Saturday, 23 June 2012

June comes to 'Dune' country

Not Frank Herbert's 'Dune', obviously!

We had some letters to post and a menial task, that would have taken just a couple of minutes barely six months ago, somehow turned into an all-dayer. Gail was still experimenting with her new camera and wanted to visit Kettletoft at low tide to snap the seals that are invariably hanging around there. On our way, we stopped just past Lady village at a derelict church to take some pictures there before continuing. We walked along the short pier at Kettletoft, posted our letters and that could have been an end to it. But it was not. Our attention was drawn to a sign for a walk to Bea Loch and decided to follow it. Past lovely beaches, clumps of wild flowers and seagulls nesting in the rocks we headed for a second derelict church. From there the path continued its circuitous route back toward, I hesitate to call it, ‘town’ past fields in which a handful of horses and ponies roamed. It was all very nice and postcardy. We had a tasty dinner at the Kettletoft Hotel before setting off for home. 

I was happy to find that someone on the island had worse windows than us.
On the way, we remembered that we were out of eggs so resolved to stop at a friend’s house to buy a dozen from him. When we’d driven past his house, a good few hours earlier, our friend Andy was mowing his lawn and we were surprised to find that he had still not finished it. Surprised until we saw how small the mower he was using actually was. It was very similar to those baby-walking trolleys with coloured balls bouncing around inside a small, Perspex dome. He reminded us that it was bought to keep his postage-stamp, suburban garden in Brum under control, not the near acre of steppe that he now had to contend with. Its replacement was imminent. Andy invited us in for tea and coffee and we chatted for a while before he showed off the array of plants abounding in his polytunnel. It was like an Eden in there. He picked some radishes and greens to take home with us and fed us peas fresh out of the pod, a plethora of salad leaves and a couple of strawberries. I was offered a pepper but refused, however Gail gladly accepted one. Glad until she was very much in need of a glass of milk to quell the pain. While Gail was sorting herself out in the kitchen, we made our way around his fruit-house. In between the trees he was growing clumps of herbs which we tried in turn. When the extent of your culinary experience is trying to harness any flavour at all from eight year old, dried herbs you don’t appreciate the taste of the fresh stuff. It’s a shock to the system I can tell you.

I’ve grown quite attached to the B98, the wreck of which lies just over the dunes from the house. It’s an old ship and it’s not as if it was ever a particularly pretty one either, but it has a history. It saw action in the Baltic against the Russians before WW1, where it served at Jutland. During the Armistice discussions, while the German Grand Fleet were interred at Scapa Flow, it was one of the supply ships between there and Wilhelmshaven. It had just left before the scuttling, leading to speculation that it had delivered the order to do so, and was seized before it reached home waters. While being towed away to be scrapped, it broke free and was washed ashore on Sanday. Needless to say the natives helped themselves to this fortunate bounty. Now, apart from the remains left on the beach, its guns are on display at the museum in Lyness. Internet research led me to the site of a model maker that produces a 1-700 scale kit so I ordered one. (Gail has pointed out to me that considering our experience with scaling, it is embarrassing that it never occurred to me that the kit would only measure fourteen centimetres in length.) A cycle trip, including two ferry crossings, to Hoy is planned for later this summer.

I did say that she wasn't much of a looker.
On the Fourth, we attended Sanday's Jubilee beacon lighting ceremony. The island is predominantly long and flat, but it does have a few hills, mainly on the West side. The site at Fea Brae afforded some fantastic and unexpected views. It was also clear that some wet weather was closing in and from our vantage we noticed that the beacons at North Ronaldsay and Eday were, quite shrewdly, lit early. Following a sausage and mash supper, a veggie one for Gail and a small cheesecake each, a local councillor gave a short speech, though not short enough. Then the beacon was lit at the appointed time, helped with the liberal application of a blowtorch. Even a miserable republican like my missus was impressed by the spectacle.

The next day was the islands Fun Day, held at the Community Centre. We watched as the islanders of all ages participated in egg ’n’ spoon, three-legged, wheelbarrow and sack races. I entered an over 45s sprint race in order to get a sticker and then, in the best interest of diplomacy, lost out to three, much older, local gentlemen. Other sports were taking place in the middle of the day but the girls wanted to get changed for the sit-down do later. The evening comprised a tea followed by a disco interspersed with traditional dancing. I was horrified to be hauled to my feet to participate in a Bernard’s Waltz. Through no fault of my suffering partner, it was an ordeal that I am in no hurry to endure again.

Orkney Micro-renewables turned up to lay the foundations for the wind-turbine. It started off with three guys in a van, but soon we had a massive aggregates truck, a trailer, a tractor, a JCB digger and some kind of scoop loader all carrying out manoeuvres around the garden, a proper 'heavy plant' choreography. I’ve no idea how they all squeezed through the gate. It all looked a very ‘International Rescue’, albeit perhaps a third-world version of it. They dug a massive hole in the sand and poured concrete into it. I now have a little mountain of sand to use and move around to my heart’s content, or I might just stick a flag on top of it where it is. The concrete needs to set for about four weeks before they erect the turbine and lay the cabling into the house to connect to the grid. Then we get to use the juice it produces when we need it. The rest of it gets fed into the grid and the company gets to make good on its investment. By the time they come back to do that, hopefully Everest will have been in to fit our new windows. We can’t be one hundred per-cent sure that they will as the fitters telephoned us recently to ask if we could suggest where they might stay on the island. They had only just been told that not all of their gigs were on mainland Orkney so if they can’t find anywhere to stay then I assume that there will be a delay. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed.

The big boys, with all their toys, turn up to play
Our latest excitement was a shopping expedition to Kirkwall. We paid half of the fare for our friend’s van so that we could go bonkers and fill it up with more stuff than we would ever have been able to carry ourselves. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have our ‘bulk-buying’ heads on so while we did pick up some bits of hardware we needed, we only got a few weeks-worth of essentials from Tesco and Didldidi (more commonly known as Lidl). Next time we’ll be a little wiser to the opportunity and stock up properly. We did buy a whole book of 50 passenger tickets from Orkney Ferries to cover us for the year. It works out at about half price, provided we use them all up. Given my penchant for boats, I really don’t see that that is going to be a problem. Getting Gail to cross on a stormy November day might prove to be much more of a challenge! 

Monday, 4 June 2012

Back to the top of the map.

               I can wholeheartedly recommend the Travelodge at Lancaster. The rooms are basic in the extreme, not to be confused with 'in extremis', but considering that thousands of vehicles were hammering past on the M6, it was like I’d stepped into Narnia. Indeed, it was so quiet and comfortable that I overslept. Not a good start for the longest leg of my journey home. I realised that I wouldn’t have made it to my usual petrol stop in Gretna, so I drove into Lancaster itself. Almost immediately I wished I hadn’t, but I did quite accidentally find a Sainsbury petrol station so cheap fuel and nectar points were a real bonus. The route back toward the M6 would have taken me South so I headed up the A6 towards Carnforth instead and was rewarded with some fantastic views over Morecombe Bay.

                A longs days’ drive, interrupted only by an impromptu visit to a branch of HSBC in Perth, concluded at my overnight stop at ‘The Weigh Inn’ in Scrabster near Thurso. Here I was again surprised by my accommodation. Guests parked in a square surrounded by what looked like storage containers on four sides. Each ‘container’ had four doors in it. I was not confident of what I would find inside. Despite my doubts, the rooms were absolutely fine. I was knackered and not wanting a repeat of the previous night I asked Gail to phone me in the morning. I didn’t want to miss the ferry but mostly I didn’t want to miss breakfast. I don’t get to enjoy kippers and poached eggs much.

                The Pentland Firth that morning bore little resemblance to the body of water I had crossed only six days previously. Again I assumed that the captain would head for Scapa, but au contraire! I faced a wobbly spectacle of the Old Man of Hoy from a bucking deck. I couldn’t help thinking of how Gail would have fared, so I captured the view on her phone for her to enjoy. I would have to ensure that I had a bucket on standby when I showed it to her. Having reached Stromness, I took a stroll to get my land-legs back. The town always looks closed to me so I explored the harbour instead and found the ferry to Hoy, which I am determined one day soon to take to the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum at Lyness. I also found the RNLI shop and museum. It was even open!

                I had five hours to wait before my final ferry crossing from Kirkwall to Loth Pier. Whilst in Kirkwall, I went to the Library and registered. A mobile library visits all the islands in the group so books can be returned without getting your feet wet. I borrowed two books and spent half an hour on the internet . After lunch, I couldn’t help having a stroll around the branch of Didldidi. It was intended to be a perusal, but there was so much interesting stuff around for not much loot I had to grab a basket and go mad. The prize find was a box of chocolate covered marshmallow in a ‘Super Dickmanns’ stylie. (If you don’t know then you haven’t lived!) I still got change of a tenner for a basket full. Perhaps if I’d given in to temptation and got the electric drill set then it might have been worth breaking out the plastic.
They probably have them up in every library, but it made me laugh.
(Courtesy of those nice people at Calm-o-matic.)

                Needless to say I had plenty of unloading to do when I got home. From garden shredder to tins of paint, the shed and stables filled up with stuff. It was good to be able to fit the rear seats back in the car to make it look less like a van. The starlings were glad to see the Skoda back, too. Within four days they’d built another nest in the engine bay and laid two more little blue eggs.

                As the temperature reached double figures, Gail was keen to get into the water at Bay of Lopness. Sooner or later we would have to try the kayaks out but I’d be reluctant to do so without experience of just how chilly the North Sea was. I donned my wetsuit and carried snorkel, goggles and fins over the dunes and onto the beach. Together, we waded out, Gail just in her cozzy. It was brass monkeys out there, but after a while, I could catch my breath and swam out. After only a few minutes, I headed back to the sand and found Gail cackling hysterically. She was having a wonderful time in the breaking waves, oblivious to the chill. I put on my snorkelling gear and headed back out into deeper water, where it got even colder. I kept on finding myself being spun around, but as it’s such a wide bay that there is land about three quarters of the way round. I guess it was therefore kind of inevitable that I’d be facing land whenever I lifted my head above the surface. It’s better than the alternative, I suppose. I could follow my progress by watching my shadow on the sea bed and had the feeling, at times, that I had company. Although I could see no other signs of life, occasionally it appeared that other shadows would dance around my own. It was disconcerting to say the least, as Gail was playing in the wake many yards away. Soon, I looked up to see her getting out of the water so I headed back before she caught a chill. It was all brilliant fun. Next time I’m out I’ll try to find somewhere to place my lobster pot.

                Back in a gardening frame of mind, I sowed some dwarf pea seeds indoors, planted out a box of mixed vegetables that  my little sister had bought for us quite a while ago now, thinned out some leek and cabbage seedlings and planted out a couple of squash plants in a raised bed away from the house. They turned out to be sacrificial lambs, however, as the rabbits munched all the secondary leaves off them and then kicked soil up all over them. When I checked on them a day later I scared off a rabbit, which scared two more, that each scared off two more. The exodus continued to escalate as I made my way through the garden until it began to resemble a helicopter view of a huge herd of wildebeest crossing the Serengeti. The ground practically shook. I exaggerate of course but if there was any justice in the world it certainly would have done.

                The next morning, after reading in bed for quite a long time, there followed a profound sense of guilt at letting a sunny morning pass me by, so I got up to find that it was not even seven am. I decided to take my frustrations out on an old sofa that the previous occupant of the house had left behind, with a heavy lump-hammer. I went around the stable block to get the hammer and woke up a slumbering Siamese-like cat lying in one of the doorways. It was pleasing that our guest stayed for a fussing before stalking off toward some rabbit holes to find its breakfast. Upon arriving back indoors I heard a bee in distress in the goat room. At the risk of sounding like a coward I will admit that the glorious, industrious and beautiful beasties frighten the bejesus out of me. After getting over a period of running around, shrieking and general panic, I resolved to rescue the poor chap. When I placed it on the grass outside, it seemed to be on its last legs, so I smeared some of Gail’s Sanday honey on a small dish in front of it. When the little tongue came out to lap up the sweetness, my optimism grew. It was amazing how quickly the peedie thing became energised. Within minutes it had enough get up and go to get up and went, while I adopted a very smug and self-satisfied air. Me and Dolittle could have been twins. After that it was an effort to get fired up to give that ragged bit of furniture a good, old-fashioned tonking.

Redefining 'cute'.

I can do destruction. It’s creation that I have trouble with. At present, everything I’ve planted in my garden has died. In order to be able to keep a closer eye on things, I created six more raised beds right outside the door, where I hope the local wildlife will be too afraid to come. I even got into the Jubilee spirit by pairing up two red fishing crates, then two white ones and finally two blue ones out of the stock of them that had been lying about the garden. It’s true that they look a lot like the French tricolour, but any resemblance is purely coincidental. Each bed is the correct size to be covered by a pane of the windows that Everest will be removing in late June. Perhaps then something will make it to maturity. It’d be nice if something around here did. ;-)