The end of 2017

During our journey to Edinburgh just after Christmas, the radio was reporting snow, ice, blocked roads and closed airports elsewhere but northwest England and southern Scotland were bathed in winter sunshine. Not long after we joined the M6, a line of vintage tractors crossed a bridge over the motorway, presumably heading to some tractor fest event. Wildlife spotted on the journey included two buzzards perched on fence posts, mute swans on the River Eden and a roe deer just behind the crash barrier. There were several skeins of geese in the blue sky and snow on the Cumbrian peaks. Our only delay was an accident on the M74 before we were driving on the A701 through snowy landscapes.

In Moffat the ram was still wearing his Remembrance Day poppies.

There was 6-9 inches of snow all around and the hill sheep were digging holes to find grass. In Penicuik, children were sledging down the hill opposite the barracks. Unsurprisingly there was less snow in the city although there was a snow shower the following day while we were shopping and the children next door were building a snowman when we returned. It stayed dry later and which was a blessing as I had booked us to see the Botanic Gardens’ Christmas light & music display which we had never been to before. It runs every year in December.

The remainder of our time was spent catching up with relatives and friends and a lunch and football match for James on his birthday. I had pondered trying to get some photographs of the torchlight procession which takes place on the 30th but it started to rain heavily just as I got back to the flat so I gave up that idea. Storm Dylan arrived on the 31st and at one point Princes Street was closed to pedestrians as some staging had collapsed. I decided not to go up the hill to photograph the midnight fireworks as the wind was still very strong and I had visions of slipping down the hill in the mud with my camera & tripod. We did see some of the earlier evening fireworks on the way to and from the Candlelit Concert in St Giles Cathedral. It was performed by their choir and Camerata and organist and included Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Mass in F, both of which I have sung before and Handel’s Organ Concerto Op 4 No 2 in Bflat. Despite being described as candlelit, there were only a few candles at the front. I must return and have a look round the cathedral at some point as it has seen a lot of history. We decided to stay in on our return and saw the New Year in very quietly. Back home we discovered that the cellar pump had failed and it was flooded but managed to it going again before the storm due to hit us tonight deposits even more water on us.

Crossing the Irish Sea in winter

It is now officially winter and after several years of mild winters probably due to climate change, an approaching snow storm was forecast. The lack of snow probably had nothing to do with the fact that I had found a book on snowflake photography just after our last snow in 2010. I have not been able to try any macro photography of snow or ice since, not even on the Iceland trip. We had decided to stay in Birkenhead the night before our morning ferry as problems on any of the three motorways we use to get there could have delayed us. We did not anticipate any problems getting there in the afternoon. However, while we are all too aware of the problems satellite navigation systems can have in rural areas, this was unexpected in an urban setting. It kept trying to send us down the Queensway tunnel to Liverpool, not to the street in the next block we needed to get to. Once on the tunnel approach you cannot turn around. A very helpful member of staff at the toll booth (who has probably experienced this before), let us out and we reached our destination. The following morning the sailing was delayed and we eventually boarded in the midst of wind and sleet. That had already put paid to any shots of dawn over Liverpool and I had thought that I would be wandering around on the very cold and wet deck taking photographs. Fortunately there was a brief lull in the weather south of the Isle of Man and I was able to watch the sun going down before the next front approached.

We arrived in Belfast only an hour later than scheduled and were in the car ready to disembark when we were told to go back inside as a broken down truck was blocking the ramp. This took almost two hours to sort out. Fortunately we could go back into the lounge (it’s worth paying a bit more for Stena Plus on long daytime sailings) and I had a couple of brandies courtesy of Stena. James had to stay sober as he was driving. Someone told us that thinking it had run out of fuel, they brought some more diesel but found out that there was some air in the fuel system. This would have locked the brakes. Some engineers from Merseyside we were chatting to were amazed that in a port, there was no means of dragging the vehicle away that could be found quickly. At least once we could leave the roads were quiet, there was very little snow and we arrived about 11.30pm.

Birdwatching by the motorway and the scenic route home

I woke on Friday morning to find some rather wet snow outside. It had melted by sunrise. We drove up to Edinburgh to spend the weekend with a friend and stopped for a break at Johnstonebridge Services. On the way in we had to stop to allow some geese to cross the road. I was photographing them as they hunted around for melted puddle to get a drink when a guy sitting in his van told me that they are always around and in the summer have their goslings with them. They are not wild geese but are clearly resident in the vicinity.goose-at-johnstonbridge-13-jan-2017-1-of-1
I do a lot of bird-spotting rather than watching as I am driving or sitting on a train. Today we had seen a large starling murmuration just south of Carlisle. There are usually ducks at the pond at Tebay Services and I have photographed them on previous occasions. They are mostly Mallard with a few interlopers.
Ducks at Tebay 26 Mar 2016-1
In summer bird food is sold at Tebay to discourage people from feeding them bread which is not nutritious for birds. The guy in the van at Johnstonebridge also told me that Black-headed Gulls nest on the island in the middle of Killington Lake so later in this year I will make a stop there to see them. Fortunately we heard in time that an accident had closed the A702, so left the motorway at Moffat and drove up the A701 as the sun was setting.
We spent Saturday showing our friend around some of the parts of Edinburgh she had not seen on a previous visit. Sunday morning saw us in North Berwick> The Scottish Seabird Centre is here, down at the harbour but we did not have time to go there today. These Herring Gulls came over to see if we had anything to eat, better than the piece of plastic one was waving around.
The Bass Rock is home to the largest colony of Northern Gannets who are named after them: initially Sula bassanus now Morus bassanus. In summer you can do a boat trip around the rock in an open boat. Choose a calm day to do this as it can get a but rough on the side away from the shore. We did it many years ago and it is something I would like to revisit in the summer.
From North Berwick we drove to Haddington, over to the A68 and then the A7. The snow had disappeared from the lowland areas.
There was still some on the Eildon Hills where the hill sheep were scraping it away to find grass. Descending into Langholm we encountered mist.
Mist, cloudy greyness and rain were our companions for the remainder of the journey.

Winter Sun in South Queensferry

We had spent Saturday wandering around Edinburgh with my father who had not visited the city for 20 years. He enjoyed seeing what had changed and what had not. Sunday morning brought one of the still sunny winter days that the east coast of Britain often gets in winter while those of us on the western side of the country are experiencing grey wet weather. As my father is a retired engineer, I knew he would be interested to see the new Queensferry Bridge. He still has copies of ‘The Engineer’ magazine from the 19th century which were found in my grandfather’s garage when it was being cleared after his death. They contain a month-by-month account of the building of the Forth Rail Bridge which is fascinating. The visitors’ centre for the new bridge is not open on Sundays so we contented ourselves with a wander along the shore and into the historic old town of South Queensferry. The name of the town dates from the ferry service for Queen Margaret which was established in the 11th century and ran at first from some rocks to the west of the current harbour. The ferry ran until 1964 when the Road Bridge opened. The new bridge is scheduled to open in early May 2017 so we hope to be able to cross it when we go to Shetland in May. At the moment there is still a small section missing. I hope it joins up satisfactorily, I remember the Kessock Bridge near Inverness not quite matching up in the middle when the two halves were joined South Queensferry also has a bookshop so a return trip on a day other than a Sunday might have to be made at some point.

Winter weather and modern art

It had snowed overnight but not as heavily as in other parts of the US and the UK.
Central Park in snow 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)
It was still lying on the grass in Central Park but the heat of the concrete in the streets was melting it and the flakes that continued to fall until mid-morning. We wandered through Grand Central, which was busy with commuters and then into St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was built in the 1880s but looks like a much older Gothic building from Europe. I was pleased to see that they were happy to let homeless people sleep on the pews out of the cold.
St Patricks Cathedral 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)

St Thomas’s Episcopalian Church had an amazing decorative carved screen behind the altar. We also found the Old Print Shop on Lexington Avenue and purchased two maps from 1660 of the Western Isles which we will have to find wall space for when we return home. One of our tasks for today was to find the marker of the start of the Lincoln Highway which I had read was at Broadway and West 42nd St at Times Square. Eventually I spotted the very small sign attached to a post and which we would never have found in June when we are driving through the city on our way to Philadelphia. At one point on our total of 15 miles around the city, we saw some members of the NYPD Counter-Terrorism Unit near the Rockefeller Plaza armed with guns. Quite why they were there was not obvious but one brave tourist was taking a photograph of them. Police do not usually like that & I have only been brave enough to photograph a sleeping policeman on the floating police station on Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia. In the late afternoon we joined the scrum sampling the delights of the Museum of Modern Art for free. This happens every Friday from 4pm to 8pm and involves lots of queues. The first, which no-one tells you about and is 300m long when you find it, is outside, to collect a free ticket. You then have to stand in another queue to deposit bags deemed too large to take inside and yet another to have your ticket inspected before you can enter the galleries. It is obviously a popular event and a great way of familiarising yourself with the layout and the collection but if you want quiet contemplation of the works, come at another time and pay your $25. I discovered a Belgian artist I had not known of before, Marcel Broodthaers, who worked in a wide variety of media, including poetry. Here is a work entitled Armoire blanche et table blanche’ painted furniture with eggshells.
Armoire blanche avec table blance MOMA 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)
He used a wide array of different media over the years. Other works were old favourites especially the abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.
White Light Jackson Pollok MOMA 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)
There was a wide variety of works to see including photography but after a couple of hours it was time to head away from the crowds (who were still queuing to come in) to go for dinner and a more relaxing evening back at the hotel. Part of me is already in the Sierra Nevada as I am halfway through reading a selection of John Muir’s writings that James gave me for Christmas. John Muir was born in Dunbar in Scotland, a very familiar place, and emigrated to the USA aged 11. The paperback I have contains the first two of his books and a selection from the remainder. Today I found a biography of Ansel Adams whose landscape photography I have admired for some time. So I have plenty of reading material for winter evenings.

Sun on the beach and snow on the hills

I love walking and beachcombing in all seasons and as the morning was bright and sunny we decided that today’s walk would be on Gullane Bents in East Lothian. Several people and dogs were enjoying a morning on the beach. Ships were heading out to sea and we could see snow on the hills of Fife to the north. I was wearing my fingerless gloves so that I could operate my camera but they got pretty cold very quickly but I did find some pieces of sea glass to add to my collection and one small scallop shell with barnacles on it.
Gullane Bents 14 Feb 2016 (1 of 1)

Gullane Bents 4 14 Feb 2016 (1 of 1)

Sea glass 14 Feb 2016 (1 of 1)

After the walk, we warmed up in a coffee shop and then investigated the ruined church opposite, St Andrew’s Old Kirk. It was built in 1170 on the site of an earlier Norman church but was abandoned in 1612 as it kept getting buried in sand blown from the beach. The congregation moved to Dirleton and much later, other churches were built in Gullane and are still there today.

St Andrews Old Kirk Gullane 14 Feb 2016 (1 of 1)
We had planned to head south over a B road that passes over the Lammermuir Hills and past the Whiteadder Reservoir before descending into the borders. I could see a lot of snow on the hills and have previously taken some good shots up there so was very optimistic as the weather had stayed dry. Unfortunately the road was closed and had a fairly permanent closed sign so we had to turn round. The alternative route was to cross over to the A68 and then to the A7 via Soutra and were were rewarded by some snow.

Snowy landscape Soutra 2 14 Feb 2016 (1 of 1)

Snowy landscape Soutra 7 14 Feb 2016 (1 of 1)

We had a flurry of snow over the Teviots but south of the border the sun came out again and it was an uneventful drive home.

Winter days in Edinburgh

There are still no trains north of Carlisle due to the Lamington Viaduct repairs and the replacement buses increase the journey times. I managed to slip away from work and catch an earlier train out of Lime Street Station than I had originally planned. At least part of the journey would be in daylight. By the time we got to Wigan North Western, enough sun had penetrated the glowering clouds to produce that wonderful golden hour of light before sunset beloved of photographers. It made even the station and the adjacent rather utilitarian car park glow.

Evening at Wigan 2 (1 of 1)

At Preston we were kept waiting a driver whose arrival was delayed by floods. I finally finished reading Great Plains while on the train. I was pondering that I had already known something about the native Americans, the explorer and settler trails across the region, its geography, wildlife, the farmers trying to make a living there and the dustbowl. From the book I learnt more about the Mennonite settlers and something else that had not occurred to me: it is the location for several nuclear missile silos. In Carlisle, I was waiting for the bus to Edinburgh with a guy from London who had also been on my train. He said that he had just started work for Railtrack and that he had never been this far north before.

On Wednesday I had work to do, a day of coffee and statistics. In the evening, I attended a Burns Night celebration at the Scottish Arts Club. I met several new people (including some of the botanic artists) and enjoyed some great food. We were entertained by several members with the toasts, some of Burns songs and some by James Hogg. At the end of the evening I got back to the flat by taxi and was physically exhausted but my mind was racing with ideas and plans for more creative work of my own. The first few blossoms are appearing on the cherry tree outside the window but from Thursday evening through Friday and into Saturday we were treated to gales, snow, hail and sleet showers, the remains of storm Gertrude which battered the eastern USA a few days ago. The snow on Saturday morning lay long enough for all the local children to be out on the Meadows building snowmen but it melted soon after when the sun emerged. The blossoms have survived the onslaught.

Cherry tree blossom (1 of 1)

One winter treat in Edinburgh is that the Scottish National Gallery puts on a display each January of Turner watercolours. Although he never ventured further than Europe, here is one entitled ‘Falls near the source of the Jumna in the Himalaya.

Falls near the source of the Jumna Himalaya (1 of 1)

Saturday evening saw us having dinner in Katie’s Diner in Bruntsfield. There are only six tables and it is decorated with Americana including photographs of New York taken in the 1950s, musical instruments and also some more local colour from several Jack Vettriano prints. At night the castle is lit up and glows almost orange.

Edinburgh Castle 30 Jan 2016 (1 of 1)

This morning it was time to head home so we wandered through the borders with flooded fields being enjoyed by swans and geese and some snow on the Lammermuir Hills but very little further south. Between Greenlaw (one of only two towns in Scotland to have a village green) and Kelso, we came across Hume Castle. It is closed in winter and all you can see from the road are the 18th century walls which hide a much older keep. I made a note to re-visit in the summer. Just before we got to Kelso on the B6461 I saw a sign that said ‘Bookshop’. We did not explore further as it was unlikely to be open on Sunday but something else for the return visit.

Hume Castle 31 Jan 2016 (1 of 1)

Borders landscape 31 Jan 2016 (1 of 1)

We were soon descending towards Carlisle, the border and lower altitudes. Snow-covered Cumbrian hills appeared above the cloud but fog and rain were with us for the rest of the journey.

Seeing in the New Year in Edinburgh

On Wednesday I was wondering whether we would make it to Edinburgh at all. High winds (Storm Frank this time) and even more rain had exacerbated the already flooded areas of Northern England and Scotland and reports were coming of more areas being flooded and landslides. Someone had posted a photograph of the M74 looking more like a river on Facebook. My 4×4’s maximum wading depth of 50cm might be exceeded in some of the floods we have seen. Thursday morning in Cheshire was sunny, still and with a blue sky. The radio DJ obviously thought that a blue sky in Manchester was worth commenting on. As we drove north, dense low cloud and rain were with us until we got to Edinburgh and despite numerous signs saying ‘snow forecast’ there was none to be seen on the hills. We got there with enough time to get ourselves organised and down to the New Town where we were to spend Hogmanay with some friends. After our meal we walked a bit closer to the city centre and watched the midnight fireworks. Today has been a much more leisurely day. Despite all the snow warnings we have still not seen a flake. I am working on an painting which might become an elegy to winter.

Fireworks 1 Jan 2016 (1 of 1)
Fireworks 5 Jan 2016 (1 of 1)

Staying at home

I follow Nomadic Matt’s blog and recently he tackled the issues facing travellers when returning home and another venture is a long way in the future; the coming home blues. I am often in that situation as work limits the time we can go away until we retire and have more flexibility. Matt made the following suggestions:

1. Join an online community
2. Read travel blogs.
3. Attend travel meet-ups via Couchsurfing or
4. Read travel books.
5. Take short trips around your city or region.
6. Host on Couchsurfing so you can show tourists around and see your home with fresh eyes. 

I would agree with and do most of these but travel meetups and hosting on Couchsurfing are easier if you live in a city (I live in a semi-rural area most of the time). I do have a large library of travel literature and it grows as I plan to visit a new place or revisit a favorite destination. That said, I have read ‘In Patagonia’ twice, 40 years apart and have still not made it to Patagonia. I am currently planning next summer’s USA coast to coast drive (mostly) on the Lincoln Highway. The flights are booked and as we are travelling in the peak summer season (we do not always have a choice of when to go) I am booking accommodation ahead as well and am almost finished – just Reno in Nevada, Truckee and Sacramento in northern California to arrange. I have already booked the end – by the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. The playlist is currently under construction and James will organize the car. Phil Llewellin, in his book ‘’The Road to Muckle Flugga’ devoted less than three pages to the Lincoln Highway which he drove in 1989 in only eight days. We are taking just under four weeks, inspired in part by the views from the California Zephyr train which we took from Chicago to San Francisco five years ago. We will be getting out of our car to explore and hike in several places along the way.

Short trips around my local area is something I do, on foot in the car or on the train. It is often amazing how many places near our homes or workplaces we have not been to, how many paths and roads close by that have not been explored. During the festive season, travel can be difficult and is currently much harder with flooding and rail works so staying at home can be a good idea. This morning’s surprise on a wander round the garden was the appearance of some fungi in the garden. I am trying to identify them and think they might be Hypholoma Capnoides which is in season from spring until autumn and I am still compiling a natural history of the garden. The mild winter has led to the appearance of spring flowers in December so this is something else appearing earlier than usual.

Mushroom 1 (1 of 1)

Mushroom 2 (1 of 1)

All kinds of weather in Edinburgh

On Wednesday I was longing for snow and my wish almost came true. It was raining as I headed into town to see a film and so heavily that I have never seen so much water running down the streets of the city. On the way back to the flat it had turned to sleet and wet snow was lying on the grass. Higher altitudes had the real stuff and a little sprinkling was left on Blackford Hill. My neighbour said he had never seen so much water running down the mound. I woke on Friday morning to clear blue, a crescent moon and contrails stretching across the sky. I had to get out and for a change, wandered east along Grange Loan for some supplies at Earthy, then down Causewayside noticing as few antique shops and upcycled furniture shops that will be worth a look in at some point. I passed the National Library of Scotland which is being renovated and will have to go in there at some point as this location houses the old map collection.

At Summerhall, the Mexican artist Antonio O’Connell’s permanent installation ‘Virus’ made from recycled materials has sat outside since last year (Summerhall is housed in the former veterinary medicine school).

Virus installation 1 (1 of 1)

Virus installation 2 (1 of 1)

I picked up some newsletters but did not see a current exhibition that appealed so headed for Till’s bookshop. The proprietor is a Canadian who has lived in Edinburgh for 30 years. I have lived in or visited Edinburgh regularly for more than 30 years and often pass the shop on the bus up from the city centre but today was the first day that I went in. The original range with a real fire reminded me of Reid’s in Liverpool.

Till's bookshop Edinburgh (1 of 1)

Saturday’s storm was named Desmond and large parts of Scotland and northern England are flooded. We braved the high wind and rain to head into town for a book fair. I saw one elderly man’s cap blow off and bowl down the street. Fortunately, he managed to rescue it. One of the Christmas decorations still standing was this fairy light tree in George Street. Parked next to it was a Red Bull car. Something I would need if I had to party all night. Instead we had a relaxed meal with friends.

Tree in George ST (1 of 1)

Today was another sunny morning so we set off reasonably early to drive back down south in daylight. No meandering in the Borders today. There was a lot of water on the A702 but the snow had gone from the Pentlands. Otherwise, it was an uneventful drive back but we could see large areas of flooding all around in southern Scotland and Cumbria and the water was almost up to the edge of the motorway in places. The radio told us of people being rescued, power cuts, landslides and flood defences being breached.

A702 water (1 of 1)