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.