not be here to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition which starts on 7 July 2017. It was raining less on the return journey but the sky remained overcast and the Sky Tower was in the mist so not an evening to go up for the view.

On Friday morning, we were back on the Devonport ferry for a wander around the town. Close to the ferry terminal is Windsor Reserve with a very large tree that has numerous aerial roots. The New Zealand Tree Register identifies it as a Moreton Bay Fig, also known as an Australian Banyan.

Devonport has two bookshops, both on Victoria Road. Bookmark has secondhand books including a large section on military history in addition to all the usual sections. The shop on the other side of the street sells new books. On Queen’s Parade, we found a gallery selling antique maps and prints, Japanese woodblock prints and other modern prints and a few paintings but nothing to add to our collection. On a clear day, it would have been worth walking up Mount Victoria for the view but as the mist had descended, we confined ourselves to walking on the beach where I found some sea glass and had some conversations with the dog walkers, one of whom was originally from Northern Ireland.

As the city was shrouded in mist this was also not a day for the Skytower.

At the ferry terminal, I picked up a free copy of Paperboy, a free magazine published every Thursday and is a great guide to what’s on around the city. I spotted a photographic exhibition at the Trish Clark Gallery and would have loved to see it but the gallery opened so late that we could not manage it before a late lunch and the walk to Eden Park. We had a great lunch in the Indian restaurant opposite our hotel. A Fan Trail had been marked out for us to walk to the venue and entertainment was laid on along the route. These ladies were dancing to Amy Winehouse:

There were people dancing with fire, various bands (one of whom were doing a not very good rendition of UB40’s Red, Red Wine and people dressed up in all sorts of costumes. It took one and a half hours to get there and find our seat. Unfortunately the British and Irish Lions lost the match with the All Blacks so we slipped out early and caught the first train back to the city centre. Tomorrow we leave Auckland to start the long journey home.