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the most healthy and appetizing morsels ever to be dressed in that packaging, tons of perfectly edible food was withdrawn from sale and tossed away.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!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Taking 'retirement' way too literally.

Well, that didn’t work. I made a resolution to write every second Friday, but I’ve messed that up already. Whether I can forgive myself and give it another chance in a fortnight we will see. At least all that festive season nonsense has now passed and the days are already getting longer, so spirits are on the up. Now where was I?

A consequence of attending the Sanday Development Trust AGM is that we are now members of said trust. There was a tiny monetary commitment, comprising a whole pound, which will disappear into the ether if the trust is ever wound up, but I think it’s worth the risk. The trust effectively runs the island, other than core services operated by Orkney Council, by committing grants and subsidies, not to mention quite a tidy sum from the small wind-farm at Spurness near Loth pier, to community based projects. For example, the croft and the heritage centre are run by the trust and their trading arm runs the bus service. I cannot imagine that there will be so much money in the kitty in the near future as austerity driven budget cuts kick in, but we’ll now have some small say in where it goes.

The old Spurness windfarm
© Copyright hayley green and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Within days, a cold bug took a holiday to visit us and it goes without saying that I thought I was dying. You know what boys are like. On my way back from a meeting about the bus service (the drivers were invited to attend so we did) I dropped in at the doctor’s surgery to see if they had a bottle of Night Nurse. No such luck. As there are no dispensing chemists on the island, I had to resort to half a sleeping tablet, dispensed by the missus, to help me to get to sleep. I woke up in the morning about an hour before my cold so I managed the morning drive to Loth pier before the symptoms returned. The afternoon run was like looking through beer-bottle spectacles, but my reading of the islands roads, even after dark, is coming on nicely. If it wasn’t for the animals, both wild and domesticated, roaming across them then it would be an absolute breeze.

Talking of breezes, a strong Southerly pushed Gail’s ‘Jodrell Bank’ TV aerial out of alignment. Neither of us fancied braving the elements, especially when a friend reminded us of Rod Hull’s untimely demise, so we settled down to some of our favourite DVDs. Gail kicked off the ‘Harry Potter’ season and put on Philosopher’s Stone while I cooked my signature dish haricot and olive bake for dinner. For those asking the question, yes it does take me two hours to prepare a meal. I have to make sure that I have all the clean utensils to hand, the myriad ingredients are weighed out into bowls, the oven’s to heat and that I have a list of all the expletives I know that I am guaranteed to have exhausted before it’s time to plate up. During dinner we watched episodes of Firefly.

The poor weather continued for a few days, prompting Kirkwall Grammar School to advise their students from the other islands that they start their weekend early as there was a real possibility that ferry sailings would be cancelled on Friday. Consequently, the Thursday afternoon bus run from the boat was positively heaving. Lucky skunks. With this increase in passenger numbers, this meant that I had to drive down a few roads that I had previously only seen on Google streetview. It wasn’t quite the same. It’s much easier to hang a ‘U’ on the laptop than it is in a twelve-seater Transit.

The road to Stove. The only way out is the same way you came in.
  © Copyright Rob Burke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
When it calmed down at the beginning of the next week, rather than doing any outdoor work, I took the bike out for a twenty three mile ride instead. I had never been to the very top of the island before, even in the car. There’s not much up there past the Angora shop, just fields with what you’d swear was a Roman road cutting between them. It was so remote that an opportunistic black-winged seagull started circling above me in the hope that I’d crash into a ditch and be carrion for him. At the end of the road is Whitemill Bay. A reasonably high dune gives a splendid view of North Ronaldsay and a fine sandy beach runs Westward and, the other way, heads around the corner to the South. A skerry, called ‘The Riv’ heads off straight out ahead and terminates at an outcropping about 1500m from the beach and on which a marker stands. The tide was in so there was only a tumult of colliding waves between the two, whereas the Ordnance Survey map suggests that, at low tide, a causeway is revealed that runs the full length.  I’m already planning to test the theory as soon as tide and season permits. I’ll take a big packed lunch in case I get stranded at the marker and have to sit out high water. If it’s going to happen to anyone then I fully expect it to be me. On the way back home, I stopped in at Heilsa Fjold for a warming soup and a cup of tea. A very welcome treat they were too.  I availed myself of their PC and posted on Facebook what I’d been up to, thus clueing Gail in on what I was up to. I must learn to be a little more discreet.

View from Whitemill Bay to the marker at the end of 'The Riv'

Winter is the ideal time to set up the raclette on the kitchen table. I think that spotting new ones for sale in Didldidi may have put the notion into our heads. A timely reminder it was too. Cue the writing of a shopping list comprising lots of fresh vegetables and a cheese that nobody stocks. In the circumstances Gouda and Edamer had to suffice. I also dug up a handful of leeks that I have left to overwinter in a raised bed in the garden. They may be small but they certainly pack a punch. It takes a while for the granite slab top to be warmed through from the grill elements below. By which time the shed is nice and warm all around. It must be said that, other than for a couple of mornings at the start, December has been quite mild, so I fully expect that it’ll be dragged out again early in the new year. Spring won’t reach us until June, so there’ll be plenty of opportunity.

Nosy neighbours. Came as a bit of a shock at the time.
You may have gathered by now that things have been pretty slow on the home improvement and gardening front. I must confess that other than cutting lengths of garden hose to make cloches at some time in the near future, continuing to make paper briquettes to burn on a fire we don’t even have and writing a shopping list of items required to put a ceiling up in the storeroom, things have been pedestrian to say the least. It doesn’t help that I’m a lazy git and nice days are at a premium, nor that there are a million and one things that I’d rather be doing when the conditions outside are conducive to more relaxing pursuits. The prospect of visitors in the summer, I hope, will be the catalyst for me to metamorphose into a whirling dervish in order to get things hospitable for our guests. For the moment I’ll continue to act like a complete tourist. At least the photographs will be more interesting, I hope, and I can maintain a certain mystique about my practical skills. So far, the number of people aware of the danger that I, armed with a hammer, pose to world peace are thankfully few in number. I don’t think that I need to compound my faux pas by providing evidence of my incompetence to a wider audience. So, with that in mind, when asked to repair a hole in the wall in the smallest room in the house, see if you can guess what I did.

Cata Sand through the grass

Yep! I grabbed the camera and went out for a ride. 

A ruin at Cleat and reflection. 

Happy 2013 to all my reader.