Ulverston: A Photographic Record

A Sentimental Journey

Afternoon of October 1st 2015 (Sunny) and morning of October 2nd (misty)


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Two pictures of Lightburn Park. One with thanks to Ulverston Memories Facebook Page showing the park before I ever knew it. The modern one shows a park that has lost its flower beds, its bowling greens, its tennis courts, its putting green and its soul and loveliness. I don’t know if this is a result of budget cuts or someone’s (in authority) idea of improvements. (Put it back to how it was please).



The same view. 1987 of The Lower School and in 2015 of the housing that has replaced it.


Might not look much but this was a regular football and cricket pitch when we were younger.


Is there a more attractive main street in England?



Good Bye and Good Luck

Thank you to all who have read, commented, contributed and supported this blog. It has closed down before and there were reasons for its resurrection. It can now happily take its place in the past tense and rest easy. This really is the very last post. The blog will be taken down later this year. May yours’ continue and prosper.








Cornish Pasties and Shepherd’s Pies


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Mostly Concerning Food

It’s a while since I did one of these and a crop of tasty photographs have been building up in the abeyance file. This is pure self-indulgence and a letter of best wishes and tasty morsels to my children. This is what we’ve been eating at home in the last week or so. It had seemed a quiet, make-do-with-what-we’ve-got sort of a week but a recurring delight with these food blogs is to realise that life is actually rather good, and eating well is a mainstay of this. It constantly surprises me when I put these posts together that we’ve had more treats than I’d thought. Eating well is as easy and cheap as eating badly. Eating exceptionally well is exceptionally well covered in other blogs. My food interest is putting something tasty and well-cooked onto the everyday meal table. There was one special occasion during the week as we gathered to wish Steven a happy birthday but it was a birthday celebrated with Cornish pasties and  jam tarts rather than oysters and foie-gras.

It has been a week where meals have been made up at the last minute from what happened to be in the fridge, but, what happened to be in the fridge came from the Welbeck Farm Shop and some other decent suppliers rather than from the shelves of Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Aldi. The flour bin played a crucial role. There is no finer indication that I’m finding life enjoyable than if I’m baking and the happiest I am, as a baker, is doing my impression of a pastry chef. Here, as elsewhere I like to keep to old-fashioned and tasty rather than fancy. Shortcrust is my pastry of choice and the only variety here is between those pastries cooked for the family carnivores and those baked lovingly for the vegetarians.

Cooking is in large part nostalgia. The fact that a meal takes us back to childhood or to some happy occasion years ago (if the food was good the memory will be good) is enough to make the meal an enjoyable one. Our taste memory is apparently stronger and more accurate than our memories of sight and sound. Proust knew what he was doing when he introduced a million words of reminiscence through the taste of a little madeleine cake.

I’ll begin with the birthday.


When you’ve got people arriving, from different destinations, its a good idea to have a meal that can be ready when it is needed. When you want to sit and talk to people you like you don’t want to be in and out of the kitchen. Roast dinners are easy until the last ten minutes. Anything with a sauce keeps a cook on their toes. Pasties and salad rather look after themselves. The salad wants to be prepared so it is still very fresh but, so long as you don’t add the dressing, can sit and wait until everyone is ready. Once they are made pasties merely sit in the oven and then sit on people’s plates. It may not seem like a celebratory menu but a good pasty is a good pasty.

Trifle. Well, T makes a trifle I would cross continents to enjoy. The danger with this dish is everything ending up tasting the same. The key here is last minute preparation and a team effort. The cream has to be whipped just so and the skill involved in smashing up a Cadbury’s flake with a rolling pin is not to be under-estimated. As half the family goes into the kitchen to put the trifle together and talk about food, the other half stay around the table and catch up with the week’s news. I was a very late convert to puddings. This simple English, working-class pud is one of my very favourites.


The pasties crimped at the top are potato, cheese and onion made with all butter pastry with an egg  yolk incorporated and Cornish cruncher cheese. The pasties crimped to the side are traditional Cornish pasties with beef steak, onion, potato and swede  (and made with pastry incorporating lard), and the funny things on green rice paper are slightly over-cooked coconut macaroons. The accidental extra five minutes in the oven didn’t help appearance but did nothing to hurt the flavour or the texture when eaten the day after. Difficult to only have one!


My mother liked to add apple and orange to her tossed salad. The orange in this certainly helped to bring back memories of childhood to me. I may have lacked a sweet tooth as a boy but I was always fond of salad. I added a balsamic vinaigrette just before serving. It acted as a good foil to the pasties.


Welbeck ham and pastrami. The ham is flavoursome and well grained. I often cook a full ham myself and would claim my own to be a superior product, but there isn’t much in it and this saves a lot of work. I’ve never made pastrami and have often been disappointed with the stuff that goes by that names in supermarkets. This is the real deal; meaty, beefy, spicy and tasty.


This photograph makes me happy just to look at. The macaroons were crispy on the outside and moist and chewy in the middle. The Victoria sponge says “Happy Birthday” and “Welcome to Summer”. And jam tarts are the most under-rated treats. You cannot buy good jam tarts for the same reason that you cannot buy good scones. Namely; that they are past their best once they have been out of the oven for an hour. Commercial bakers have to rely on various preservatives and even then they are disappointing. Here is the perfect use for left over pastry. Always use good jam for these. Always use good jam full-stop!


I’ve never been a big fan of coleslaw in its bought form. Again it is a product that must be eaten fresh. Bought versions tend to slimy or bland or move dangerously close to a strange product called sandwich spread that Heinz sold in the seventies and maybe still do. Here I wanted a green and white look and mixed chopped (never grated) white cabbage, celery, green pepper, white onion  and Cornish cruncher cheese with mayonnaise. I was very happy with it. If all coleslaws were as crisp, tangy and tasty as this I would become a true supporter.


I made a lot of pasties; 3 lbs of flour went into the pastry. there were no pasties left the following day.


For the rest of the week there were just the two of us (if you discount Jolly, Stewart and Percy). Marriage is much-maligned as a state of being. To me it is my highest achievement and a continuous source of happiness. I read a lot. I read this this week in a book by Michael Dirda.

“But a fortunate marriage offers more than mere “tranquil affection.” It is, in essence, a civilisation of two, and its greatest joy is a conversation that goes on for decades.”

In our case, much of the conversation has taken place over the meal table. Candlelit suppers for two still have their place as do picnics on the banks on rivers in June. Shepherds’ pie with baked beans and a decent mug of tea also serves.


This is a relatively fancy shepherds’ pie with lots of mushrooms to supplement the mince and spiced with turmeric and ground cumin. The mash is a combination of desiree potato and butternut squash. A re-chauffered portion turned a few heads and drew envious comments (pleasantly and complimentarily envious) in the staff room next day.


Ah, the cheap cuts. It is so nice to have a decent butcher. He celebrates the unfashionable cuts of meat just as much as the prized joints. The fillet has its place. This week I’ve gone for the often despised and dis-regarded. This is a breast of lamb; roasted just as it comes with a little drizzle of oil, some sprigs of rosemary and some salt and pepper. Cook it slowly for an hour and then give it a blast for the last 30 minutes and you’ll have a real mid-week joy. Any chef will tell you that the majority of flavour of meat is in the fat.* The trick is in being able to cook it so the fat is either moistening the lean or crisp and crozzly. Here it is both.


It would be a rare week that I didn’t have at least one cooked breakfast. These can become meat feasts. This isn’t the healthiest but it isn’t the unhealthiest.


The breast of lamb cost around £2. I paid a similar amount for a decent size piece of belly pork. I cooked it on Friday evening when neither of us fancied a full dinner. (I stole a slice fresh from the oven and it was unbelievably nice). So we served it as a cold cut on Saturday. Maybe not quite as perfect as serving it hot, but a wonderfully flavoursome way to enjoy the various delightful textures of this meat.



Sunday breakfast comes from the book of literary meals. Ian Fleming fans will be aware that James Bond likes his food and that he likes well-cooked simple fare. He regularly breakfasts on scrambled eggs and bacon. This morning we did too. The eggs from Frances’s chickens continue to be peerless in freshness and flavour (and colour), the bacon is cooked to be as crispy as I can make it (almost crumbling) and the bread comes from the local Spar. I’m off to make dinner. I’ve got duck breasts in the fridge and some excellent English asparagus. I couldn’t decide whether to go with the duck or to follow a recipe I got given for an asparagus risotto. I rather fancy I may go with both.

Have a good week




Three meals eaten out. The top has already featured in my blog post on Tewkesbury but I like to be reminded of how much an ordinary ham sandwich can be boosted with the right mustard. These have Tewkesbury mustard which was popular for centuries and is undergoing something of a renaissance. (It is a mixture of English mustard and horseradish). It was served in a retro café in the town. The second is scrambled eggs on toast which was also served in a retro-café (this time in Bath). The third are bacon and sausage “cobs” served and wrapped in the Coop in Creswell. To describe the shop (or indeed the town) as retro would be both ironic and a paradox. They made for a “tasty” breakfast on the Robin Hood Line.


*For proof and explanation read McGee on Food and Cooking

Cambridge: A Photographic Record


Day Tripping

I visit towns to explore them, and what I discover creates a desire to write; to have some sort of a record of the place and what I know. I’ve been to towns that have allowed me to believe, easily, that I already know quite enough about them; too much in some cases. Cambridge isn’t one of these. I don’t think it would be possible to know too much about Cambridge. Every few years I feel the need to go there and just walk around. On Thursday I went to Cambridge to visit a friend; one who drew me back into acting and someone I hadn’t seen for far too long. I have no intention of writing about that meeting but I thought I’d share a few photographs of the city in term-time on a wet Thursday in May. It was a very good place to be.


Students’ bicycles: Christ’s Pieces


They are actually a very friendly bunch in Cambridge. Lots of smiles and very little profanity even when someone is pointing a camera at you.


Christ’s Pieces


This is a bookshop, not a library.


Master’s House. St John’s College


Holy Sepulchre


Punting on the Cam


Now that my friends is a gateway!


Yes it is 2015


Where the carols come from on Christmas Eve


The Senate House


Would you have studied harder if your college had looked like this?


My discovery of the visit. I’d never been to the Fitzwilliam before. Next time I go this is the only place I’ll visit. A superb museum and gallery.


A stunning room with some staggering works of art. Here I was among eighteenth century English painters: Hogarth, Gainsborough, Stubbs ( that fellow understands horses!)






Perfect peace for students of theology


We stopped into a church: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were there first.

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More Matter For a May Morning

Being the 72nd and Last Post of my

Journey into Scotland

Everywhere I went in Scotland, I met people who were proud of their culture and happy to bring a friendly pedaller up to speed with what I should be reading and watching if I truly wanted to become au fait with life north of the border. A drunk near the Burns’ Memorial in Alloway ordered me to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I hadn’t even sought his opinion. Mind you, he also threatened to kill me with a knife. I was paying close attention. A nurse near Crianlarich took my notebook off me and wrote a long list. I’ve probably still got the notebook as it’s not the sort of thing I throw away. From memory, it contained two books by Robin Jenkins: The Cone Gatherers and The Awakening of George Darroch.


At Soldier’s Leap, Killikrankie – I’m the one with my hand up


“They don’t teach any Scottish history in English schools. It’s a shocking omission. None of our history. And when was the last time a class read a Scottish book in one of your literature classes? No. As far as education in England is concerned, we don’t exist.”*

He went on to add the names of Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks to my reading list. I wasn’t short of advice.

I’m a believer in the power of the novel, above all other arts forms, to give an insight into a culture. Well, not a single novel. Too small a sample can give a very distorted picture. I read Lanark and I read Unlikely Stories Mostly by the brilliant Alasdair Gray and I thought them wonderful. I’d already read Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but I added Sunset Song from his Scots Quair and I’ll soon complete the trilogy with Cloud Howe. I read both of the books by Robin Jenkins and by that time I was on a roundabout with one book suggesting its successor. When I began this project I’d only dipped my toe into the water. Now I’m fully immersed and ready to have a go at swimming across the wide stream of Scottish literature. The country has only produced one winner of the Booker Prize, but that says more about the metropolitan tastes  (and backgrounds) of the judging panel. If I were to choose my shortlist of the best 100 books published in Britain over the last fifty years it would contain at least twenty Scottish titles. Here are a few that I have read especially for this journey.

Simon @ Carter Bar '87Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie

It’s a hoot. I laughed my way through it and immediately ordered the dvd of the 1949 film. The writing isn’t perfect, the characters are over-drawn to the extent of approaching caricature, the setting is idealised and, like Dylan Thomas’s The Outing, makes a bunch of men getting drunk sound almost fabulous; my experience is that it is rarely thus. But it has magic. It pulls together it’s different strands (it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t set in wartime) to make a very special weave. Very few books have made me laugh more than this one. I hasn’t made me want to drink whisky but it has provided a more than ample substitute.


Sutherland at sunset

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

The book describes an almost idyllic isolation in the north west of the country. A touch sentimental. A touch from a previous time. I bought this with paper-round money when I was 12. I think I would have enjoyed it then. I certainly enjoyed it 44 years on. I like human company and I like being left alone. But I would hate to live without animal companionship. The real achievement of this book is as a celebration of what animals bring to us.

Also serves as a first-rate wildlife guide to the north west of Scotland.

How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

Caused controversy when it won the Booker. The sniffy reviews caused Kelman problems later on when looking for publishing deals. A rare case of winning the Booker closing doors for a writer. It opened doors for other writers though. This is brilliant. To manage the first thirty pages is impressive, to write the entire novel in faultless, poetic, realistic, crude, funny, genuine language is an immense achievement.

What did the gripers want from a novel? Storyline – gripping; characterisation – superb; language – as good as it gets; settings – you’re there! I’ve waited a long time to read this novel. It was worth the wait.

Sutherland-001The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Sadly Iain Banks died last year but he left us with great  grace and dignity.

This is the first book he published and the only one I’ve read so far. It certainly held me, it un-nerved me and it surprised me. It seemed gruesome and I wondered at the wisdom of having it on the English syllabus in schools and then I watched the news and realised that it was no more x-rated than the lunch-time bulletin. What makes it disturbing is the voice. Sustaining this voice throughout is quite something. It isn’t a fun read but it is a worthwhile one.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I’m glad I read this. It seemed dated at first and has fallen out of fashion (it is dated but you soon get into the trick and rhythm of the language), and the story seemed a little slow in getting going. The Prologue is worth reading at the end as well as at the beginning. A history of the Highlands told through the history of a few square miles.

It reminded me most of DH Lawrence (also fast falling out of fashion). It most nearly resembles The White Peacock and it is a much better book. For all its limited geographical range it paints a broad canvas. It is a great rough pastoral to go alongside Wordsworth’s Leech Gatherers and decrepit huntsmen and idiot children. It is a great picture of the First World War and its effects on the people far from the monstrous anger of the guns. It is a magnificent telling of the end of Crofting. It is a great Feminist novel. It is modernist and determined to speak with a Scottish voice and it is in this that it has aged badly. The style interferes with the narrative flow (ironic for a stream of consciousness) and the Scottishness is of a 1930s vintage. It may succeed in always making you aware of itself as a human construct but this prevents me (at least) from becoming totally immersed in, what is otherwise, one hell of a story.

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Farr Bay

Hebridean Connection by Derek Cooper

A personal description of the western islands by the burgundy voiced former presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

A well written account of the Hebrides as a place to live and work with much less time for those who come in search of their own idyl (and bugger up everybody else’s by bringing a guitar and a passion for making crap out of shells); and much, much less time for those who use their obscene and ill-gotten wealth to play the landowner at the expense of real people and a real way of life.

Perhaps a few years out of date but I haven’t come across any thing more recent that is anything like as good.

The First Fifty: Munro Bagging Without a Beard by Muriel Gray

Buy this book and read it. End of review.

Portrait of Orkney by George Mackay Brown

A near perfect gentle guide. George Mackay Brown is the ideal companion. It’s an afternoon stroll or a morning walk rather than a detailed archaeological exploration. A pleasure. (Bonus fact: Robert Frost’s grandmother was an Orcadian.)

Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington

Christopher Brookmyre gives a much better summation of this brilliant book than I could do so I’ll unashamedly print his. “A surreal portrait of Sixties Glasgow, related via the keen – if well-bevvied – eyes and coruscating patter of amateur philosopher, father-to be and diligently dedicated waster Tam Clay. The essence of my home city finely distilled; every dram is a relished drop.”

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Scottish Journey by Edwin Muir

A gem of a book that takes you around a Scotland reeling from the blows of the great depression in the company of someone worth listening to. A companion piece to JB Priestley’ English Journey and a worthy one. Like Priestley he deliberately travels to parts of the country that tell different stories, that have suffered differently in the economic turmoil of the times. Muir has been criticised for waxing political as he wanders among Glasgow Slums or talks of farm labourers’ struggles under surf like conditions; their wives dying in childbirth to avoid the cost of a doctor or refusing to take time off to become ill because they know it will cost a livelihood; in the end it costs a life. How can a sensitive and caring man wax anything other than political? (Priestley certainly does as he visits Tyneside).

Here is a proud Scot who doesn’t care for the cult of Burns and Scott (though he admires both as writers). A man who resents the wrongs done to his countrymen, who is happy to point out the good when he comes across it…and he comes across plenty… and who sees a great need for change (and who sees hope in that need).

The book is a pleasure to read and a warning to myself that I have a long way to go before I can call myself a true travel writer.

Oh, and the prose is as beautiful as you’d expect from a true poet.

Thurso Home Front Door

Outside my old front door


I read plenty more but I think that gives a flavour. I learned an enormous amount by cycling around Scotland the autumn of 1987. I went off in search of myself and came back a different person. The more I discover about Scotland the more I like it and the less I seem to know. At 10 miles per hour you see so much and there is so much to see. Every day revealed a landscape as different from the day before as Norway is  from Portugal. And my education has continued through this writing. In school’s there is an old saying that if you really want to know something, then you should teach it. A good teacher should be a good learner else what are they in the classroom for? I’ve found the same thing to be true of writing. I’ve discovered as much about the country by writing about Scotland as I did by visiting.

A great many people have dropped by to read chapters and leave messages. Some of you have been with me through the whole 100,000 plus words (and who knows how many photographs?) All I can say is thank you; I have really enjoyed your company, appreciated your likes and comments and hope that I have given you a few new views of a very auld country.

* Some Scottish writers have made it onto the English Schools’ Syllabus; among them are Anne Fine, Iain Banks Liz Lochhead and Robert Louis Stevenson. Liz Lochhead adding something very different as you don’t get many words with a double h in them!

The End


Bouldering on the Ridiculous


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A Journey into Scotland : Bibliography Part Four

Geography and Geology

Bouldering: Definition: The sport of climbing without ropes or other technical gear on boulders or relatively small rock faces. (Which is pretty much how I regard my ability and knowledge as a geographer)

I left school when I was 16. It wasn’t that I was giving up on learning. I always had an idea that I might want  top-up at some time. It was just a huge desire to get off someone else’s carousel and  find one of my own. Anything I did find wasn’t anything to write home about, but at least I could write home. In reality I was progressing from one job to another just as soon as each revealed that it didn’t have much to reveal. A girlfriend took me to the theatre about this time and that excited me more than what I was doing for a envelope of notes and coins and a payslip. Between jobs I signed on for some courses at night school. It wasn’t a sudden kindling of ambition but I was drawn to the warmth of the promise of a better place.

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

I didn’t stay out of work for long (standing in line to be quizzed, probed and insulted by a junior clerk in return for a giro cheque wasn’t my idea of a good career move) and the enlightened powers that be, at the technical school, informed me that I was going to have to decide which A level to drop because they couldn’t allow someone in full-time employment to take three. I quiver at the stupidity of this decision but at the time I accepted it. (It was half way through the second year of study). I couldn’t give up English Literature. I didn’t think much of the class and less of the teacher, but as it consisted of reading books and thinking about them it wasn’t a much of a burden. The same was true of British Government and Politics. This was a rattling good shindig with angry young voices once a week. So out went Geography, despite it being with the nicest bunch of people, and the fact that classes would as often take place on the moors as in the college.

In reality it didn’t make a big difference. I soon found myself working shifts and couldn’t make very many of the classes anyway. To get the certificates required  personal study. The college got a course fee and an empty desk most weeks. I did ok. I’d secured a passport to higher education if I ever needed to use it. The certificate said I was pretty good at understanding books and governance. There was nothing to show for 18 months of learning about incised meanders and soil profiles; geomorphology and plate tectonics. Well, nothing outward anyway. I’d bought the books and continued to buy the books. The teacher gave me a reading list and said the pity was not being able to take a geography degree. Not caring much for badges I read them anyway and topped them up with late night Open University programmes delivered by strange men with long hair and tank tops. I wasn’t finished with earth science.

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

You cannot get away from landscapes, in life or in art. In galleries I like a human face or two but you’ll more often find me standing before a painting of the ocean or some mountains. In music, I travel readily into Beethoven’s woods or Sibelius’s lakes or the wide open spaces and cloudscapes that Copeland reveals (once he’s got past the bloody hoe-downs!). My favourite westerns wouldn’t work without the epic settings. Odysseus is all very well but it’s the journey we’re really interested in. Give me the rock and the whirlpool. And the passion has remained. There are two things to admire in any landscape. The first being the way it is and the second, how it got to be that way. You can take them one by one or you can take them both together.

All of the early geography books, including the world atlas, were given to charity shops before they became outdated. One, at least was by Harry Robinson who I later got to know and like very much as he taught at the polytechnic where I spent 18 months as a caretaker. One was emerald green and turquoise which isn’t much help as publishers like inappropriate colours for geography text books. So they all belong in that part of my bibliography that has to go down as “stuff I learned from books years ago but just which books, I cannot remember.” A bit like someone asking “How do you know that?” when you get a question right on University Challenge*. “What do you mean “How do I know that?” I just bloody know it.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you've watched the Harry Potter films.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you’ve watched the Harry Potter films.

My second job in teaching was as a history master. Nobody quibbled. My second last job was teaching geography. The teacher in the next classroom liked causing problems and questioned my qualifications: three quarters of an A level, a degree in the humanities, thirty years in the classroom, a hill-walker and canoeist and a lifelong passion for the subject. She was a PE teacher who’d been shoved into the department  when she found she couldn’t keep up on the netball court. I never questioned her right to teach…but many of her students did.

The head of department was a fine geographer (as was the head teacher)  and we enjoyed long chats about delivering the subject. He knew what he was doing and I was happy to follow his schemes to the letter. He used the Geog 123 series of textbooks from Oxford University Press and they were excellent. They came with all sorts of extras of an interactive nature and were popular with classes working together and students learning independently. When I was at school our teachers wouldn’t accept new fangled theories about the movement of the earth’s surface. In this school, even with an English teacher in charge, the students were all pretty well-versed on tectonics  and knew more vulcanology than we required, at a much higher level in 1975, by the end of year 8 (aged 12/13). It was impressive to be a part of.

Glencoe 3

As a brick-layer I’m happy to split stones but in the field I don’t carry a hammer. Up in the wild north-west of Scotland you don’t need to hit anything to be awed by the rocks. As an aesthete I was thrilled; as a poet, inspired; as a geographer I was in seventh heaven.


Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell

In Scotland I was more taken with the story of the the development of geology as a subject than by the geology itself. The whole of this academic discipline grew out of Scotland, brilliant Scottish minds and Scottish rocks. This book has been over-taken many times by modern geologists but Charles Lyell was one of those giants who allowed others to stand on his shoulders in order to see a little further. Charles Darwin advises anyone reading On the Origin of Species to put his book aside until you have read Charles Lyell. As a lover of art and literature I was drawn to the book by it’s reported influence on George Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Ruskin among others. I enjoyed it as much for what it revealed of the scientific process as for the advances in geological thinking it contained.

Principles of Physical Geography by Arthur Holmes

I’ve had a copy of this for years and it has been quite a companion. In fact it has been my substitute teacher and go-to guide for anything that puzzled me about what goes on under the grass and heather. It was only when researching my re-telling of the story of geology in Scotland that I discovered just how important Holmes was to that very story. My copy is a fourth edition. The first edition, published in 1944 gave the world his reluctantly published hand-sketched drawings explaining how convection might (just might) explain the movement of the earth’s land masses (they didn’t become known as plates until 1968). It’s a university level text book; and a weighty tome. I haven’t read it from cover to cover but I have left tea stains and biscuit crumbs on more than half of its pages. If it isn’t the last word for the current generation, it is the last word for this enthusiastic amateur.

Professor Iain Stewart : Making Scotland’s Landscape BBC

I came upon these accidentally and very possibly when looking for some post pub late night television. They became must-see programmes and form the framework of my own telling of the story of rock science. Thanks to Youtube these are readily available and (again with tea and biscuits) I settled down and watched them, one after another, with a fat notebook and a fast moving pen. Seldom has a subject been so well expressed to a general audience without either simplifying or patronising. Iain Stewart has followed Michael Wood into that rare club of academic television presenters who are almost as much admired for themselves as for their knowledge of subject. I wasn’t over-bothered about his boyish good looks but his enthusiasm and love of subject went along way with me.


to be continued…


* My wife also left school at 16 and later forged a successful career as a teacher. Between us it is rare that we don’t score between 20 and 40 on University Challenge. And that’s only counting the ones we get before the students answer. Let’s hear it for the drop-outs!

Stuff and Nonsense


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A Journey into Scotland  Bibliography Part Three

The West Coast : History Books

It’s impossible to give a full inventory of the source materials for this project. Most of this blog has come straight from the reservoir of memory; and this includes memory of books read, lectures attended, galleries visited, films and television programmes watched and conversations enjoyed. Obviously it also includes what happened along the roads of Scotland in 1987. Being something of a compulsive reader and naturally curious, I’ve always enjoyed finding things out. Cataloguing knowledge may suit the writer of the school curriculum or Mr Dewey in his library but, to me, there has only ever been one subject; and that is stuff. Knowing stuff has always felt like a good thing. It’s nice to know a little more and to this end, I have failed to be a respecter of the confines of my own discipline. This could lead to the accusation of being a Jack of all trades and master of none. Guilty Your Honour!

loch lomond 2

Why is he pretending to know about geology and geography? How can what he has to say about the past be true history when he isn’t an historian? Well, I cannot necessarily sing, but I can do a pretty good impression of someone who can. Why not share enthusiasm when you’ve got some to spare?  I cannot look at a hill, a holt, a wood, a river valley without wondering how it came to be like that. I cannot read a newspaper without hearing echoes from the past. Teachers have helped too. My favourite geography teacher says that it is the fact that her subject contains all other subjects that is its main appeal. As a student, and occasional teacher, of words, I feel the same. A student of science  can only talk about what is: a student of poetry and philosophy  can talk about what could be as well. It’s all stuff and knowing it makes me feels like I’m fulfilling my purpose. Like oxygen, it’s good to suck it in; it feeds the system. Each of us can only draw in so much; there will always be an infinite amount we don’t breathe in, that we don’t know or even consider not knowing. We are each our own fruit and to strive towards ripeness is all.

rannoch moor 2I’ve written this whole thing to find out. To find out things that I didn’t know and for that I have been a frequenter of libraries as well as my own study. And that is the purpose of this appendix; to acknowledge a debt to other writers, academics and friends. But it is also written to find out and catalogue what I did know without realising it. It has been a Socratic project where the slave boy has shown himself more capable than he had previously contemplated. To know more at the end than at the beginning would be a measure of success. 

The Songs we Sang at Primary School

The music lessons we had at infant and junior school would all be classed as satisfactory, at best, by a twenty first century inspector. For the inspector’s clip board wouldn’t have boxes to tick for all the good things there were about them; merely the absence of what he/she is looking for. We went to the music room, (a room whose only distinction from our normal classroom was the presence of a Lancashire County Council standard school-issue piano) and got out our songbooks and sang. All of our teachers retired at the end of the year they taught us; something of a coincidence and nothing to do with the undue strain our class put on the nervous system. It does, however, show just how old-fashioned our education was. Up until the age of 10 all my teachers had left training college shortly after the first world war. We didn’t study Victorian education in history lessons but we re-lived it on a daily basis; right down to the slipper or the sharp crack across the knuckles with a ruler for losing concentration.


The song-books were just about holding together. They were nothing short of a golden treasury of the English and Scottish folk tradition. Cecil Sharp could have saved himself years of trekking around rural villages if he’d merely opened the music room book cupboard. In out-of-school life we sang Beatles songs (then freshly in the charts) and Peter and Gordon and Herman’s Hermits. In music lessons we sang Tom Bowling, Cherry Ripe and John Peel. And we ventured into Scotland too and it was memories of these music lessons that had me belting out full verses and choruses of Loch Lomond, Annie Laurie, The Presbyterian Cat and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose as I pedalled a contented way from Dumbarton to Mallaig. On my way to Kilmacolm I serenaded crows and sheep with “In Kirkintilloch there’s nae pubs and I’ll sure ye’ll winder why. Well, me brother and me we went on a spree and we drank the pubs all dry, all dry. We drank the pubs all dry.” Pedalling down Glencoe I was singing “The Campells are Coming Yo Ho! Yo Ho!” As I approached Ullapool my lay was to “Come Buy my Caller Herring”. On the way south I rattled out the Carlton Weaver and the Braes of Killikrankie. I got a couple off  Corries LPs but most came straight from those music lessons. We sang hearty boys and we absorbed huge chunks of our culture. Thank you to Miss Kitchen and Miss Wren who only pretended to be able to play the piano, and to Mr Whitney who really could.


Neil Oliver: historical romance in cargo trousers

History Books

The History of Scotland by Neil Oliver (television series and accompanying book)

I was delighted when I found out that the BBC had finally got round to making a series of programmes about the history of Scotland and transmitting them at a time when people were likely to be watching. I had mixed feelings when they chose popular, long-haired archeologist and presenter of Coast, Neil Oliver as the man to do it. The series, and the book, are excellent on the ancient history of the country. The enthusiastic Mr Oliver is able to paint bold canvasses from long before the land thought of itself as a country; from Calgacus sending the Roman legions fleeing back from where they came at the battle of Mons Graupius through the setting up of the clan system up to the establishment of a single nation. He tells the story of Wallace and The Bruce and Bannockburn exceptionally well and with the relish of a proud Scot. It is with the establishment of the House of Stuart (or Stewart) that he begins to waver and perhaps a modern historian should have taken over at this point. First class on sweeping legends and drawing some truth out of mythological figures; less good on the known and the well-documented. Still the series is worth getting and watching in full box set indulgence. In England we still get our Scottish history distorted through an English lens. Oliver at least gives Scotland its rightful precedence in the story.


I delved into countless other books from Simon Schama’s History of Britain which is excellent once you get past Schama himself (a delightful, authoritative and charming presence but a huge presence nonetheless) to Magnus Magnusson’s 600 page labour of love. This is eminently readable and as amiable as we always found our favourite Icelandic on Mastermind. But it is, shall we say, a little loyal to the royals. I’m not sure if he ever became Sir Magnus, but it wasn’t through lack of deference. To paraphrase the quizmaster, I’ve started the book but I’m afraid I haven’t yet finished it. (Actually I’ve used it to dip in and out of to give a different perspective and to add a little flesh to the bones).

I’m a big fan of (and occasional donor to)  Wikipedia. I think it a magnificent resource and every time I have heard Jimmy Wales interviewed on the wireless I have been impressed. However, I’ve tended to use it as a series of signposts rather than as a storyteller. I figured that anyone who wanted to know what Wiki says will probably look it up for themselves.

I’ve also used the various volumes of the Cambridge Cultural History of Britain edited by Boris Ford and Brewer’s Britain and Ireland, an indispensable volume whether preparing a holiday, an outing or merely wanting to find out about the folk-lore of a place or the origin of a name. Christopher Lee’s “This Sceptered Isle” was written to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It’s a complete history of Britain and tends to view Scottish history though any impact it had south of the border. Enjoyable nonetheless not least for the magnificent lesson in pronouncing consonants offered by Anna Massey. It may not be the most comprehensive history lesson but it gives an insight into elocution RADA style.

to be continued…

These Are Scottish Roads: Please Keep to the Left


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A Journey into Scotland

Part Two of the Bibliography

The South West of Scotland

Selected Poems  :  Robert Burns

I bought my copy of this book at a church hall jumble sale when I was an impressionable teenager. I have always been drawn to the presence of the poet in the verse. A funny, satirical, observant, subversive voice that celebrates the verities of decency and the pleasures of youth. A voice in tune with the natural world and critical of hypocrisy, vanity and cant. Just as every Englishman over the age of forty loves to have an opportunity to sing along with Lee Marvin’s gravel delivery of Wandrin’ Star from Paint Your Wagon, there isn’t a true-blooded Englishman who doesn’t get pleasure out of trying out his Scottish voice and Burns is a place to try this out.

Who hasn’t twisted their vocal chords into their best celtic snarl to observe a “wee sleekit, cowrin’ tim’rous beastie” ? or to pipe in the
“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!”?

The well known poems are rightly famous but his reputation, as a poet, rests upon a considerable body of work and he is one of the poets who repays reading his verses at length. I’m sure Scots would rightly cringe at our feeble attempts to imitate a Caledonian brogue but these poems simply have to be read aloud and you would kill them if you gave them your best RP Donald Sinden.

The Auld Brig o” Doon


Burns is most associated with Ayr and in particular the village of Alloway where he was born but he spent significant periods of his life in Edinburgh and around Dumfries. He is for all of Scotland and he has a true Scottish voice: intelligent, articulate, musical and not slow to point out the faults of the ruling classes. There is something wonderful in encapsulating the superior vanity of the upper class lady in church, with her finery outshining the rest of the congregation, and keeping them in their place, only to have the effect under-mined by a louse crawling out from beneath her collar. She sees everyone looking up to her admiringly. Everyone else sees someone to keep clear of.

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”

My journey took me on an evening cycle along the very route followed by Tam O’Shanter in my favourite of the better known verses. Happily I wasn’t in the same state as Tam (Burns like many of his fellow Romantics was a powerful advocate of the dissolute life and the power of drink). The ride led ultimately to the superb Auld Brig ‘o Doon which was lit by a slanting evening sun when I reached it. An ancient bridge over the River Doon. No finer spot could be devised for a story of witches.

Burns' Cottage Alloway (Near Ayr)

Burns’ Cottage Alloway (Near Ayr)

A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid

My friend Laurence and I used to walk the moors above Saddleworth taking it in turns to recite verses of this poem to each other. He was from Bray near Dublin and I was from Barrow in Furness. The poem is beyond Burns’ use of the Scottish dialect. Here MacDiarmid helps to develop a new form of literary Scottish called Lallans. With our various Irish and Northern accents we loved the sounds we could get out of the words. The poem is now regarded as one of the most important of what became the Scottish Renaissance. It’s a state of the nation work and one that is informed both by a desire to establish a new Scottishness and by MacDiarmid’s communism. (As students at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1980s we were very much in the spirit of Marxism that was the beating heart of that institution).

Looking towards the Isle of Arran from Ayr

Looking towards the Isle of Arran from Ayr

The poem contains a warning that an understanding of Burns’ shouldn’t be taken as a Scottish birthright. That the Ayrshire Bard is mis-applied throughout the world by bogus scots (and almost certainly clumsy English twerps like me). There is something angry about MacDiarmid that we loved, even though we suspected the anger was as much directed at us as at anybody.

No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is aabody’s property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’s be the last a kennin haund to gie –

Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And aa their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin

Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

Power Without Principles by Jimmy Reid

Jimmy Reid became a hero to me in the 1970s. His is a voice we don’t hear anymore in these most political of unpolitical times. Today the dominant political creed is of understanding the need for greed and justifying it on the flawed principle that if you let a few people become unbelievably rich and powerful they might sprinkle a little of their great wealth on the undeserving poor. That we should shuffle along being grateful that we also (or so runs the trick) can have our dreams and that good things go to those who deserve them. I found a copy of this in a Sheffield Library and read with equal admiration and disillusion as he points out what everyone came to loathe about New Labour (he wrote these essays in 1997 when everyone was cheering the odious Blair to the rafters). I didn’t have my ticket with me and didn’t take the book out. A huge pity as the book is now very hard to come by.


We loved Jimmy Reid for having principles. For understanding the dignity and value of the working man. He was brought face to face with Kenneth Williams on the Parkinson show which allowed the brilliant comic actor but seriously flawed human being a supposed equal platform with the Scottish trades unionist. Williams dominated the encounter through his inability to shut up. That a great man should be put on a light-weight talk-show to debate politics with a reactionary member of the Carry-On team seems to say something quite tragic about the truth behind truth in modern Britain.

Scottish politics are light-years ahead of English. They had sign posts where we settled for weather vanes. They maintained principles of decency and integrity. We ended up with politicians run by news baron(s?) who blow whichever way the current wind takes them; who would as happily trade on hate and fear as right and wrong. Jimmy Reid may never have been given the platform he deserved but he remains a hero of mine.

Scottish Journey  by Edwin Muir

OK so it’s another man of the left on a tour of Scotland. Did you expect me to take “The Astute Observations on the Economic Condition of the Celtic Nations” by Mark Thatcher with me in my saddlebag? I’m drawn to those who tell a Scottish story that they know from personal experience. I was led to this book by reading George Mackay Brown’s Portrait of Orkney. Muir is a fellow Orcadian and made his journey as Scotland was still reeling from the First World War and on the verge of the second. In the words of academic TC Smout “Muir held up a mirror to the face of Scotland all those years ago. It is frightening to see so many recognisable features in its glass.”

Dumfries and Galloway CottageI gained an insight into Scotland through Edwin Muir as well as finding him a clever and amiable travelling companion. He intensified my dislike of injustice and (on a lesser theme) justified my reluctance to find very much to like in the works of Walter Scott. (Or at least in Scott himself.)  He also painted a Scotland with so many different facets and faces that I became reluctant to define anything as Scottish or to talk of Scottishness. (A reluctance I seem to have (at least partly) overcome.

A wonderful book.

To be continued…

The 2 Rs: Reading and Riding


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A Journey into Scotland  :  Epilogue and Bibliography


To all intents and purposes my journey ended in Malton. I did ride from there to Huddersfield but have few memories and no pictures. I was very keen to complete the journey and was unimaginative in my choice of route. Bypassing York and skirting Leeds to the south gave me several hours of uninterrupted traffic through the less impressive parts of two great cities. From Leeds to Huddersfield I passed through the various stages of the West Riding Woollen Industry: tailoring, heavy woollens, shoddy and mungo, fine worsteds.


Journey’s end was an anti-climax. I’d cycled from Barrow where I was born to Huddersfield, where I finished school and started work, via the north of Scotland where my formal education commenced. Round about 1500 miles via many curves and detours. When I got there, my father and brother looked up briefly from watching football. “Oh, hello Sime. Put the kettle on could you?”IMGP0744The obvious train journey from Huddersfield to Exeter was to change at Staylybridge and Stockport (now officially a ghost line) but I couldn’t take a bicycle on this route. So, after a night in the old family home, I got up early to pedal to Halifax to catch a train to Preston. It was supposed to be a short hop of a bike ride but actually contained the two nearest misses of the entire journey. I was lucky to get to Halifax at all.

Back home in Exeter I completed a score for a stage version of Don Quixote, performed in some clubs which were the predecessors of open mic nights and rehearsed a show for the arts centre. I was making money from all of the creative activities I was engaged in; singing, acting, writing. Not enough to be a responsible parent but maybe that would come. This is what I would have to give up if I went into teaching. What was it to be? Feeding my creativity or feeding my family? I applied for a  single teaching job and got it. I left the profession from time to time to pursue various creative ventures, and when they offered me enough money to pay all of my bills and have a little left over, I retired.

In all of that time I have only been back to Scotland once, on a day trip to Berwick and up the River Tweed. I want to return. Writing these chapters has turned photographs and memories into a decent set of notes. All the time I have been writing I have been reading about Scotland and thought I’d complete the story with a round-up of the books I’ve read. I had, at one stage intended to repeat the journey and write a serious book about Scotland. But there are already many very good books about the country and the best of them are written by Scots.

IMGP0748I met a male nurse in a pub on the banks of Loch Lomond. We got talking about Scottish writers and Scottish history. Like me he’d divided his education between English and Scottish schools and bemoaned the absence of Scotland from the English curriculum. He was right in 1987 and he’d be just as right now. We have one of the great European cultures just over our northern border and we ignore it. The average English person knows more about America and Australia than they do about Scotland. Part of my intention in writing this has been to put this right for myself and I feel enormously enriched in so doing. Scotland had given the world great literature, great scientists, geologists and economists. About the only Scottish culture we get in England is a series of broadcasts from the Edinburgh Festival (a hugely English decampment to the Scottish capital every August) and an OMG! Yay!!! hogmanay celebration again from Edinburgh, again featuring thousands of English tourists.

My Scottish bookcase was a battered edition of Robert Burns, an un-read copy of Whisky Galore and a couple of books of story-telling history by John Prebble (a Canadian). In the past year, I’m pleased to say that I’ve now read a shelfful of Scottish novels, immersed myself in Scottish poetry and song and found the time to read some books of history and travel in this great nation. I’ve ordered and studiously watched box sets of documentaries. I’ve also seen the Scottish show us how to make politics real. The referendum process gave Britain its first vibrant political debate since James Callaghan left power. To see it cause fury, then admiration and finally relief in the English press was engaging and entertaining. To see how the same press and English politicians turn their fear and admiration into scorn and derision has said a great deal more about England than Scotland.

Bibliography Part One The Lake District

I bagan and ended in the north of England. The first morning of my ride took me right by (and into) the cottage where I was born. The early stages were all in the Furness fells and the Lake District. I’m reasonably well-read in the famous lakeland poets so I took the opportunity to find out more about some lesser known Cumbrian writers. I read my first Melvyn Bragg novel, completed a Hunter Davies I’d begun years earlier, re-read an anthology of Irvine Hunt poems and set about a bit of serious reading of the life and works of Norman Nicholson.

The Whispering Poet by Kathleen Jones

A fine and inspiring biography. One that left me wanting to fill in the gaps of my reading of the Millom poet. The biographer never intrudes, uses her source material sensitively and has a poet’s understanding of her subject and the landscapes and industries (and illness) that inspired it. 

Norman_Nicholson_photo_credit-Millom Discovery Centre

Portrait of the Lakes by Norman Nicholson

It seems a pity that so many people read Alfred Wainwright when so few read Norman Nicholson. One is a true writer, a true lakeland man who knows how to express his thoughts on the whole of lakeland. The other is an outsider who points out the obvious to those who need the obvious pointing out to them. If you come from Cumberland, Westmoreland or Furness you will much prefer this. Written by one of our own and written with the pen of a true poet. We should cherish him.

Selected Poems  : Norman Nicholson

Many of the twentieth century poets I like the best are reflected in the work of Norman Nicholson. He had his influences but I’ll fight a round with anyone who would deny his influence on others. You’ll find the musical cadences and rhythms to match Dylan Thomas and an understanding of man married to the landscape that characterises the poems of RS Thomas. You’ll catch the morning hare or trout of Ted Hughes and, perhaps above the rest, (and he came after) the linking of the people’s lives with landscape, social and economic history and politics and geology of Seamus Heaney. He also gives a remarkable sense of the glory of being alive that perhaps is best expressed by one who very nearly didn’t make it. (And who ever afterwards had to count his every breath). Here is a poet who captures the pastoral in it’s truth; not necessarily beautiful, but permanent and ever-changing. But also the industrial man-made glories of pit shaft and smelting shed. My favourite poems are of the southern lakeland fells and passes and, particularly his poems of Millom.

We think of Lulworth Cove or Granchester or Upper Lambourne or Rydal Water when we think of English poetry. We should think more often of the Duddon and the little industrial town almost overlooked even by those of us who were brought up across the estuary.


Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

One of the best children’s writers of the last hundred years and a man who knew and loved the Lake District. The setting around the Coniston fells and on the waters of the lake is as much a part of the book (s) as the Walker family or their adventures. I spent many hours and days in similar parts of the region and no matter what I was doing, be it sailing sticks down a stream, riding the Windemere steamers, acting out episodes of The Last of the Mohicans, they were worth doing because of where I was doing them. Ransome brings the landscape as well as lakeland people to life. The charcoal burners who tend to Roger’s ankle and show the children a pet adder may easily have been the gamekeeper who showed me a buzzard’s nest and taught me how to sneak up close to grouse. Ransome sets some of his books in East Anglia and these are every bit as good as the lakeland ones. For lovers of the lake district though, let me highly recommend; Swallowdale, Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post. The Picts and the Martyrs is also set in lakeland but I haven’t read it (yet).

Badger on a Barge by Janni Howker

Another book that captures what it was like to be brought up and spend your childhood in the southern lakes. There are some excellent stories in the much under-rated book. Seriously admired by writers; largely ignored by teachers. I taught it to several classes who all loved the books and who all produced much excellent writing in response. I didn’t read it especially for this journey but did enjoy dipping back in and finding that the title story still got tears welling-up.

The Comedy World Of Stan Laurel by John McCabe

Have only dipped into this as yet. A full project on Stan and Ollie is a potential future venture. I’m slowly filling the shelves in preparation for that.

To be Continued…


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