Friday, 27 September 2013

Hi! Remember the time I used to keep a blog. No? Me neither.

                A month and a half, that’s abandonment that is. Anyway, how have you been? I certainly hope that this epistle finds you well.

Age begins to tell as author suffers first erectile dysfunction.
                Gail arrived home safely from her hospital visit last month. This was despite a very low cloud that nearly forced the pilot to turn around and go back to Kirkwall. He managed to get it down safely before he then had to head on the North Ronaldsay. They don’t pay those guys enough, I can tell you.


                Orkney has enjoyed a quiet summer. It’s the sort of thing to make you forget all about how long winter lasted.  The days got very long indeed. Anyone who has seen Al Pacino in ‘Insomnia’ will know exactly what went on in our heads. There are no black-out curtains thick enough to cut out such a plethora of sunlight and when you can’t sleep you also can’t help feeling guilty that you’re not doing something useful outside. It’s no use screaming that it’s only three o’clock in the morning when you can smell the grass growing, hear the birds singing and see the bunnies, equally as confused, hopping around looking for an early breakfast. The only reassuring thing is the knowledge that there isn’t a mad, bad Robin Williams around.

              
How did I manage a trip to 1960's Garsdale, Cumbria?
  I received an unexpected envelope from the Jury Summoning office, inviting me to attend court. If anything, I have been anticipating an appearance on the other side of the dock. It was not for the courts in Scotland, however, but for the Portsmouth circuit. I had to apologize for having the audacity to move away and request that I be excused, indefinitely. I don’t intend to be heading Sooth for a long while.

They say that cats have an extraordinary sense of hearing, but surely that cannot have been the explanation for why, within twenty four hours of me mentioning to Gail that a certain Siamese gentleman hadn’t paid us a visit for a while, a certain Siamese gentleman turned up on our doorstep. Then again, perhaps it is. He has demonstrated that he clearly possesses an acute ear, a profound understanding of the English language and an uncanny familiarity with my daily routine in order to ensure that our paths would cross at that precise moment. Either that or I somehow willed it and performed telekinesis but, if that was the case, I suspect that he would have been mightily aggrieved, which he did not seem to be judging by the way he polished off a small plate of tuna. He followed me about the garden for a while, critiquing my horticultural prowess, before sloping off when he realized that there were no more goodies in the offing. He may be an opportunist, freeloading bastard, but he’s our guest opportunist, freeloading bastard and we love him.

This is exactly what happens when you cast nasturtiums!
Talking of my horticultural prowess, I’ve actually had some success. Not all of it, obviously. The only beans that made an appearance were the ones that I kept indoors. The carrots, leeks, onions and potatoes have been going great guns outdoors though. The parsnips and spinach have been less keen, but I still have hope for them. I’ve even experimented a bit by planting a couple of beds of flax. They seem to be doing alright, so if I can turn a large plot over during the winter, I might try a field of it next year. I also have a little pet squash plant that is busy wending its way around the vegetable garden, flowering and fruiting at intervals along its path. I’ve been here before so I’m not going to get too excited. The fruits never developed into anything previously and when I did manage to get some courgettes going last year, the bunnies and the starlings munched their way through them. I have managed to ponce some tomato plants as well. Currently producing nothing more than little green bullets, they are a work in progress. Gail has managed to not murder her rosemary and basil plants. Just recently, my Woodland Trust order turned up. I’m not sure that they enjoyed spending a week in a box in the post and when they find out where they’ve been sent to it may turn out to be the final straw. I certainly don’t have the heart to stick them outside yet. I’ve set the plugs into pots to encourage the root systems and I’ll introduce them to the great outdoors in Spring. I hope they forgive me or else there’ll be a tiny gang of Dryads ganging up to kick lumps out of me.


If Andy's seeing mermaids, it must be the 'shrooms!
There have been a couple of really calm days. As if the fact that we would have had to pay to use electricity off the grid if we stayed indoors wasn’t enough of an incentive, one look over the dunes to the mirror smooth water in the bay is nothing short of an invitation. Dragging the kayaks down the garden and across the sand, we’d paddle around on the crystal clear, minty green sea. I’ve been out a couple of times on my own since, heading around the corner at Newark toward Elsness or over toward Whale Head. I remember paddling in Portsmouth and not being able to see squat beneath the boat. Here the water is a distraction. At times the sand below appears to be within touching distance, but it’s out of the reach with a six foot long paddle. Other times, I glide over kelp beds and the water goes really dark and I might as well be trying to paddle through treacle. Then, all of a sudden, a head appears and when the seal sees me, it plunges below with a mighty splash. It’s so quiet out there that you can hear them breathing when they think they’re being smart and swimming right behind you. In the evening, you can hear them singing from their roosts, or whatever the place that they hang out is called. Having just the selkies and the seabirds for company is just awesome.


My pool lifeguard training started recently. You may think that looking after a handful of folk in a postage stamp size pool would be a walk in the park, but the RLSS is a national standard. The difficulty I’m having is not the physical aspects of the gig, although the first aid will be difficult as I’ve never done any of that before, but simply trying to visualize doing this stuff anywhere bigger than a postage stamp pool. The handbook covers flumes, wave machines, movable floors, diving boards and a dizzying myriad hazards and complications that are so hard to imagine when you are standing in a hall with a foot spa in the middle of it. I exaggerate of course, but it is as far away from being a lido as the bandstand on Southsea Common is from the Royal Albert Hall.


Is there anything else? Oh yeah, there is. The kittens have moved out of the stables, moved back in and moved out again. Their mum has started to take them out hunting with her, but when the weather turns nasty she brings them back to shelter. Then she goes out on her own. It is honestly like a rabbit morgue out there. I feel sick just describing the heads with spines coming out of them with two furry back feet at the other end and absolutely nothing else in between. Loads of carcasses just like that spread all over the place.
Different degrees of success in concealment.

Sometimes the gulls and the crows pick the rest of the meat off the bones, other times it looks like it too horrible even for them. I’ve taken some of Smokey’s tuna over there, some small Pollock or a tin of cat food that Smokey would turn her nose up to and it all gets eaten, but mum keeps on bringing in more rabbits. Today we had a phone call from a neighbour who works with the Cats Protection League in Scotland. The kittens were seen in the road the other day and so would we help catch them so that they could be neutered and homed. We had to explain that they are much older than they look and are now as feral as it is possible to be. Neutering is a sensible and responsible thing to do though, so we promised to let her know when they were back. It’ll be nice to see them up close. Nice for us that is. I think they’ll probably hate us and chew our faces off given half a chance. Cats are so cute!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Alone again, or

Here goes. I find myself having to draft this entry on a notepad, using a pen and everything, because there’s been a power cut. The mains cable from mainland had been severed, allegedly, by a cruise ship during the wee small hours. Gail is away down in Aberdeen hospital for a minor op. That leaves stupid having to fend for himself. I’m also on bus duty for the next fortnight.
A bit of Gail's Loganair plane. (The back bit, I think.)

Yesterday I drove Gail to the airport and saw her off. In stark contrast to the weather we’d had earlier in the week, it was a wonderful, bright, clear morning. Indeed there didn’t seem to be anything the least bit portentous about it. That evening, I picked up the Sanday bus, came home and settled down for an early night, as soon as the girlie football had finally finished.

Gail was kind enough to have set the alarm clock for me before she left. However, when I awoke I found that the display was blank. I got up straight away and wandered around the hoose in my pants, sorry for the disturbing mental picture, to look for a watch. It transpired that it was only five o’clock so I put some food down for Smokey before clambering back under the duvet with the condition that I wasn’t to take the watch off. I was fast asleep when the phone started ringing from about half past nine with folk looking to book seats on the bus. My passenger numbers doubled for the morning inbound journey and I was already (more than) fully booked for the way back. I’d managed my timing a bit fine so I started to panic when I went outside and saw that the weather had completely closed in. Gail and I have a system for assessing the thickness of fog based upon how many ‘telegraph’ poles we can see at the bottom of the garden. This morning it was more a case of “What flippin’ telegraph poles?!” Added to all the extra diversions that I hadn’t planned on having to make, things promised to be somewhat edgy.

I managed to arrive early at my first address. Those additional five minutes, collectively, is what Kelly refers to as “Burness Time”. Fortunately it turned out to be one of those rare mornings when everybody was waiting for me by the roadside. It’s not unheard of to have to go legging it up someone’s driveway to get them to get a hustle on. Sometimes they are still in their jammies. Today I arrived at Loth pretty much on time and I was further abetted by the boat being late.
The new 'tenants' in the stables. Cute and great rabbit killers.

My twelve lunchtime arrivals turned out to be fourteen, so laps needed to be sat upon. Not mine I hasten to add, but not that I’d have objected too vehemently. I dropped a large party off at a big house that overlooks Otterswick Bay, which is very pretty, but they had to take my word for it because we could barely make out the hoose itself and it sits right on the side of the road! They left with all their luggage and I sat on the driveway working out the cost of all the tickets I’d just run off. The numbers seemed to add up so I headed home. I had a few hours to burn before the next outing so I spent my time lavishing as much attention on Smokey as I could, checked up on the kittens in the stable, did a bit of house-keeping, etc, etc. Gail phoned to let me know that she was fine. It was a lovely sunny day in Aberdeen and she was drinking coffee and eating a tuna salad. All I can say is that it must have been baking hot in the ‘granite city’ for Gail to be eating a salad. It did remind me, however, that I hadn’t drunk or eaten anything all day and it was time I was off out again. I stopped on the way at the recycling bins to drop off some bottle and tins. A man’s work is never done. When I arrived at the pier, I was approached by a scout leader who I had met on Wednesday. He, another three leaders and eighteen cubs and scouts had arrived that day and needed transport as their own vehicle had not made the trip over with them. I had to make two trips, which is apparently against the rules, in order to get them to their camp which, as it transpired, was not in the same place that they had originally intended to set up camp. (Their host had been completely unaware of their impending arrival until two crates of bottled water were delivered to his establishment.) What with all the messing about, extra mileage and the uncertainty of whether they’d need single or return fares if they didn’t resolve their own transport issues, I explained that I needed some time to work out the fares so they could pay me the next time I saw them. Today was that day. While I was reeling off reams of tickets and relieving him of the necessary cash, he had time to give me the hard sell on becoming a scout leader. I tried to explain to him that kids aren’t exactly my kinda thing, having spent my entire adult life successfully avoiding becoming a parent, but to his credit he was persistent. He explained that neither colour, creed nor sexual orientation were any longer barriers to joining the scout movement. Apparently however, atheism is still a taboo too far. We discussed ways to avoid the subject on application but they all relied on me denying my faith. My faith being that faith is a crock of poo. I assumed that we were at an impasse, but only time will tell if I have managed to avoid the thing altogether. In timely fashion, the ferry arrived and he had to rush off to meet a man about a minibus. Vast numbers of foot passengers emerged from the ship and I found myself with another full compliment. No laps this time, though, but it was nearly an hour before I had set them all down and managed to get myself home, by which time it was gone seven o’clock.

The power was still out at the North end. One of my neighbours phoned to let me know that her gas stove was available if I needed to use it. I thanked her but explained that I had got it into my head that I was going to set up the camping stove and do a big fry-up. If she was to hear an explosion though, I asked that she bring over a bucket of water over to put the fire out. First though, I was positively dying for a cup of tea, so the first thing on the burner was the kettle. Half an hour later, it still wasn’t boiling. Dinner was getting later and later. Good things come to those that wait and soon the pan was on and I left it to get started on the veggie sausages and tatties while I enjoyed my first ‘Tetley’ moment of the day. Bliss. The eggs went in about eight, I did mention it was somewhat pedestrian, and I was soon serving the ensemble on a couple of mouldy crusts of bread with the green bits picked out while sitting in front of the TV, a big TV with a big blank screen, to the accompanying sound of absolutely nothing at all. All alone and in the dark. 

After such a glorious repast, I thought about going to bed, but concluded that it was probably not a good idea on a full stomach. Instead I went out for a stroll along the beach. The sea was very noisy in the stillness and so I had assumed by the cacophony that the tide was in. When I reached the top of the dunes though, I couldn’t see the sea at all through the fog. I headed straight out across the sand until I reached the water’s edge. I turned around and the dunes had disappeared. This really was thick stuff so I felt that I was in good company. I headed Westward toward Newark, a narrow vista emerging before me, the one behind me being consumed. I have no idea what cataracts are like (yet), but I imagined that the effect might be somewhat akin. I walked until I found an expanse of ‘tangles’ blocking further progress so I turned around and headed back. I had to follow my own footsteps back but somehow still managed to miss my exit. Consequently, I went on until I could make my way up through the gap opposite the old Sellibister school house, some quarter of a mile further, to reach the relative security of the road. I needed a torch now to find my way in the gloom. It was eerily still. Occasionally I would shine the torch across the fields and find eyes, illuminated, staring back at me, though it was impossible to make out the creature to whom they belonged.  

At the shed, I needed to light some candles as there was still no power. I clicked my heels together and said “There’s no place like home” three times but apparently this was as good as it gets for me.
                                         
                                                                                               Andy
                                                                                               26/7/2013

Friday, 5 July 2013

What happens 'off Sanday', stays 'off Sanday'

I woke up in the house that I was born in. However much time I spend away from it, or how much money I lay out setting roots somewhere else, it’ll never be a home like this one. I forget sometimes that it’s just a place. It’s the people in it that make it. Secure, I slept like a log. The screaming headache that accrued during the journey was gone. What would Gail say when I tell her that I cannot face the trip back North? That would be a job for a man far braver than I.

The departure day had come. I was heading back into town anyway, so why not make a day of it. Thirty five years ago, my friend and I would go to Las Vegas, that’s the one on Wardour Street and not that trashy place stateside, to play arcade games like No Man’s Land, Galaxian, Joust and Defender. He’d driven up from Fareham especially to relive those halcyon days. Reunited, we rode the Metropolitan Line to Baker Street and hopped on a connection to Monument on the Circle. Pour quoi? I hear you ask. Well one can hardly defeat evil invaders on an empty stomach, can one? We wandered over London Bridge and made our way to Borough Market. It was an assault upon the senses. A world of cuisine lay at our feet and though it may disappoint you, I had already promised myself a Thuringer Bratwurst with Sauerkraut, ketchup and German mustard from the German Deli. The Lemon and almond polenta cake from the Comptoir Gourmond stall was also truly dee-lish! It was just as well, because it compensated for the horror of finding that, back in the West End, Las Vegas had become a refuge for gamblers. The only concession to gamers was a single rank of four driving simulators. Aggrieved, we sought solace on Oxford Street. Dave was also in town for a bit of retail therapy. At fifteen we didn’t have any money for shopping. I still hadn't any. At least it is free to look in the ‘Ferrari’ store on Regent Street, ‘Yellow Korner’ on S. Molton St., ‘The Vintage Magazine Shop’ on Brewer St. and ‘Play Lounge’ on Beak St. I did buy a 'Road Kill' toy in the last in an attempt to get used to the sight of squished bunnies. I might even try to get it on expenses as a training aid!

As my carriage didn’t leave Victoria until midnight, I rode the tube back out to Uxbridge with Dave and picked up my luggage that we’d left in the boot of his car. He told me that he envied my forthcoming adventure. I told him to get his head checked as he’d clearly bumped it on something. Back in Victoria, the departure gate for the Megabus was absolutely heaving and I spent the following twelve hours crammed on a bus. I watched the sun come up which was a meagre consolation. It was lunchtime when we arrived in Aberdeen and I had a table booked at Pizza Express. With a full and happy tummy, I then cruised Union Street and bought a few things in Lush for Gail before making my way to the harbour. Another calm crossing dumped me outside Kirkwall at eleven at night. It was just beginning to get a little ‘dusky’. I made my way to ’The Peedie Hostel’ and made myself at home. I was back in Orkney. I WAS home.

Back at the shed, it was time to address the soak-away issue. The sink and washing machine hadn’t been draining properly for weeks, so I dug it up. I must admit that I had expected to find a tank of some sort, not just a dozen broken rocks, completely fouled with sand and mud. Now I admit that I am a complete cock when it comes to all things DIY, but I would never have condoned that patently insufficient waste solution. The system that I’ve cobbled together isn’t going to win any ‘Good Household Award’ either, but a ‘Driller-Killer’ed bucket in a bed of gravel should at least last us for a time. While hardly the sort of genius that brought Apollo thirteen home safely, I must confess to a certain amount of pride at my inventiveness and industry. Just enough self-satisfaction with a job well done to mean that it was alright for me to put my feet up and bask in it for about a week.

Summer was coming and it was time once more to play tourist and visit another of the islands attractions. On the road to Stove, a track leads off up the side of a hill to a field at the summit. There are no signs, but a trodden path leads to a gap in a fence and a scree slope leads down to another beautiful sandy beach at Doun Helzie. The Southern end of the beach is bounded by rugged cliffs with caves and even an arch. The passage under the arch is even long enough to have a window in it. The only problem is that it suffers with the common problem of marine detritus. There is an annual ‘Bag the Bruck’ event where teams of volunteers fill sacks full of beach-combed trash. It reinforces the notion of leaving places in a tidier state than you found them. As well as picking up a couple of plastic bottles and a crisp packet, I came away with a large, orange bouy and a basket that both still had plenty of life left in them. A successful scavenge topped off a great time at the seaside.

It's safe to come out now. That one's full.
Later the same day, we had another unidentified visitor to the estate. At first glance it was some sort of brown, vicious-looking gull on the far side of the 'garden' ripping up the corpse of one of those troublesome bunnies. Turned out to be a Great Skua, what the locals call a “Bonxie”. Another species ticked on the list.


Another work day: What could possibly be wrong with the bus this week? It was the turn of the alternator to pack up this time. I was advised by Kelly to avoid using the electrics if at all possible. I do enjoy a challenge. After pointing out that she had the heater turned on for no other reason that it made all the switches point the same way, I took it upon myself to attempt the fifteen miles from Loth to Sellibister without indicators or brakes. If it wasn’t for meeting a tractor and needing to dive into a ‘passing point’ I’d have made it, too. (I succeeded in the afternoon run and hasten to point out that both journeys were empty runs). It did go in for repair that evening. It's not like we’re sadists.

It was inevitable that it would happen to us one day. We were in Kirkwall for a shopping trip and it turned out to be quite an expensive one. Having inadvertently spent too long at Tesco, caused by a necessity to return for a couple of ‘Grow Bags’ urgently required for half a dozen tomato plants that have been busy outgrowing their pots, we were unable to make it back to the pier before our boat sailed off without us. Having enjoyed a night at Peedie Hostel just recently, I left Gail with all the shopping bags and went to see if they had a room to spare for us. They did, as luck would have it. We crammed all the food in their fridge and shoved the rest of the shopping under the bunk-beds. Then we had to go back to Tesco to buy a change of clothes, emergency toothbrushes and paste.  Part of me suspected that Gail had planned this all along as she was quick to point out that Iron Man 3 was showing at the Pickaquoy. Even though it was a 3D showing, we decided to give it a go and a very decent film was not ruined by having to wear stupid glasses just to achieve a clear 2D perspective with my one good eye. Despite the worry that Smokey might be a bit lonely, the hostel is wholly conducive to a good sleep. We made sure that we gave ourselves much more than sufficient time to make it to the pier to catch to boat to Loth, where Hippocrates had had to spend a lonely night. Bless ‘im. It turns out that we’d left our ‘meal-deal’ in the fridge at the hostel. I emailed them and from their account, the medley of vegetables, spinach and ricotta parcels and the strawberry cheesecake went down an absolute treat. Well, they had saved us from a night in a box in the doorway of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill!


....and he was never seen again!
On a particularly still day, it finally occurred to me to haul at least one of the kayaks out of the shed, where our resident house-martins had been dumping on them for the last year and a half. Wet-suit donned, I towed my Dagger Charleston 15 down the garden, over the road and the dunes and down onto the beach. Having washed the guano off of it, it was into the water for a nice paddle. With Gail’s stern warning not to go too far ringing in my ears, I paddled out to the edge of bay of Lopness and traversed from Newark to the South and Lopness to the North. It is a wide bay of about two miles so it was a good place to start. Slightly more adventurous trips will follow. Should the necessary permissions from ‘she who must be obeyed’ be forthcoming, of course! 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Home and away

Who would have thought that turning fifty years of age could have such a profound and instantaneous effect? My IQ dropped overnight, I’m sure of it. I had a nightmare driving the bus. It all went swimmingly in the morning. Even when one of my passengers had to cancel when I was less than half a mile from her door, it wasn’t a problem. I dealt with my change of plan with youthful spontaneity, calculated the effect of it on my proposed scheduling and skipped straight to my next pick up. It all went a bit pants in the afternoon.

Mr Gumby. (Be thankful that it's not my Mr April!!!)
With fuel supply being a major problem on the island, the route that you intend to take should always be planned accordingly. Unless, that is, you find yourself in the position that your passengers are directors of the company. When it is they who decide who gets dropped off first, I become a passenger in my own adventure. One of them lives in Burness, at the top end of the island, near where Kelly lives and where, common sense suggests, it would be sensible to end the route in order to let the good lady have her bus back at the end of the day. Instead, contrary to my intention, we headed immediately to ‘the sunshine state’, where I dropped him off, helping him to unload his shopping and then departed to my next destination. I was a few miles down the road before it occurred to me that, in my fluster, I’d forgotten to scan his concession card. Another director lives at Lettan, at the North end of the island, up in my neck of the hypothetical woods. I remembered to scan her card properly, even if the lady hadn’t already witnessed my earlier faux pas and taken a lead in the process. So then I had to drive all the way back to Burness, waving forlornly at my own property on the way past, to the first director’s house to ask if I could swipe his card, before dropping the bus off. That was when I realised that I had forgotten to bring my car keys with me. Kelly had to drive me back home to the North end and take me back a third time to Burness to get ‘Hippocrates’, my poor, little, blue Skoda. Kelly’s husband, Mike, dropped his broad Orcadian accent to give me a very convincing Cockney “You muppet!” Kelly, meanwhile, welcomed me to ‘C.R.A.F.T.’: Can’t Remember A Flippin’ Thing. That is my life from now on.

My enthusiasm for expanding my knowledge of a war that is nearly a hundred years old, but one
"He's just some guy, y'know."
which continues to steer my politics and ideology, shows no sign of abating. The latest step in the adventure has led me to Ernst Toller, courtesy of Richard Dove’s book entitled “He was a German”. It has made me more determined than ever not to allow my personal beliefs to be affected by politics. Here, however, was a man of such charisma that others looked to him to lead them in a Socialist revolution in the face of a rising tide of Fascism. This forced him to compromise his pacifist beliefs in order to protect those with whom he sympathized. I have no truck with the concept of ‘democratic pacifism’ as, to me, the two are mutually exclusive. Pacifism is an individual value, whereas my faith in collective humanity is somewhat tenuous. I can understand that many people need to feel included, whether it is by a bond of colour, creed or the misguided belief that they share the same specific ideology. However, no two people are exactly alike and their aspirational goalposts are continually going to change. Therefore, it is anathema to me that any social group can succeed in the long term. Indeed there are all too many examples in democracy where the careful manipulation of a common anxiety can allow some pretty unsavoury characters to gain short-term popular support and go on to pervert history. This is why I maintain that I am an anarchist, although it is a term with negative connotations. But I am convinced that, deep down, most people are, as they cherry-pick the individual values of each manifesto which appeals to them, ignoring or protesting against those that do not.

Have I already stated my case for a new camera?
My trip down Sooth for mum’s birthday was an adventure. Not one that I’m planning to suffer again in the near future but an education none the less for that. It started as a passenger on the Sanday Bus. With both Kelly and me being otherwise engaged, a director of the Community Interest Company had to cover for us. There’s nothing quite like being driven around by the boss. The employee discount is a hoot, too. The journey began at about 5:45pm on Friday evening, and by ten past six, my first boat left Loth pier for Kirkwall. By 7:30 I was strolling down Kirkwall pier, wondering what to do with myself for the next four hours before my second crossing of the waves departed from a couple of miles down the road at Hatston. Being miserly, or ‘poor’ as I prefer to call it, and socially awkward, or ‘freak’ as I prefer to call it, frequenting one of the pubs or eateries in the neighbourhood as any normal person would is out of the question. Instead, a meander through the aisles of Tesco beckoned, followed by a picnic of roasted pepper humus on hand-ripped baguette washed down with cloudy lemonade on a park bench overlooking the Peedie Sea as the sun set over the cathedral. Peaceful and beautiful though it was, the temperature had begun to plummet. By now the Northlink ferry terminal building was open so I set off on foot for the great indoors.

An Aberdeen skyline taken from Union Terrace.
The Hjaltland arrived from Lerwick shortly after eleven and after a bit of faffing around, vehicles and passengers for Aberdeen were allowed to board. Having arranged neither a cabin nor a reclining chair for myself, like many others headed to the bar to find a space to doss around in for the next seven hours it took to cross the Pentland Firth. There are lots of couches but as they are divided with hard and uncomfortable arm-rests every three feet or so, you couldn’t lie on them. Maybe Warwick Davies could, but he wasn’t, to my knowledge, joining us this evening. A young woman spent about twenty minutes pumping up a double inflatable mattress with a foot-pump, much to the entertainment of fellow travellers, only to then be told by a steward, as she settled down on it for the night, that it was blocking an emergency assembly area and she had to let it down again. A monotonous night passed, the calm waters being the only blessing. At around seven in the morning, we finally docked in the ‘granite city’. I won’t try to describe Aberdeen as my visit was so brief that I don’t think that it would be fair. First impressions were positive though. I strolled out of the dock and made my way to the bus depot. I immediately spotted a National Express coach pull out with only one passenger on it. That would be cool, I thought. I had quite a bit of time before the Megabus to ‘the Sooth’ (or “Englandshire” as Kelly calls it) was due to leave, so I wandered the indoor shopping mall and adjoining train station for a while. Meanwhile, a crowd gathered at the departure gate. No prizes for guessing which one. A huge, blue, double-decker leviathan turned up and we all squeezed into it. The next twelve and a half hours were unpleasant, so if you’re thinking of it, go away and think some more until you see sense.

Seventy minutes to midnight, the remaining passengers were disgorged at Victoria. I went down to the tube and bought a ticket to Uxbridge. I found myself standing, not because I had to, just as it was a relief not to be sitting. I’d had more than enough of that, thank you. Past Ealing and Alperton and then it was on to the old Metropolitan line stations I remembered from my dim and distant youth. However much my hometown had had a facelift, the reassuring landmarks were still there: the colonnaded market, the ‘Three Tuns’ and Randall’s. I walked past my alma mater too, but there was not much joy at seeing that particular edifice. It was after midnight by the time I knocked on mum’s front door and set Hannah barking. It was Sunday now, her birthday. A hug, a kiss and a hope that she liked the picture I’d carried seven hundred miles for her.

I am so needy.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Where there's muck, there's ........ a bit of a pong!


I don’t know what comes over me some times. Easter Monday was still a refuse collection day so I had to get up at half past seven to take some bags down to the gate. Ordinarily, the observation of any supernatural festival would have made a return to bed perfectly acceptable behaviour. However, for some bizarre reason I thought that I could do some more work in the garden instead. I managed a good few hours clearing soil out for a big, deep potato bed before breaking for tea. Then, lo and behold, it turned into another still and sunny day. I’d had my share of digging, shovelling and pushing wheelbarrows by then, so I took the bike out for a ride around the North end of the island. I was keen to check out what Start Point looked like at high water, to see how cut off the island actually gets. Pretty much I’d say as I watched seals shooting through the shallow waves of the narrows. It was hypnotic viewing. They were having barrels of fun.

No getting to the lighthouse now. (Maybe later)
Oh! No! Golf season has started again. It was a struggle deciding whether or not to re-join this year given that, as an islander these days, I would have to pay the full green fee. But it all comes down to supporting local clubs and facilities, so even though I am a menace to health and safety and I need to carry an abacus to keep count of all my shots, it is a must. I had a good excuse for missing the first Tuesday round as I had to ride to Burness to pick up the Sanday Bus but I resorted to a poor excuse for missing this week. I had walked to the course early in the afternoon to pick up a club and some practice balls so that I could work on my swing at home. While I was there I promised myself that if I could get a par on the short third hole then I would return later and play for real. However, I teed off and the ball went flying away at an impossibly oblique angle to disappear down a vicious slope and ending up closer to second green. I assume that that’s where it ended up, because I never found it again. It certainly wasn’t within a country mile of the third green I was aiming at. Having made my decision, I stayed around and played three more holes, scoring reasonably for me. After that and the walk home my feet ached. It was time to break out the foot spa and call it a day.
Smokey returns after being 'out of bounds'

Get that shit off my wall!!
 It’s all change down ‘Sooth’ at the house we can’t afford to live in. We’ve kicked out the old tenant because she bolted a Murdoch dish on the front of the house and kicked out the letting agent for telling her that we’d agreed to let her bolt a Murdoch dish on the front of our house. Instead we’ve found someone else to rent it from us and we won’t have to pay some lying dolts for doing squat. We signed a new tenancy agreement and then had to go to the Post Office to send it to the new tenant. This involved driving about five miles into Kettletoft. Alas! We didn’t check the opening times before we left and it was shut until the afternoon. Now Kettletoft might be the commercial heartbeat of the island, but that’s not to say it bustles in any way, shape or form. The petrol pump has been redundant for longer than I have. The recycling shop is only open for two days a week and this wasn’t one of them. One hotel/bar has closed down and the pier doesn’t get any ferry traffic these days since they built the one at Loth. That leaves a grocers shop and the Kettletoft Hotel and bar. We had three hours to spend in a high street that is the antithesis of Oxford Street. It’s just not possible. We wracked our brains for something to do and recalled that last year we’d walked to Backaskaill bay from there so we decided to try it again. We had been encouraged last time by a sign. We should, on reflection, have been asking ourselves why the sign has since been removed.


The winter storms had kicked merry hell out of the narrow strip of ‘footpath’ between the field wall and the sea. It made the walk to the beach more of a yomp. Fortunately, the conditions had kept the flora pretty stunted so we could trust where we were putting our feet. Twenty minutes later we were leaving footprints on the sand. Other than the gulls, sanderlings and oystercatchers, ours were the ONLY prints on the sand. Over a mile of golden beach washed with by a gentle, minty-green sea and all for us. The other side of the bay is bounded by twenty foot high cliffs, which, as an old geologist, I decided that I’d like to investigate. It’s not the Jurassic Coast and for a guy who is in love with Lulworth Cove, it was never going to blow my socks off. But there is some well-defined stratification and coastal erosion had sculpted shallow caves and made little windows though the outcroppings.  There were even some fantastic folds and fault line fractures in the faces. It turned out to be a pretty interesting place and left me feeling, not for the first time nor the last, that I screwed up when I didn’t take my alma mater up on their offer to let me study to ‘A’level  at the grammar school up the road all those years ago. Who cares? They’re just stones. Right? We made our way back to Kettletoft, sent our package, had some food and a drink in the pub and bought some groceries. That, dear friends, is as exciting as retail therapy gets around here!

There isn't enough Polyfilla in all Christendom to fix that hole.

Back in the garden, I’ve (finally) dug about half of the foundation area to a depth of three breeze-blocks, fished out all the lumpy bits and shipped about half of what was left well out of the way. I ran a roller over my new surface and called Richard next door to ask him for a trailer full of muck. The calm of the following morning was broken by the sound of his tractor rumbling down the garden. My first thought was how he’d made getting through the gate look so easy when I have trouble getting a transit through it? Then it was down to business. Richard reversed the trailer to the edge of the pit and tipped it. There was a good mix of consistency. Some of it was well rotted, had worms in it and everything. Some was not and, consequently, didn’t. The latter ate my wellingtons and tried to suck them off my feet. It also stunk to high heaven. That should do the trick. We agreed that one load wasn’t going to be enough, so he said he’d be back tomorrow with another lot. I spent the rest of the day spreading it out and mixing a little sandy soil to break it up a bit. Then a bit more sandy soil on the fresher stuff before it got its appetite back.
Snow stops play. For an hour or so at least.

True to his word, bright and early next morning he swung his tractor and trailer in through the gate, missing the posts by a country mile. Flash git. I’d cleared a different access place for him to tip. The downside was that this time it was at ground level and, sure enough, the trailer ended up falling in. The problem started when the door hadn’t swung open and as a consequence all the contents were jammed up against it. Richard put his tractor in gear and rocked it back and forth to dislodge it however every rocking motion moved the trailer closer to the precipice. I tried to warn him but, too late. Now, jammed to the bottom, the muck not only didn’t want to come out but also had nowhere to go. I jumped in and started shovelling the contents out so the trailer wasn’t too heavy for the tractor to pull back out again. We got there eventually. The only other setback was when the tipper wouldn’t come back down. It wouldn’t have prevented him from towing it back, but the aerodynamics had been ruined. Apparently, the hydraulics were blocked so, when hitting it with a bar didn’t help, we bled all the fluid and watched it inch down as the resistance oozed from the hose. We threw copious amounts of sand on it, not that there’s any shortage here, to mop it up. Richard’s trailer gets ‘borrowed’ a lot for mounting a bovine watering station and spends months and months standing out in all weathers doing sod all. It is no surprise when it refuses to play ball when called upon to exercise its versatility. Fed up with the inconvenience, this year he is making a bowser, a word I’d never heard before in my life until that very morning while I was watching the Grand Prix qualifying when Mark Webber ran out of fuel because Red Bull reckoned that theirs was broken.  I thought it was another Orcadian word that I would have to learn, but it’s not. Its origins, by all accounts, are antipodean. I STILL don’t know what one is! 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Here comes the summer. Allegedly.


                Mid-March saw the first gathering of the old Sanday Fiddle Club, now with the more inclusive nomenclature of Sanday Sounds, with an agenda to encourage more musicians to attend. Not that I consider myself to have any ability at all, but Kelly was taking her axe and asked me to back her up, so I did despite my reservations.  I had planned to tag along with my acoustic bass but with the nasty weather I thought it best to go with the full electric Squier precision as I had a bag for it. It turned out that the decision had another and unforeseen benefit. The trouble with acoustic instruments is they are designed to boost the sound, which in this case, with a room packed with extremely competent violinists, a cellist, two flutists, a folk guitarist and Tony on the electric piano, would have been a complete disaster. Quite innocently I was in a position to be able to turn the amplifier down to 1 so that no-one could hear how bad I was playing. I think I got away with it. It didn’t help that I couldn’t understand the sheet music. Everybody else seemed to be doing all right with it so I can only assume that I was the only one in the room who just so happened to have a copy in a foreign language. Still, now I’m home and with the closest neighbours being at least half a kilometre away, I can practice a little bit before the next examination of my amateurism. I did also join in on the alto bits of the choral part of the evening, even though I had promised myself, Gail and the others that I wouldn’t, which actually turned out to be pretty cool.

You never know what you'll bump into swimming in the bay.
                A disaster, of sorts, is looming on the exercise front in the coming days. I have mentioned before that the weather has been ‘adverse’, being either: wet, cold or windy or indeed combinations of the aforementioned. The sea temperature has even the local fishermen concerned, so the likelihood of getting me to take a dip in the briny is most definitely a non-starter. The only opportunity we have to swim is at the pool and a growing number of islanders have been joining us of late. But during the Easter holidays, the pool is closing while the school has a new ground source heating system installed. Three Fridays in a row with no dip in the pool. Even worse than that, I’ll have to use our own shower for ablutions. Damn and blast.

Despite the chill, I’ve started some plantings indoors. Last year’s chili plants have almost all died, primarily due to the cold in the house. Now only one pot remains. I’ve planted a propagator tray of leeks, some dwarf French beans and a couple of pots with Brussels sprouts. All are showing encouraging signs, but I am running out of windowsill and plenty of the packets of seeds remain unopened.  I’ll have to think about kicking off the potatoes soon, but with no break in the frosty mornings until well in to April, I don’t want to expose them to the elements until I can be fairly certain that they’ll have a chance out in the field.

Wednesday was an absolutely stonking day weather wise. Uncharacteristically, I’d risen with the larks and gone out to do some digging. There was a ground frost but there was wall-to-wall blue sky and the sun was doing its utmost to lift the chill. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to get over losing all feeling in my fingers and I worked through my discomfort. When Gail eventually woke up, around lunchtime, she made cups of tea and coffee and we sat outside to drink them, Gail on a camping chair and me on my favourite pallet. Protected from what little there was of a Northerly breeze, actually a pleasant change from the Southerlies that we’d had earlier in the week, thank you, it got really balmy. We sat there, working on our tans, for at least an hour. Even Smokey joined us, often having to scamper behind Gail’s chair for some shade when she got overheated in her black fur coat. When we went back inside to wash the cups, we glanced over at the laptop which has a window for the temperature in Kirkwall and it read 4 degrees. I went back to work in the garden and when a few clouds developed in the afternoon, you could feel the drop in temperature immediately they obscured the sun. And as it got lower in the Western sky it certainly didn’t quite pack the punch it had earlier and I ran inside to dip my hands into some hot water until the feeling came back.
The Long man of Lopness. 

That evening there was a meeting of the local RNLI fundraising committee and the island’s resident ranger, Rod and his wife Sylvia, were giving a presentation about their recent Pacific adventure tour. Rod started the evening with a cautionary tale about the dangers of accepting an invitation to see someone else’s holiday slides and I was reminded of Rimmer in Red Dwarf and his collection of photographs of twentieth century telegraph poles or of his account of his ten day hike through the diesel decks to see the ship’s combustion engines. It turned out to be nowhere near as synapse-melting as all that. They spoke about the four days that they spent on Easter Island and their descriptions and pictures of the colossal statues, or moai, were genuinely fascinating. As someone who is usually uninterested with human cultures, one way or another it all just descends into politics, to see what the Rapa Nui achieved on their island without the huge whips of the Egyptians is rather amazing. As usual, part of their history involves being ‘discovered’ by different European superpowers of the time and the requisite murder, exploitation and the inevitable exposure to diseases that followed.

At the end of the evening, we drove home in a devilish sleet/hail storm that belied just how much of a wonderfully sunny day it had been just hours earlier.

The weekend started calm and clear. It was still chilly, but glorious. The wind turbine was still and, as per usual, I start whinging about having to pay for electricity. It helped that it was the Easter weekend as it was easier to make up an excuse to have lunch down the pub in Kettletoft. We could also attribute our decadence to fact-finding in lieu of receiving visitors later in the Summer. The Orkney burger there was gorgeous, the chips divine, but there were shortages which meant that Gail could not enjoy the vegetarian burger. Not that she was at all disappointed with her brie and cranberry toastie. We felt obliged, in the interest of thoroughness, to try the desserts as well. Gail wolfed her chocolate fudge cake down before I’d even picked up my spoon to effect an only slightly more pedestrian demolition of my bread and butter pudding. When we weren’t stuffing our faces, we spent our time observing a pair of young seals in the harbour directly outside the window.

Here's one of Kettletoft pier that Gail took earlier.
When we left the pub, we strolled to the end of the pier, trying not to disturb a couple of seagulls and a gannet perched on it. The water below was crystal clear. As we walked back along the pier, one of the seals swam over to investigate. His head appeared in the water barely five yards away. It was fantastic to be able to see its tail flicking from side to side beneath it and when it swam away we were able to see how it glided beneath the surface. It skulked off into the little, narrow harbour, going right up to the edge of the slipway and then part way back to the stern of a fishing boat. We could clearly hear its exhalation and spot the ripples where it broke the surface. I rushed to the edge of the narrow entrance in the hope of seeing it make its way back out into open water, but it was so quick that I only saw when it was already twenty yards out. It must have known what I was up to and cruised past very close to the wall that I was standing on, where the shadows obscured the view. I couldn’t help wishing that I had a tin of pilchards in my pocket. Hand feeding the little critter would certainly have topped off the experience and even if I’d have lost a couple of fingers in doing it then it would still have been worth it. Frustratingly, we’ve fallen out of the habit of taking a camera with us. We are no longer the tourists that we used to be.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The boy who lost a bus


                Whoops! Hello there. It certainly has been a while. Rumours of my demise have been grossly exaggerated. I'll have no truck with the wishful thinking of others.

"It's eating everything in it's path!" Grass is insidious stuff.
                I’ve been busying myself in the garden recently. The untamed machair grass has embedded itself everywhere and the lack of vegetable gardening for a number of years has necessitated some pretty heavyweight digging. A big ask for a guy who, arguably, has never done a hard day’s work in his life. I’ve made a slow start in the ‘new house that was never built’ foundation area. It is enclosed to a depth of four breeze-blocks, but the water table kicks in after just two and a half. Below that is saturated sand. Of course, at the edge there are considerable amounts of hardcore to deal with too. While Andy insists that his rotavator can chew its way through just about anything, I don’t want to be responsible when it meets with some of the huge chunks of breeze-block or pre-Cambrian basalt that are lurking about. I can only foresee one victor in that confrontation and even if I am mistaken I can honestly see it being an expensive and ultimately rather Pyrrhic one. I am currently about half way across the house footprint. A trailer full of manure awaits.

                I had a scare with the bus one Sunday last month. Kelly had taken four days off and went to Kirkwall for the weekend. This meant that I had to do the dreaded ‘school runs’. On Friday evening, all the students come home and then on Sunday evening they all go back again. That generally ensures that our passenger allowance is stretched to its fullest. The bus always gets dirty pretty quickly, so I made sure that I had a few hours set aside on Sunday afternoon to wash and valet it. Alas! I wasn’t aware that it was booked in for some garage work on Saturday, so soon after I got back on that morning, the mechanic arrived to take it away. It didn’t arrive back until Sunday afternoon. I barely had enough time to hurriedly trot up the garden with a bucket of soapy water, my trusty sponge and non-leather chamois to wash all the crud off it. All it needed then was a rinse but I had to drive it up the garden and closer to the house to where the garden hose is. My mistake was not accounting for the complete lack of traction of tyres on the wet grass. I had gotten myself stuck, just minutes before the ‘kids’ were due to get picked up. Neither a snowy ascent of Mount Seymour nor a damp hill road in St Lucia could defeat me, but a slight incline in my own garden had bested me. I confess that I rather panicked, turning the air blue. As I considered telephoning our neighbour to pull us out with his tractor, a superhero in the form of Gail appeared and gave me the nudge that I needed and once I had a little bit of momentum going I concentrated on just not losing it until I reached the blessed tarmac. (I have since learned that there is a water hose at Loth Pier so no repeat of this debacle need ever happen again.) They managed to catch their ferry, but only just. It was chaos. There was not even time to print all their tickets off, so their fares just piled up on the front passenger seats as they alighted. I can only hope that the ticket machine tallied up at the end of the day. I must confess that I was, by then, way past caring. It was with a euphoric sense of relief that I handed Kelly back the keys. I swear I’ll never get the hang of this.

It's looking grim over Will's mother's. Or in this case, the neighbour's.

Ooh! Another dramatic sunset. Avec mist.
                There seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities to go exploring these days. I have still not ventured out and about to photograph the island as I have intended for many weeks now. Whenever there is a dry, calm and pleasant day, my attention is constantly being demanded elsewhere. The most either of us have managed of late is to wander outside to catch a particularly interesting sunset or sunrise.  If there is a break in the clouds though, you can pretty much guarantee there’ll be one every night.

                

Quite often you can't even see the houses, let alone
know what the hell they're called.
                Thanks to Orkney Library, I have been able to obtain a copy of Naggles o Piapittem by Gregor Lamb. This is like the Holy Grail of Sanday and I have no excuse for not finding my bus passengers these days. It’s a little out of date it must be said. There have been a number of new houses built since publication but what ages it most is that the most essential landmark on the island, Loth Pier, wasn’t even a twinkle in a developer’s eye, let alone the two miles of blacktop leading to it. But from it I’ve been able to scribble the place names onto my Ordnance Survey map for future reference. The book also contains information on derivations from Old Norse of many of the names. For example, the area around us is called Sellibister, which translates as Hall Farm, which in Norse was something like Salr Bol-staĆ°ir. I suggested to Gail that we change the house name again and repaint the sign. She didn’t give me a happy look. My favourite property name referenced in the book is Skitterha (Diarrhoea House). They don’t mince their words up here.

                To bring this epistle bang up to date, it’s time to relate the tale to which the title of the piece eludes. A phone call last week informed me that my work clothes were ready, a brand spangly new polo-shirt and a fleece, both embroidered with the Sanday Bus logo. They just needed picking up from Kirkwall. So despite a noisy, Easterly wind keeping me awake most of the night and then continuing into the morning, I got up early in order to catch the bus to Loth pier. When we arrived, Kelly told me that the bus was getting on the boat too as it was time for its MOT. She asked if I minded driving it on for her so that she could get home. The pier crew organised vehicles onto the good ship Earl Thorfinn, then turned their backs on me. I had to sound the horn to get their attention and let me on. They must be used to the bus being parked on the pier before driving off, but you’d have thought that the fact that it had been booked on might have suggested that today was different, if me sitting at the wheel with the engine running with the bus pointed at the ramp wasn’t enough of a clue. They belatedly waved me on and the ramp was raised behind me. Phew! That was close.

                The crossing to Kirkwall was a bit choppy. I simply stuck my head into a copy of Terry Pratchett’s “Light Fantastic” and listened to my i-pod on shuffle. Every now and then I’d chance a glance out of the starboard window. The view alternated between sea and sky and was distinctly blurred between each. Gail would have hated it. I loved it.

This post has about as many holes as my alibi! 
                When the ferries arrive in port, the vehicles are disembarked first, with foot passengers not allowed out through the car deck until it is all clear. With that in mind, although I hadn’t been asked, I thought that I ought to be prepared to drive the bus off at Kirkwall, so that my fellow passengers could get to dry land, even though someone from the garage was supposed to arrive to take it away. Nobody did. I had been parked up on the pier for at least five minutes and the Thorfinn moved from the jetty before someone turned up. If I’d left it on board, he’d have had a swim before his problems even began. I handed over the keys and went shopping. I picked up my new gear, got Gail some drugs (Olbas pastilles and double strength Gaviscon – y’know, all the really hard stuff), found a joke shop where I could get some plastic fangs for an islander who is making a monster glove puppet and dropped some books off at the library before hitting Didldidi and Tesco. When I made it back to the pier to catch the boat home, I dropped all my shopping in the waiting room and started looking around for the bus. It never came back. I retrieved my bags and boarded before stepping out onto the breezy, chilled deck to see if it had arrived at the last moment. It hadn’t. We set sail sans bus. I spent the whole journey concerned that I’d no longer have a job when I got back. I had no words of reassurance for those fellow islanders who were relying on the bus to get home, particularly those who like me live at the North end, about fifteen miles away from the pier. Fortunately plans were afoot to get us all home in private vehicles. Nobody was left stranded, which was very much appreciated. The bus, apparently, was now ready for collection. That is little comfort, given that it was supposed to have been delivered to the pier on time. My peers are assured that it'll be on the first boat tomorrow. And I still have a job. I think. 

                Well, nobody has asked for the clothing back!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Normal wear and tear


               The beginning of last week had us beating a track back and forth between home and the doctor’s surgery. I had already been in to take advantage of the NHS ‘Keep Well’ scheme and had a free check-up. Given my chronic fear of white coats and needles, I thought that was quite brave of me. Other than an annoying trend of putting back on most of the weight that I lost last winter, I was given a clean bill of health. This time it was Gail’s turn when she went in for a blood test. The results came back later that same day and our locum doctor was not pleased with them. He phoned up and said as much, asking Gail to haul herself back in to the surgery in the morning. She came home with yet another bag of pills. I find it incredible that that girl doesn’t rattle when she moves. Apparently she is so anaemic that I swear if she didn’t carry any spare change in her purse then she wouldn’t have any iron at all. Hopefully, a couple of supplements a day will do the trick as I dread to think how much the Guinness habit that she is keen to adopt instead would cost.

Going nowhere fast. The path of the good ship MV Tetuan.
                The weather was dreadfully pants. We didn’t actually think it was that bad as we still had a roof. It is true that a bit had flown off one of the outbuildings but the most frustrating aspects are that Easterlies blow the house name sign off its stand and Southerlies move the TV aerial so we can’t watch anything on the box. The clearest evidence that things were worse than we thought was the 6,000 tonne container ship wallowing around in the bay. I remembered the times that I used to spend interrogating the AIS maritime radar to watch the traffic weaving around each other in the Solent, so when we arrived home and got the hamster in our BT infinity box to start running around in his wheel, we logged on to find that the ship was the MV Tetuan. It is Liberian registered, but then again aren’t they all? I struggled out onto the dunes with Gail’s thirty times zoom camera to see if I could get a picture of it. 

MV Tetuan taking Orkney refuge.
It was an ordeal for two reasons. Firstly, even though it had looked pretty massive from the road half an hour earlier, it had moved off quite a way and together with the poor visibility rendered it nothing more than a faint mote on the horizon. Secondly, even crouching with my back to the wind, I was getting buffeted around so bad that keeping the ship in the viewfinder itself was a real challenge. I snapped the shutter a few times and just hoped that it would perhaps appear in one of them. I confess that you'll find better at: www.marinetraffic.com/ais/shipdetails. In fact, the gallery at the site has some amazing pictures of ships. It might just be a Teutonic thing, given that three of the four most popular viewing locations are the Kiel Canal, Hamburg and Cuxhaven, but I suspect it has a wider appeal than that really.

There's not supposed to be a door here!
                The seas got pretty wild. We could see white water in the North Ronaldsay Firth from the back of the house. Huge Atlantic rollers were coming in to break just off the headland and wash up the cobbles on the beach at Tofts Ness. The trouble with coastlines is that they aren’t fixed. We’d already had a situation where one of the only three major roads on the island was blocked by rocks and detritus. It was clear that there would need to be another clean-up operation after this little lot. As well as doing a little bit of rubbish clearance on the Bay of Lopness, I’d already started to throw back the stones that the previous storm had tossed up onto the top of the dunes. I am thankful that home lies a couple of hundred metres back from the sea. Others are not so lucky. Those finding themselves right on the front line get bombarded with all sorts. The high winds also ripped a big whole in our friend Andy’s polytunnel. He had been trapped overnight in Kirkwall due to his return sailing being cancelled and was in no position to do any more to prevent it. After all his investment in additional storm fencing around it, he was justifiably furious and got the manufacturers to send him a replacement cover for it.

                You also find that when home is only a couple of feet above sea level, it doesn’t drain very well. The notion that the foundations in the garden be turned into a big raised bed was beginning to look more and more unlikely as it began to resemble a swimming pool instead. Puddles formed and merged across the surface and when they eventually retreated, a few taps with the sole of a wellie caused liquefaction of the sand into a gloopy puddle again. It also wasn’t draining from the fishing crate raised beds either and what remained of my overwintering leeks were wilting. I had to pull them all up and blanch them. Well, not quite all of them. A good few made the shorter trip to our tummies instead. That leaves a handful of chili plants around the place, some looking decidedly unhealthy, and a few ropey cabbages dotted around the garden. The lines of spinach never appeared, or if they did the rabbits got to them before we did. Next year’s seeds are on order so we’ll get to see if I’ve learned anything from last year’s disappointing returns.

My latest mission has everything to do with www.geograph.org.uk . It is a site that aspires to have photographs taken of every square of the Ordnance Survey map. Needless to say, some areas of the country are more popular than others. I lost count of how many pictures of HMS Warrior there were. However, remote parts of the country, such as where I find myself these days, are much less well represented. I have taken it upon myself, therefore, to fill the gaps on the map. All the highlights on the island, the war memorial, the golf course and the big rock have already made it onto the site, but I’m after everything else that other residents and visitors have missed until now. If, perchance, you are interested in looking around the old place, I can heartily recommend that you check out the site.
  © Copyright Becky Williamson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
(I had to borrow somebody else's photo as I haven't been here yet!)

That’s about all I can think to write. Other than watching an exciting Superbowl, visiting the mobile library, (this month I will be mostly reading ‘The monster of Florence’ by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi), driving the bus and swimming in the pool, both regularly but infrequently and never at the same time, what with the cool temperature and the short days I have to confess that it’s all been rather boring. The lapwings haven’t started their courtship aerobatics yet and the ground is still a mucky grey/brown colour. It’s as if the whole island is just holding its breath. It may be a little premature, but I get the feeling that it is under the impression that Spring is on its way. I must confess that I have my doubts and will have for many weeks to come.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Let it snow (but not too much)


Another late posting. As Douglas Adams is quoted as saying: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” I may be rubbish, but at least I am in good company.

Hands off of our equines, Silvercrest!
As someone on a limited budget, I take full note of the cautionary tale of the contents of some ‘value’ burgers that made the news the other week. I would have thought that the retailers would be pleased that their patties had so much meat in them when you’d think that they’d be mostly rusk, testicles and whatnot. So despite what were probably the most healthy and appetizing morsels ever to be dressed in that packaging, tons of perfectly edible food was withdrawn from sale and tossed away. Burgers were thankfully not on the shopping list when we hit Lidl and Tesco in Kirkwall for a few essentials. Just in case anyone is under the impression that it’s all knitting patterns and farming weekly up here, we also dropped in on the library and I’m currently reading ‘The sound of things falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Well, there’s no ‘Dandy’ these days!

My limited means also prevented me from buying this year’s diary pages for my old Filofax while we were in town. Yes there was a shop that stocked them. This necessitated finding a free one online to download. I gave up in the end on account of me being a technophobic Luddite, however Gail found a pretty Chrysanth one. It’s sitting there on the laptop desktop, bright as a button, but I just can’t bring myself to open it up and write an entry in it. Meanwhile, my trusty Filofax is glaring at me from the shelf like I’ve betrayed it. Which, basically, is exactly what I’ve done.

Spotted during our archaeological field-walk. Whatever it is.
Sanday is absolutely peppered with archaeology. Some of it is big and bold like the Quoyness chambered cairn, but some of it is small and threatened by being erased from history by wind, tide, flora and fauna. The SCAPE trust aims to identify archaeological sites at risk from erosion and have a project to update its records by having field-walkers complete status report forms and lodge their findings and photographs online. It is also possible to register new sites that hadn’t been identified before. On Sunday, an islander who just so happens to be a field manager lead a small group of amateurs to explore half a dozen sites near Stove. We found two burial mounds, one with a navigation beacon built on it and the other robbed out, some kelp beds and plenty of other evidence of ancient occupation. Some of it is quite tenuous, like changes in soil colour and stones lying at jaunty, unnatural angles. It was cold and the terrain was hellish so I’m amazed that with all my gawping around at the scenery/evidence that I didn’t fall flat on my face in the mud.

I learned from Facebook pretty early on that much of the country had got quite a bit of snow over the following days. Everywhere, that is, but Peterborough, apparently. As is often the way, it caused quite a bit of disruption, closing airports and stuff, the infrastructure unprepared even though it happens every year. It always seems to be either too dry in summer, to wet in spring and autumn and shock horror it gets cold in winter. The Northern isles were not so affected. Up to that point, our little pond had only frozen over twice. Slowly, however, the snow marched relentlessly in our general direction and soon it was predicted to arrive.


Tuesday dawned chilly and calm. We planned a little drive to Kettletoft Post Office, then to Heilsa Fjold to avail ourselves of their wi-fi, a brief visit to Lady roadside shop for a few groceries before finally heading home. We trudged up the garden to the car and noticed the gritter/plough go past. We thought it rather superfluous as the road outside the gate was clear, without even a frost on it. I had no reservations about venturing out. A couple of miles up the road though, where we were away from the sea, around the Plain of Fidge, conditions changed. There was plenty of white stuff here and the bends were suspiciously treacherous. Lady was covered in snow and despite the plough, it sat on the road itself, an inch or two thick. Also, where most of the traffic had turned right at the war memorial, a high bank of snow lay across the route directly ahead. I often boast that my Skoda benefits from a rally heritage, and I was grateful that it did when it crashed through the pile and on over the less used way. 
Told you. Thanks Google Images.
This was interesting. As we got to the old harbour it thinned again but got even worse heading back into the middle of the island. Hot soup was the order of the day and I was keen to ask Kelly, the bus driver, how she had fared that morning as her Tuesday shopping route pulled in for a bite of lunch. Her neck of the ‘woods’ had been worst affected but by far her scariest moment had been ascending a steep road called ‘the branch’ almost sideways. The cars behind her had waited around the corner at the bottom just in case gravity had won and brought the transit sliding back down to meet them. It is a precipitous bit of tarmac that scares me on a good day, so I filed her account of the ordeal in the old grey cells for when I was to take the bus in a few days. When the current version of i-tunes had finished installing on the laptop, we left for home and found it as clear as it had been when we’d left. I don’t see what all the fuss is all about to be honest.

I was promised that it would all have thawed by Thursday. I went to bed on Wednesday night, with a hot water bottle admittedly, in good faith but just as I was wishing the sky a good night, I noticed that it was very bright outside. It had arrived and there was plenty of it. I hardly slept. A late booking already made my trip to the pier a hurried one and now that conditions had turned pants, I doubted it was even possible. The first pick-up of the morning was one of the bosses. He’d know if we were going to make it or not. When he had finished being amused by my reluctance to run over any bunnies he assured me that we’d make it in good time. I tore the length and breadth of the island and collected my last fare in Kettletoft just as the ferry was due to arrive. The trouble was that it was arriving at Loth, eight convoluted and treacherous miles away. There was no way we were going to make it before it had turned around. “They won’t leave without us.” Gareth insisted.
The boat that Andy nearly missed.

He was right. The last few trucks were being loaded as I swept down the last hill, swung through the car-park and hurtled toward the dock. “They don’t grit the pier!” my passengers exclaimed, just in time. In stark contrast to the preceding miles, I cautiously made my way to the bus stop at the pier’s end. Gareth had kindly managed the ticket machine for me so I could leap out, unload their luggage and wish a bon voyage to my customers. At 07:58, the 07:45 sailing departed for Kirkwall, a mere five minutes after I’d turned up at the scene. After such a stressful ordeal, and I do not presume to have been the only one on the bus who felt that way, I sat counting my lucky stars before a leisurely drive home, stopping often take pictures. My favourite, though, I didn’t stop for. I just aimed Gail’s Bloggie camera at the windscreen as I barrelled along ‘Fidge’.

A wise man tells me that this photo has 'album cover' written all over it.
In order to drive away the Winter chill and rather inspired by Italy Unpacked on BBC2, we checked out Rightmove overseas to check out property in warmer climes. All at once, our stiff joints and frostbitten appendages were forgotten as we recalled our holiday in Belaggio beside Lake Como. I have to face the truth that I am not man enough for the Northern Islands. I thought that I was bullet-proof, but I need to acknowledge that I am nothing more than a soft Sassenach. Without investment that we don’t have, the house will always be a hovel. Without a polytunnel, we will never be able to produce enough greens and our reluctance to keep livestock or even fish means that we’ve hamstrung ourselves with our own ideology. We are never going to be able to live ‘the good life’ with our delicate sensibilities, not to mention our darn-right laziness. Sorry. It got a bit melancholy just then. I’ll be alright again in a few months. If you thought that was miserable, you should have seen how forlorn I was last winter. In comparison, that was me being cheerful!