Post 356: Steak Week

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Mostly Concerning Food

Grooving on Maillard Reactions 

So how do you cook the perfect steak? I’ve cooked a few in my time (steaks that is…not necessarily perfect ones!) but thought I’d go back to school this week and see what advice top cooks have to give. As ever cooks talk a good game. They give the impression that if you were as good as them the recipe will turn out perfectly. If you look more closely there is a tendency among recipe writers  to obscure their recipes in either mystery or ignorance (either their own or their reader’s). So I’ve gone one stage further and dusted off my white lab coat to find out what scientists have to add to the debate.

To begin with the mystery and/or ignorance. There is something of a debate as to whether Nigella Lawson is a chef or not. She herself claims to be an ordinary family cook. You can take either claim with a pinch of Pink Himalayan Salt. She’s written many best selling recipe books. We have one on our shelf and from it we get the following words of specialist wisdom on the subject of cooking steak.

“Fry or griddle the steaks. It’s difficult to be helpful about timings as it so depends on how well done you like your meat and, of course, how thick the steaks are.”

Well there you go. What more could you possibly need to know? No need to mention what type of fry pan or griddle you should use when Le Creuset comes as standard. No mention of heat. A grammatical error (or, perhaps, deliberate fashionable usage); the word ‘so’ used adjectively if not adverbially and a double entendre. And not a hint of useful advice.

This isn’t intended to condemn Nigella. I like Nigella but what she is selling in her cookbooks and her television programmes isn’t an understanding of food but an enviable Kensington lifestyle and an enthusiasm for eating well. As such it is excellent. Few food books are written to widen our understanding of food. Many are written to increase a sense of mystery and to deepen our sense of ignorance. Few recipe books are written with the intention that many people will actually follow the recipes. A recent Food Programme (BBC Radio 4) suggested that the average is just 2 dishes made from each recipe book bought. And this survey was carried out by people who write recipe books.

Gordon Ramsay has discovered (correctly) that turning the steak often will get the heat through to the centre of the steak more quickly and will distribute the heat more evenly. Laboratory tests based on computer predictions show that turning the steak every fifteen seconds will give you a more perfectly cooked viand. He’s so carried away with this idea that he overlooks the importance of searing the steak in the pan first. He makes up for this by telling you the type of pan to use (non-stick), that you add oil to the pan first (debatable) and then add more as it cooks along with a pat of butter, and that you can add flavour by adding some slightly crushed garlic cloves and a sprig of thyme to the pan during cooking.

DSC_0007Now searing the meat is the contentious bit. Until the 1970s this was essential and we all knew why. It was to seal the steak and prevent juices from escaping thereby guaranteeing a juicy steak. This was about the only bit of culinary science my mother passed on apart from knowing that liver and watercress both contained lots of iron and bananas were good for you because they contain potassium and we all know how and why potassium is so important for us. Don’t we?

Then a scientist started writing about food and being a scientist he had objectively tried out the science. Harold McGee is an excellent read and, when you hear him on the radio, a quietly spoken and most amiable man. He had collected a degree in Science from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) before pursuing his love of literature to the extent not only of gaining a Phd on the poetry of John Keats but also  a job at Harvard teaching it. Eventually he combined his two great loves of science and writing and chose to write about food simply because it was a subject that wasn’t much written about. (Despite bookshops full of new volumes and thousands upon thousands of blogs you could contend that it is still a subject with little written about it.)

His 1984 book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen has become one of the most influential books on food of recent times. Heston Blumenthal cites it as the turning point in turning him into a cook and the main reason he became the sort of cook he turned into; an inventive one who is as mindful of the science as of the supposed art of the kitchen.

Steaks are the point where many of us started to take an interest in what McGee has to say. First the myth. Searing seals in the juices. False. Searing dries out the meat. What it does do though is to add a great deal of flavour to the meat. A balance needs to be struck between getting the maximum amount of flavour and minimising the drying out. The answer (and I’ve gone out of my way to conduct experiment after experiment…and be humble enough to eat the results) is to get the pan hot, leave the meat to brown the outer layer to form a thin crust and then to turn often to make sure the heat is distributed quickly and evenly. The rule of oiling the steak and not the pan is a good one. The old debate as to whether you should season the steak before it goes into the pan, during the cooking or wait until it is on the plate is taken up by French Physical Chemist and gastronome; Hervé This. His institute devoted a great deal of time to this problem and concluded that it makes not a blind bit of difference; just so long as you do season the steak. (Salt does enhance the  flavours of meat to the taste buds. Fears that it draws out the fluids from the meat are largely unfounded on the grounds that it draws out so little as to make no difference. A steak isn’t a cucumber!)

Professor This also explains how the way meat cooks is dependent on the constituent elements of meat. Your steak consists of various  parts that all react to heat in different ways and at differing temperatures. I hand over to the Frenchman. “In thinking about…our meal it will help to keep in mind some of the basic scientific facts about the transformations undergone by heated meat. At 40c (104F) proteins unfold, becoming denatured, and the meat loses its transparency; at 50c (122f) collagen fibers, (sic) the chief structural components of muscle cells, contract; at 55c (131F) myosin, one of the principle proteins of the muscle cells, coagulates and the collagen begins to dissolve; at 66c (151F) the sarcoplasmic proteins that make up the collagen coagulate; and at 79C (174F) actin, another important muscle protein, coagulates.”

Until ten years ago many cooks would have found a reason to switch off after a single sentence. How could someone using words like sarcoplasmic and structural components have anything to add to the mysterious art of cooking? The next thing you know they’ll be trying to explain colour in paintings and pointing out the links between music and mathematics!

Hervé This is also very good at explaining why the searing of the meat adds so much to the final flavour of the steak. I’m not a scientist but I am a huge fan of science in the same way as some very fine scientists of my own personal acquaintance can, and do, have an impressive appreciation of music and literature. The science informs my cooking and adds to the pleasure in both the process and the product. I’ll hand over to the scientist again to give a potted explanation of what scientists refer to as a Maillard Reaction

“A transformation that begins with the reaction of a sugar and an amino acid. What follows is very complicated, however, and a complete description would fill several volumes. It suffices for our purposes here simply to say that once an Amadori or a Heyns rearrangement has taken place (depending on the nature of the reactive sugar), several parallel paths lead to the formation of brown compounds, notably the ones found on the surface of meats that are cooked at high temperature.”

Maillard reactions are what is happening to the surface of the meat as it is seared, it explains both the delightful smell of cooking steak and the fabulous final taste. It doesn’t stop there. But that will do for now.

I’ve read a lot of books about food and I’ve read (for someone who has made a living out of his knowledge of poetry and drama) a lot of science books. Recently I’ve read McGee’s On Food and Cooking and This’s Molecular Gastronomy. I may have to read them a little more slowly than a practicing scientist and I certainly have to re-read them more than I need to re-read most novels (though not most poetry which also, like the science, comes to life in terms of giving up its meaning through careful re-reading). These are superb books that will have a lasting influence on the way I cook and my understanding of what is happening when I do.

To celebrate I declared this to be steak week and I spent an hour every evening in practical investigations of Maillard Reactions. On Monday we had Ostrich steaks, on Tuesday Breast of Muscovy Duck and on Wednesday we had Rib eye steaks from a supermarket. The work will continue. In the fridge as I write are two very large T-Bone (Porterhouse) steaks from the Welbeck Estate.

It has been a wonderful week.

Oh, and there were a few non steak meals.DSC_0003As I was at the Welbeck shop it seemed a pity not to get a wood pigeon and give it a quick roast. It went down rather well with the leftover baked potato and cauliflower cheese from the day before. The bird cost less than a Starbucks coffee and cooked in 20 minutes.

Cumbrian air dried ham from the Chatsworth farm shop. with a light salad.

Cling peaches and vanilla ice-cream. The ice cream was from Chatsworth. It was very light, very white and rather free from taste. Cling peaches are always lovely.

I’ve tried this before. I didn’t like it at all. This time I didn’t dislike it as much. Maybe I’d like it more if I spent a good part of the previous evening drinking port and malt whisky. It’s a rather unappetising green grey colour. The appearance and the taste go well together.

Supermarket ham for a quick snack.

DSC_0014To balance out the meat eating of the evenings, breakfasts have been very frugal. This one was a pot of coffee by candlelight.

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Not all breakfasts were quite as frugal. This one consisted of fried potatoes, egg and left over bits of steak and duck. I always fancied nineteenth century coaching inns would be a bit like this.

Close readers may have noticed a lack of useful practical advice in this, but then, I’m with Nigella. We’d both happily admit to there being many, many people who know more about food than we do. But we’re right there, in the middle of the front row, when it comes to enjoying it.

Have a good week.

 

Post 355: Smoking For Fitness and Health

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Mostly Concerning Food

We kept October meat free but got very tempted by some Cumbrian air dried ham on a visit to the farm shop at Chatsworth. November has been an occasional meat month. It has been a brilliant month for smoked fish. We tried at least three sorts of salmon patés (two with smoked salmon and one with poached salmon) and then started doing a little bit of cooking ourselves. An Arbroath smokie became a highly flavoured risotto before an equally delicious Cullen Skink. The highlight came with a pair of kippers that I reckon may be as good as those you get from Fortunes of Whitby. These were smoked in Argyll by the Inverawe company. They simply smelt and tasted as though they had just come out of the smoke house. The meat fell off the bones and Stewart (the cat), who is a laid back sort of fellow most of the time, became more animated than I can ever remember seeing him. I wouldn’t say for certain that they are better than Fortunes but they are certainly up there; certainly a kipper worthy of the table for high-tea as well as breakfast.

DSC_0001My favourite meal; some decent bread and cheese, paté and fresh tomatoes all washed down with a clean cup of tea.

DSC_0002I can’t remember the name of the cheese or the paté. Both were bought at Waitrose and both went down very nicely. I wan’t intending doing a food blog so I didn’t keep notes. The tea is Betty’s Blue tea. It compliments this sort of a meal.

DSC_0005If I see the cheese again I will buy it. Cheese is one of our greatest achievements as a species. To be able to get so many different tastes and flavours and aromas into one foodstuff is something to be celebrated. Of course the human species has also, in Dairylea, been able to create a cheese that is almost free of flavour. It’s a decent starting point but a pity if it is also a finishing post.

DSC_0007More blue tea with parkin and apples. Tastes of Autumn.

DSC_0027I did actually make a jack’o’lantern out of this (grown by Steven) but not until I’d made a gently spiced soup and a sweet pie to celebrate Halloween. The spice mix for the soup was cumin, coriander and fenugreek. It was wonderfully warming after spending the morning putting up a fence.

DSC_0036The star here is hidden under a layer of melted butter. Again I cannot remember the name of the firm who made this salmon paté but it was exceptional. It was bought in Waitrose and I will be looking out for it in future. The best of all the ready made fish products we’ve had this year.

 

DSC_0008One of the best ways of looking forward to Christmas is to spend a month or two enjoying the pleasures of simple, one food, meals. If you have a daughter whose chickens can provide you with eggs as good as these then you have no reason to be unhappy….we are extremely happy.

 

DSC_0008The Chatsworth Farm Shop attracts a lot of Vyella shirts, brown brogues and a fair smattering of older men in wine coloured trousers. The clientele are certainly well-heeled. On the whole the stuff on sale is good though one wonders at some of the decisions. We enjoyed a burger in the restaurant. A good burger is a real treat and this was a good burger; first quality meat and perfectly cooked to give those browning reaction aromas on the outside while remaining juicy and delicious inside. The bread was good and a generous green salad was helped with a tangy dressing. Why then add a dollop of floury, over-mayonaised potato salad and a pile of tasteless crisps? Not a criticism. More a suggestion. (Hello Mr Chatsworth kitchen manager, people aren’t coming to your shop to buy crisps.)

The Yorkshire curd tart (Not one for Dr. Spooner) was a little dry but this was taken care of by having it with a generous bunch of grapes.

 

DSC_0011These sausages came from Hambridge of Matlock. We cooked a pan full, sliced a decent loaf and tried them out with a range of pickles. The winning relish being a chutney recipe sent by a Mr Bruce Goodman of North Island New Zealand. It may seem a little greedy to have a whole pan of sausages between two of us and it was! (Though a well-loved border collie collected more than a morsel or two.)

 

DSC_0018According to local legend (and Wikipedia) Arbroath smokies were created when a fire in a salting shed over heated a number of barrels of haddock that were being cured. It burnt down the building but left a culinary gem behind. I love Arbroath Smokies. They are young haddock that are first cured in salt, then air dried before being hot smoked in barrel-like-smokers. This is a big flavoured fish. The haddock isn’t without flavour in itself but all three of the processes add flavour and aromas that make these rather special.

This is Cullen Skink. It’s a wonderful soup made from onion, potato, smoked haddock, milk, cream, parsley and seasoning. Scotland has got a very well deserved reputation for poor diet. If you really wanted to eat badly then Scotland will provide you with plenty of opportunities. It has also given us some of the finest of foods. Cullen Skink is a tremendous soup and all the better for being made with a genuine Arbroath Smokie.

 

DSC_0005This simple risotto is also made from an Arbroath Smokie. The salt house fire is a myth. The people of the East Coast of Britain learned about preserving fish from Denmark and Norway. We owe a great deal of our culture to those who came from elsewhere to make Britain their home (long may this continue). Salt fish, dried fish and particularly smoked fish are a legacy from the vikings. Even accounting for all the middle class people who have started their own smokeries, the vast majority of fish smoking is still done in areas that were once ruled by Danes and Norwegians. The original “red herrings” came from Yarmouth. These were left un-gutted, saturated with salt and then smoked for several weeks. Apparantly they tasted wonderful and lasted for well over a year. The down side was an odour that has left them as a by-word for covering over a scent trail. Smoking began as a means of preserving fish but soon became a way of imparting a range of complex flavours (I’m largely paraphrasing sections of Harold McGee’s Food and Cooking here).

Flavours used to be much stronger because fish had to be able to last longer. The link between food and industry is not always smiled upon but it was one of the main inventions of the industrial revolution that transformed smoking and curing. The steam engine led to railways which in turn allowed food to reach the plate days quicker and both salt and smoke cures became much milder.

Arbroath Smokies are first salted which not only adds a little salt (a flavour enhancer) to the meat but also draws some proteins to the surface. When this is dried it forms a sticky layer that gives the fish an attractive gleam once it has been smoked. I was first attracted to smoked fish by the way they looked. There is an awful lot of pleasure to be had from food of this quality and good food feeds all five senses.

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Fish are either hot smoked or cold smoked. Smokies get the first treatment, kippers get the second. The other difference is that one is a haddock and the kipper is a herring. For centuries the herring has been a great food of the poor all around the coast of Britain. I like herrings in all sorts of ways but this is my favourite.

At one time the kipper (like the sausage) was becoming a factory produced apology of its former self. Large food companies turned out pre-packed kippers by the score. Happily a few of the traditional smokers kept going and enough people insisted on the real thing. Now it isn’t difficult to get first class kippers in different parts of the country. If I was presented with a kipper that looked (and tasted) like the one above in an hotel I would go back again and again. If I got presented with a pre-packed, de-boned imitation I would be looking to check out as soon as possible.

 

Day 420: Head Down for Home

A Journey into Scotland : Part The Last

Thank You and Farewell

From Culloden my journey took me back towards the A9 and my memories fade. I spent the night in Kingussie (sort of pronounced kin  goosey but the first syllable is very soft and gentle) after ploughing over the mountain pass at Slochd Summit. To be honest I was heads down most of the way having received a call to get back to Devon even quicker than planned. I had thought of putting the bicycle on the train but was determined to reach both Malton and Huddersfield as these had been important places in my past and the journey was intended to take in every place I had ever lived. Malton would bring my formative years to an end. From there I got accepted at university and moved to Manchester to begin a new chapter of my life. A chapter that began by leaving school at sixteen with a handful of unimpressive qualifications and a job offer at a petrol filling station.

I stayed on the bicycle and headed south as fast as my legs would take me.

I couldn’t resist anything out of the ordinary and enjoyed brewing up at Carrbridge where the ancient pack bridge is reputed to be the oldest in Scotland. In days gone by the local loons invented their own version of tombstoning here and dived off. These days you’re advised to stay well back. The major damage was done in a flood many years ago. It is quite a sight.

Slochd SummitCarsbridgeAviemoreA steam train near Aviemore. I’m reliably informed that this is as good a view of Aviemore as you are likely to get.

Blair AtholThe road from Kingussie to Perth took me over another high pass at Drumochter. Again the road builders have made this a relatively easy climb for a fit cyclist and I was pretty fit by this time. Once past Pitlochry (where there are many opportunities to top up with short bread, sporrans and Arran sweaters before heading south) the land levels out and you are effectively in Lowland Scotland.

Scotlandcairngormscairngorms 2

I stayed at Perth and then did my first hundred mile plus day by making the border town of Melrose. I continued taking photographs but these have been lost or mis-laid. In a way this whole story has been to write the notes to go with the packs of photographs that remained hidden in a box file for nearly 30 years. The photographs have run out and so has my story. From Melrose I came back into England over Carter Bar. I made it as far as Acomb and the following day slept in Edmundbyers before another all day cycle brought me to Malton. I made it to Huddersfield  and the morning after cycled to Halifax where I caught a train to Preston (as the Huddersfield train wouldn’t take a bicycle). I arrived back in Exeter happy, healthy and owing a few bob.

I completed my score for the theatre company and performed with a few small troupes before accepting a teaching job in Halifax and beginning a career that lasted a quarter of a century.

Thank you for reading. I’ve enjoyed re-living some journeys and sharing a few thoughts on food along the way. I’ll keep the blog open and may even pen a few posts in the future. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your company and reading your blogs (which I shall continue to do) and I wish you all the very best.

Fondest regards

 

Simon

Day 419: Eating The Colours of Autumn

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Mostly Concerning Food

This no meat diet isn’t intended to be an autumnal detox. It’s long term planning. I have every intention of continuing to reduce my overall meat intake and would be quite happy to end up a vegetarian or vegan. It is having a beneficial effect on my health (and waistline) but the real reason, that we identify certain months as meat free, is to encourage us to vary our diet, and see that it is perfectly possible to approach food from a different angle without giving up on any of the things that attract us to food in the first place.

The week starts badly. I’m a huge fan of Mary Berry’s simple recipe for Bara Brith. You soak dried fruit and brown sugar in tea overnight, add flour and an egg in the morning and pop it in the oven. I’ve made it a dozen times or more and it has never been less than wonderful. I’m slowly working my way through the booklets of recipes by Paul Hollywood that came with the weekend newspapers. He’s got a more sophisticated recipe that involves cooking apples and plums and spices. It’s essentially the same principle and I’m up early on Sunday morning to add the flour et al to the fruit that has been soaking. It is only when I’ve got everything else combined that I realise that we have no eggs. I try to get in touch with Frances to see if her chickens can help out and am prepared to make a twenty mile dash. Happily my early morning text doesn’t upset her slumber. The local Spar shop opens at 8, by which time the other ingredients have waited over two hours. It isn’t to be recommended. I pop it into the oven anyway which is where problem number two kicks in unseen. Our oven has put in a good dozen years’ service and needs a little care and maintenance every now and then. It gets a new seal in mid week but on Sunday it is cooking colder than we think. The Bara Brith eventually delivers up a clean skewer. It is cooked but… it bears a stronger resemblance to bread pudding than tea bread. I’ll have another go sometime. In the meantime…pass the custard!

The week ends with another Hollywood recipe. This time it’s Parkin and this time it’s perfect. I’m very taken with the idea of a culinary tour of Britain; either involving travelling or simply involving regional recipes. Parkin is closely associated with Yorkshire and with bonfire night. I’m not anti-Catholic enough for bonfire night but I’m very fond of all sorts of gingerbread; and Parkin is one of my favourites.

In between times there are lots of dishes that I love but which don’t seem right somehow in the summer. I can see no real reason for not having a baked potato in June but it tastes nicer with a gathering October gloom outside. The same is true of macaroni cheese and fish pie. Maybe beans on toast as well though that is such a perfect stand-by that it does useful service throughout the year.

DSC_0001Sultana Bran, a little semi-skimmed milk and good coffee in a favourite cup and saucer goes well with the Sunday papers.

DSC_0003Not a spectacular success. Enjoyable all the same; though I wouldn’t hand it out to guests: especially if they came from Wales.

DSC_0006What better way to test if the oven is working properly than by baking some potatoes? Opinions vary over such a simple meal. Some folk like to rub them with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. I do this from time to time and the results are very nice. It does seem a little indulgent though and rather undermines the baked potato’s role as a low fat meal. Mind you, by the time I’ve added butter and cheese, that argument is slightly redundant.

I prick the potatoes with a fork a few times on each surface. Some people say this prevents them getting really crisp. I say it also prevents them from exploding in the oven.

These skins are crisp and delicious and the centres soft and floury. The cheese is a rather good Red Leicester from Waitrose. A reasonable amount of flavour and a blaze of colour.

DSC_0007Banana bread. Easy to make and even easier to eat. T made this fellow and it was a good deal better baked than my tea loaf.

DSC_0009With a nod of acknowledgment and gratitude to Selma’s Kitchen. Here are some tortillas with Leerdammer cheese and sweet chilli sauce. Turned once to give a grid pattern.

DSC_0012The Red Leicester  does excellent service for this macaroni cheese. Simply cook the macaroni and pour over a cheese sauce (made the roux sauce way with butter, plain flower and milk.) There is a good teaspoon of English mustard in there along with salt and pepper as well as the cheese. The last of the grated cheese and some grated breadcrumbs are sprinkled over the top and 15 minutes in the oven completes the dish.

DSC_0015Four days this week I got stuck in the office and didn’t have time to make a proper lunch. I don’t like crisps very much but they fill a gap. Something I don’t like much but which I’m strangely attracted to at certain times. It used to be cigarettes. I’m happy with the trade.

DSC_0021This tri-coloured pasta from Aldi is actually very good indeed. Here it is served with a simple sauce made from onions, green pepper (the last one from the garden), plenty of chestnut mushrooms and a tin of anchovies. It was a little strong (the anchovies!) until we added a spoon of Greek yoghurt. Then it was difficult to turn down a second helping. Well, I found it difficult. Impossible actually.

DSC_0023An unintentional pudding.

DSC_0024Bon Maman cherry compote with Greek yoghurt. I normally have shredded wheat for breakfast and an apple each time I walk the dog. This gave a different way of enjoying fruit in the morning. Really fresh and really clean flavours and textures.

DSC_0025The rest of the mushrooms gently cooked, first in olive oil and then with knob of butter and some finely chopped garlic added. When they were nearly done I popped the bread in the toaster and some Henderson’s Relish (like Lea and Perrins except from Sheffield and much better) and a few drops of Tabasco in with the mushrooms. Who needs bacon?

DSC_0026 DSC_0027 DSC_0029This fish pie is made with frozen fish. Cod and salmon from Aldi and a packet of king prawns. The potatoes are Desiree and the sauce is a simple roux with lots of fresh parsley added. Comfort food at its very best.

DSC_0032 DSC_0033Gingerbreads are easy to make. Dry ingredients stay together, butter is melted with golden syrup and black treacle and two eggs are beaten into some milk. Then everything is beaten together and poured into a baking tin.

DSC_0035I cannot recommend this meal highly enough. Easy, nutritious and very very tasty. I’ve even stopped buttering the toast to make it even healthier. I recommend the book as well. Especially if you are a dog lover.

DSC_0037Yorkshire Parkin made to a Paul Hollywood recipe surrounded by some of the ingredients for a chutney from an 1896 recipe for which I am indebted to Mr Bruce Goodman of New Zealand who writes one of the best blogs on the internet.

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DSC_0003DSC_0005The chutney gave a lovely focus to Friday evening. I used to wait for weeks, months even, before trying chutneys like this. This one comes from a 120 year old recipe. I reckon it has waited long enough and try some straight away on a cheese sandwich. It tastes delicious. The colours of autumn are now complete in both the garden and the store cupboard. Bring on the winter.

Day 418: When the Night Came, Silently Lay

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A Journey into Scotland : Part 56

The Last Battle on British Soil

Many’s the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.*

My father owned two great cars in his life: both were Wolseleys. The better of the two was the car in which he drove us from Thurso to Barrow in the summer of 1965. It was an epic journey. In the time before motorways, when roads followed the landscape rather than defined it, it took three days. My mother sat up front with my little sister. Four of us stretched out in the back. It smelled of leather and wood, and a big central armrest doubled as a booster seat that allowed me to see out of the windows. I have no remembrance of ever suffering travel sickness in that car. The old photograph shows us washing it outside our Thurso house. It can’t have been taken many weeks before we set off.

The first stop was Inverness where we leaned out of out hotel bedroom window to watch a kilted pipe band march up the street in the twilight. It was a military band. The marching and playing had a glorious precision. There are a lot of memories of pipe bands tucked away from those days. It isn’t the sort of sight you are likely to forget.

IMAG0022-002Once I’d soaked out the strains of the day in a deep and foaming bath I took a walk around the streets. I wasn’t in a city frame of mind though. This was a ‘getting it together in the country’ tour. There were some impressive buildings and some that looked as out of place and dismal as concrete shopping centres do wherever they are. The  River Ness was more to my fancy and I sat on a bench and marvelled at the clean, fast moving river. An awful lot of streams flow into Loch Ness one way or another. Only one flows out and it does so at a good pace..

Inverness Hotel RoomI wasn’t used to staying in hotels in those days and deemed the sachets of tea and coffee as being something worthy of a photograph. My cravatted host had made a big point of telling me not to ride off with the room key so it was with a certain schadenfreude that I discovered it in my pocket as I reached a hillside vantage the following morning. (I later posted it back.) Inverness spread around the waters like a garment.  This was a well-dressed landscape indeed. From the Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth to the distant mountains of Ross and Cromarty all perfectly seen over a field of late growing oats. In one panorama I was looking at the entire northern part of the handsomest country on the planet and the most recent seven days of my life.

Inverness from southThat was looking back. Within a handful of miles I was standing on an altogether bleaker patch of earth. The scrub and heather and fading autumn grasses of the location of the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Since Glenfinnan, on the road to the Isles, I had been following the story of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). I find him a difficult man to like and a more difficult man to admire but he certainly had a year of it. His adventure began when he landed on Eriksay in July 1745. He intended to claim the British crown back for the Stuart dynasty and, for a while, he was more successful than anyone could have imagined. The enterprise saw him easily defeat a British force under the humiliated “Johnny Cope” at Prestonpans, establish himself in Edinburgh before leading an invading army into England. They reached Derby without any problem and then turned back for reasons that have remained under dispute. He was followed over the Shap fells by the armies of General Wade and the Prince of Cumberland.

Since 1746 it has been possible to determine the allegiance to Charlie or Cumberland by what one calls the flower dianthus barbarous. Supporters of the Hanoverian claim have long referred to it as the Sweet William. It is certainly an attractive addition to any summer border. If you cut it and leave it too long in the vase though, it will reek your house out and have you reaching for the air freshener. It could be this, as well as a lasting memory of a cruel legacy, that led Scots to refer to the flower as the Stinking Billy and of the Duke of Cumberland as a butcher.

By the time Charles chose this barren, flat, windswept and marshy ground to engage the English army his star was well and truly on the wane. He’d had many highs in his annus mirabilis. Culloden was a very deep low.

cullodenHe was a charismatic man, but he wasn’t a military man. His ego has been blamed for turning down advice from more experienced campaigners and his leadership of the 7000 men who fought for the Jacobite cause that day was inept. Having said that, it is difficult to see how any general would have brought about a different outcome. He was out-gunned, out manoeuvred, out numbered and out-thought. Military tactics had moved on. The one great Scottish weapon was a frightening and courageous charge armed with sword or dagger. (Heroic paintings portray the clansmen with both and a round shield or targe to protect themselves. Evidence in the aftermath of the battle suggests that only one in five clansmen had a sword. Over a thousand lay dead after an hour. Only 190 swords were recovered.) The charge had won many a battle in the past. It had worked at Prestonpans less than a year before. At Culloden flags mark out where the armies and generals stood (Charlie was out of sight and gave orders without being able to see what was going on). Flags also show a break in a natural enclosure where English snipers hid and picked off the rampaging Scotsmen. Many were dead before the first reached the English ranks. Some managed to break through. But these were easily picked off by the muskets of the second English line.

The first shots of the battle were fired at one o’clock. By three o’clock the Bonnie Prince had fled and the Jacobite army was in tatters. The aftermath can either be seen as ruthless efficiency or cruel oppression. The clans tradition, which had outlasted most other feudal systems in western Europe, was ended. The Stuart claim to the throne faded away and any glory or honour to be salvaged from the “45 Rebellion” was left to the bards and the storytellers. Charlie’s story continues through a series of escapes and places of hiding. The most famous sees him bound from Benbecula to Skye dressed as a woman. He eventually returned to France and later Italy where he never quite gave up on the idea that he was “the lad that’s born to be king.”

It’s a scrubby tract of ground. As bleak as any I’d trodden since arriving in Scotland. It has changed in many ways since that fateful day. There is a visitor centre. In 1987 these were still new and were deemed essential to the re-enactment of the historic experience. I had an open mind towards them back then. The one at Culloden helped to develop a tired cynicism. This was the kilts, claymores and shortbread version of Scottish history. “Welcome to the place where two thousand men were led to an inglorious and painful death. Lets have fun!”

Outside praise should be given to the way the battlefield has been allowed to stay tussocky, bleak and forbidding. Of all the many fields I’ve visited where battles have been fought, Culloden has the strongest feeling of the pity and sadness of war.culloden 2

 

*from The Skye Boat Song lyrics Sir Harold Boulton

Day 417: The Road to Inverness

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A Journey into Scotland : Part 55

The hostel was cold and grey. A handful of faces looked up at me as I walked in with my bags. I found a bunk and then responded to a request that had all residents walking to a cold and grey pub where we found the silences  growing longer. Sometimes you drop lucky with who you meet on your travels and sometimes you don’t. We haven’t stayed in touch. In the morning I pedalled away from Helmsdale a little faster than I ought to have done. In the brightness of the October sun it is an attractive little town with an eventful history.

This is where the railway line turns inland. The hairpin braes of Berriedale were too much for the engineers  and they reluctantly chose the option of running the track up to Thurso and Wick across the Flow Country. (If you want to take in the beauty of that bogland then the train is the best way to travel). The village was one of many that were planned and built to accommodate crofters cleared from the hinterland. In 1814 the landowners saw greater profits in having sheep rather than people on the moors. The villagers were employed as fishermen and soon Helmsdale had a herring fleet to rival any in Britain. In 1868 a nugget of gold was found upstream of the town which sparked a rush to the Sutherland hills. Despite panning every stream no great fortunes were made.

As it progresses south the A9 slowly becomes a major road. I have little choice but to stay on it for as long as it remains safe. Once the eight o’clock travellers have found their places of work I’ve only the lorry drivers to concern me and I’ve always found professional drivers (lorry drivers are qualified, van drivers aren’t) show greater courtesy to cyclists than most other road users. The worst of the hills are behind me and the morning passes amiably enough with heathery hillsides stretching upwards on my right and occasional views out over the North Sea to my left.

Brora was one of those names that cropped up every January (of my childhood) in the football results. I always liked the first round of the cup competitions when the usual Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Stranraer were joined by the vaguely threatening; Brora Rangers,  the rather lovely; Linlithgow Rose, and the downright overblown; Inverness Clachnacuddin. Many Scottish football teams sound made up: Cowdenbeath, Stenhousmuir: but these are real and fine places. Brora was very real that morning. I passed through knowing I would, from that moment on, be someone who had been there. I continue to wear that thought with pride.

The sun was shining on Golspie and a glimpse of beach tempted me to buy a paper, pop and a Mars Bar for a half hour rest with the waves lapping. It is a stunningly beautiful beach, it would have been a shame to miss it. In the paper a friend of mine from Exeter is trading stories with punk poet Attila the Stockbroker. I’ve come a long way to read banter I could have shared at home. After twenty four hours of being starved of decent conversation, it is very welcome.

Dornoch FirthI want to call in at Dornoch and should have done. This was the scene of our earliest holiday and the only one spent in a caravan. I was very young but carried fond memories of the word Dornoch for years afterwards. My only tangible memory is of thousands of blood-red jellyfish washed up upon the sands. I was captivated rather than repulsed. The more I contemplate the enquiring and curious little boy that I was, the more I like him and the more I wish to re-capture his many qualities.

Today an impressive new bridge carries the road over the Dornoch Firth. In 1987 I had to cycle the full length of the inlet and, even with my timetable drawing me south, I found this no burden at all. This is a landscape worth travelling to see, and, once you’ve put in the travelling, it would be a pity not to linger.

I’ve written before about the bicycle being the perfect way to see the countryside. You go fast enough to get to where you are going and slow enough to be able to enjoy what there is to enjoy. There is a lot to enjoy along the Dornoch Firth. The weather is warming. The sun shines through an ever changing cloudscape. Cycling can focus your thoughts better than almost any activity I know of. I cannot, after nearly thirty years, remember what my thoughts were about but I can remember the twelve miles to the head of the loch passed happily.

Dornoch Firth 2On the southern shore I’m given a choice. Keep to the main road or take a smaller road over the tops to the next Firth down. The main road is likely to be smoother, flatter. The smaller road is likely to be quite an incline. I’m ready for it and turn into the woods.

Some climbs take it out of your legs, and some put it back in. This was a long, long pull that continued for miles. Always a challenge and always a delight. I kept in the saddle all the way through the greenwood trees and through the conifers above and out onto the open moorland with its blaze of purple. It is for such moments that we ride bicycles. It took me perhaps forty minutes to reach the top and in that time I passed two cars. On the top I had everything to myself. It was almost  a hidden world up there, a valley between two peaks. Not the towering munros of other parts. These were substantial hills rather than mountains but an eagle wouldn’t have been out of place. With blood pumping through my calves I just wanted to ride and breathe. I hadn’t expected this stretch of road. It was a sheer delight.

The southern side saw the road following the path of a stream. By the time I needed to pedal agin, the stream had become a small river. There were a scattering of houses on this side of the hill. It faces south. It makes sense. Occasional glimpses of silver among the green tell me that I’m approaching the Cromarty Firth. Smoke is blowing across and strange skeletal structures seem to be standing out in the water. The smoke is from stubble fires. In 1987 farmers were still permitted to burn off the chaff and stalks of the harvested fields before ploughing. I had no idea what the metal structures were until the whole inland sea came into view.

Cromarty Firth?-001They were oil rigs. This isn’t an oilfield but a place where rigs are built. From where I’m riding the Firth looks shallow. The rigs give some indication that this inlet is actually one of the most important deep water anchorages in British waters. There was a mutiny here in the 1930s and after the second world war the Royal Navy moved away leaving the Firth to the merchant fleet, fisher folk and now the oilmen.

This Firth (both the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths are arms of the much larger Moray Firth which cuts off the northern section of Scotland) has been bridged. From a distance the structure looks like an over-extended clapper bridge. Maybe strong enough and wide enough for a pack horse or a laden bicycle. Surely not the main north south route. It grew and by the time I was pedalling across it felt big enough. It was certainly long enough. Not far short of a mile.

Cromarty Firth BridgeJust the fabled Black Isle lay between me and my destination. This is one of those “not really an island’ isles that can be found in different parts of the country (see Barrow Island or the Isle of Ely). It was here that the first clearances took place. Until recently it had retained its own Gaelic dialect. The last speaker was Bobby Hogg. The dialect died with him in 2012. For many years he was the only speaker and often felt that for all of his best efforts to pass on his knowledge, he might just as well have been talking to himself.

The last thirteen miles are over this ancient land in a gathering twilight. Inverness seemed busy. It was the biggest town I had been to for weeks and lots of tourists had had the same thought as me. The tourist office informed me that there was hardly a bed to be had. I couldn’t stand another night in a dormitory with people talking about under clothes which “wicked the water away”. At a small private hotel I was greeted by a man wearing a cravat. I was too tired to let this put me off and I signed in. His breath smelled heavily of whisky and that could have accounted for the unusually low price. The room was lovely though. A big bed, a bath and nobody to disturb the peace.

 

 

map of north of scotland

My route around the north. The dotted line should have detoured up to Bonar Bridge for total accuracy.

Day 416: Turning for Home

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A Journey into Scotland : Part 54

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet*

I made two phone calls on my evening in Thurso. One to my father where he found he had more to say than he thought, and rang me back. It was as well I’d found a quiet phone box or there would have been quite a queue. He wished he could be with me and his reminiscences gave me a map and a plan for the morrow. The second call was my daily report back home. On these I’d catch up with events and state my new location. By the time I got back home a large scale Shell Road Map of Britain, hanging in the hallway, was adorned with coloured pins marking out my route.

On this occasion there was some extra news. The theatre company who had commissioned music from me had confirmed a contract and wanted to meet up. The beeps sounded** and, amid the hasty goodbyes, she remembers that a lecturer from the university had called and was also keen to talk to me. I’d been away for a fortnight and I couldn’t afford another two weeks. The ride had been to find a state of mind that would help me make the right decision about taking a job in teaching. A greater part of me wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life doing what I was doing now. But doing what I was doing, though not extravagant, cost money and I wasn’t earning any. My university colleagues were now banking first pay cheques. I had the offer from the theatre company and a good chance of more of these to come. But these were for smaller amounts, came sporadically and couldn’t guarantee to supply the needs of a growing family.

I’d come to journey’s end. Now was time to turn around and get back home as quickly as I could. All the same time I was aware that there was a lot of countryside to see, a lot of mind clearing miles to pedal, and , once I got back to England, a number of old home towns to cycle around. Just because the need to earn some money was looming up didn’t mean that the adventure had lost a single jot of its importance to me. It did result in some hard-hearted decisions in order to be back in Devon (and Yorkshire) in time to attend those meetings. Some of those decisions I now believe I got wrong. And the first of these was not to cycle out to John O’ Groats and to follow the coast down through Wick. Both these places held strong memories for me: both would have been worth a short detour.

The bonus was that I got to cycle across the interior of Caithness. Not many would regard Caithness as the most beautiful of our counties but then, not that many, relatively speaking, have been there. It is a different sort of beauty. An austere sort of beauty. Perhaps the last genuine wilderness in the British Isles.

But first I had to drag myself away from Thurso. I’d cycled over five hundred miles to reach this town. I’d waited nearly a quarter of a century to get here and I was in no rush to leave. I walked out to the castle and along the beach. Memories of coming here with my mother as a three year old came flooding back. My entire time in Thurso had been like a Proustian recollection. Everything I saw or touched brought memories and those memories inspired further memories. I wandered the old town and the estates with a constant smile on my lips and a steady tear in my eye.

The rain fell steadily and a stiff breeze blew in from the south west. I took a seat in a café and, over a cup of coffee that tasted of the early sixties, read my first newspaper since leaving Exeter. I glanced over the football results and fell into conversation with a lorry driver.

The sea had kept me company for much of the journey and now I was turning inland. The road was all I could have wished for; well paved, slick, flat and empty. After five hundred miles of hills I had finally found a flat bit of Scotland. If the wind wasn’t slanting cold rain into my face I think I would have been perfectly happy.

The town disappeared almost as soon as I was over the bridge. The Thurso River is rather beautiful. Upstream it is prized for its salmon. The road largely follows the line of the river, though rarely within sight. As you’d expect, the Caithness on either side of this main route is more cultivated, but even here it is tough pasture and occasional crops. Further out it quickly reverts to wetland. Caithness is the home to the Flow Country; the largest area of blanket bog in Europe; some 1500 square miles of it. A wonderful wilderness and home to many species of birds and insects. At the time I was cycling a terrible period of exploitation was coming to an end. Once again the conifer was the culprit. Or, more to the point, those who saw the profit in planting millions of non native trees in this country were to blame. The results here were catastrophic. The wetlands were ploughed and planted and the trees simply sucked up the water and dried out the bogs. Vast fortunes were being made. Many a pop star and light entertainer was offered tax breaks to invest. The damage soon became apparent. So much so that Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, scrapped the forestry tax reliefs and the devastation slowed. In recent years the RSPB has acquired a large area of the damaged land. The young trees have been felled and left to rot in their furrows. The hope is that the protected land will revert to its natural state. I hope so. This is a place of wonder.

A road sign, just before Halkirk, maps out my journey for the next two days. There is only one road I can take and everywhere on the sign is a place I will visit; Latheron, Helmsdale, Brora and, the lure at the end of the line, Inverness. My schedule said I could be in the capital of the Highlands by teatime tomorrow.

The wind and rain were more at home over these bleak and lovely lands than I was. I got into a rhythm and pedalled and pedalled. Two weeks of good exercise were firmly in my legs. There is an exhilaration in churning out the miles and I began to smell the sea air once more. I knew I was getting close to Sutherland; the hills had returned. Scotland had given me my thirty flat miles and was now going to show me what ups and downs really meant. I’d been told about Berriedale by the lorry driver in the Thurso café.

“Aye, it’s all flat enough until you reach the sea and then…” he sucked in his cheeks and let his non verbal skills intimate an ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ mien. He seemed to take the same time as anyone else in saying the word ‘Berriedale’ but he managed to get the ‘rr’s rolling like a pneumatic hammer.

“It’s nae so bad these days, though by that I mean it is merely difficult. Difficult in a car, never mind on a bicycle.” He was enjoying laying on the  doom that awaited me. “In the old days the hairpin bends made it like an alpine mountain. They’ve widened it now and eased out some of those bends. Lorries used to get stuck on there every winter.”

In the old days the Berriedale Braes had been a formidable obstacle. The railway line had been taken inland (over the Flow Country) to avoid them. I’d been so warned of the dangers that when I merely found a severe downhill, with bends and vertical drops, followed by  a half hour of pushing the bicycle up the opposite slope, I almost felt disappointed. I’d been led to expect the entrance into the valley of the shadow of death and got a spectacular piece of coast road instead.

Between Berriedale and Helmsdale the road continues to go up and down. I hadn’t covered a huge number of miles but I’d blown myself out. Helmsdale had a youth hostel and I welcomed the chance to dry out and rest. The rain hadn’t stopped and neither had I. I hadn’t taken a single photograph.

 

In lieu of photographs I’ve found this short film on Youtube. I’ve made every effort to contact the film-maker to ask permission to include it but the addresses seem to be out of date. It’s a lovely film and one that I am sure he would be happy to share (he has put it on Youtube after all).

* from Inversnaid by Gerard Manly Hopkins

** beeps sounded about ten seconds before your money ran out and the line went dead on public pay phones.

Day 415: God Save the Queen: I’ll Drink to That!

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A Journey into Scotland : Part 53

“While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy”*

School started badly for me but wasn’t all unhappiness. I loved singing lessons and learning a clutch of Scottish folk tunes. I can still sing the first line of many before becoming stuck. One day the school was more bustleful than usual. Things were in preparation for something big. I had no idea. My family are not ardent royalists and a visit by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh didn’t register on the family calendar. It certainly registered on the school’s. I seemed to be the only one of my fellows without a little union jack. I also seemed to be the only one who was surprised when lessons were abandoned for the day to allow us to line the streets of Thurso to pay our homage.

Miller AcademyMy brother was chosen to lead the crocodile of children. Proud as Punch and adopting the natural leadership qualities of a future Woolf or Churchill, he soon had the rest of the school following him along the main street and, thinking it would save everybody a good deal of time, over the rough ground, round the building site and was just leading his men into the ginnel that was our short-cut home when he was caught up by the first of the classroom teachers, lifting their skirts and running full pelt in a fair impression of Dorothy Hyman and Fanny Blankers-Koen. The crocodile was reversed and my bother found himself at the back as we took our places along the main road to watch the big black car go by. I was very proud to be his brother. He had been within an ace of us missing the royal procession and ending up with two hundred children on the grass in front of our house.

The union jacks were waved. The Thurso streets are not wide and we were right at the front as the procession went by. The smiling female face in the car was very close. We didn’t have a television so I didn’t recognise her. Not having a flag, I drew out a well used handkerchief, and waved that instead. A life-long attitude towards royalty was set in stone in that minute.

On returning to lessons we were led in procession up a back staircase, of the adjoining big school, to take it in turns to view the Royal Yacht Britannia at anchor in Thurso Bay. It was a pointless and cap-doffing gesture. The ship (I was always confused why such a big, sail-less vessel should be called a yacht) was visible from just about any vantage point in the town.

I rode my bicycle along the front trying to find where we must have stood to wave. The most likely place offered a far better view of the entire bay than the pokey window on the second floor of the school. It also showed me a wide stretch of green that already had two tents on it. It was a municipal camp site and it solved my accommodation problems. The tent was up, the tea was brewed and the Scotch pie I’d bought from Collett-MacPhearson’s  was enjoyed with a tin of baked beans. The food tasted good, the view was incredible (Thurso has one of the best beaches in all of Scotland; and beyond this, rugged cliffs all the way to Dounreay in one direction and John O”Groats in the other…and that is to ignore the Orkneys sitting out there close enough to be a lure, far enough away to be semi-mythical) and, this being Caithness, the wind was blowing fit to freshen the weariest.

IMAG0019Showered and neat in a change of clothes I set out to explore the old town. My Thurso was the remembrances of a five year old. Not surprisingly they included the estate where we lived, the shop and the school. The town was more of a mystery. I remember being taken in a few times on a Saturday morning by my father and always ending in a wood panelled bar room that smelt badly of last night’s drink. I’d be given a glass of lemonade and allowed to sit rigid and bored as grown men discussed materials for casings and chambers in power stations while downing pints of beer. After a while, having nothing better to do, I’d start to read the front page of the newspaper which drew patronising comments from the drink affected men. “Look at the little chap reading The Times. He almost looks as though he understands it.” And I was confused. And wondered if the understanding I got from the words was some sort of second rate grasp of what the words really meant. Thank goodness for a patient mother and older brothers and sister who encouraged me with my reading. There seemed to be a conspiracy of other adults to put me off the trail.

After a while some well meaning chap with breath like a brewery would take it upon himself to entertain the glum faced child. This invariably meant some demonstration of scientific principles. “Now, would you like to see your lemonade bubble all by itself?” and not waiting for an answer would proceed to drop a teaspoon full of Demerara sugar from a sugar bowl into my drink. It bubbled and the great man would stare at me as though he were Pierre Curie. “Well what do you think of that?” he would ask expectingly. I’d offer up signs of amazed appreciation while thinking that the one compensation of this Saturday ritual had just been ruined. The pop now tasted horrible  and was as flat as dishwater.

Thurso ChurchThurso is a handsome town. Like New York or Paris it was all laid out to a master plan in the nineteenth century. The streets are narrow and the stone of the buildings shows different colours depending on the weather. In summer it can almost be honey like but under glowering skies it was grey and cold. It seemed self-contained to me. Small shops selling things they probably sold when I was last in town; wool and knitting needles, hardware, guns and cartridges and fishing rods. Up here if you ask someone if they are a sportsman they will presume that you mean hunting and fishing. To take the field means literally taking the field not running onto an acre of mown grass with a leather ball.

Thurso RiverBill Bryson writes about the weekly migration of women shoppers by train to Inverness to experience the delights of Boots and Marks and Spencer. For me there is everything I could need up here. Good architecture, big skies, and a hundred thousand acres of solitude to explore (just so long as you don’t get caught by the ghillies**, which I believe can be very painful!).

I felt proud of my association as I wandered along the early evening streets. With so much of Britain becoming homogenised, here was a place that was defiantly different. Here is a part of the world where independence is part of the DNA. Locals claim to be  descended from vikings as much as from anyone coming from the south. It had been an important viking port for hundreds of years and its very name derives from their most famous god.

It is a town where powerful land meets powerful sea. The Romantic poets wandered the English lakes and made excursions to the Alps. They were never up here which is a pity. They would have loved it. We have George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies showing us what Orcadian air does for the creative imagination. I’m in search of a Caithness poet who can catch the magnificence of this place. So far I’ve only found ones who use the words ‘bonnie’ and ‘lassie’ a bit too often.

IMAG0031That night I go to the Pentland Hotel and recognise the scene of my childhood torment. I fall into conversation with a nuclear engineer from Princess Risborough and an officer from the United States Navy. (There was a large American military base just outside the town.) They buy me a pint of McEwan’s 70 Shillings. Some fresh blood is readily welcomed into their bar-prop philosophical group. They are extremely intelligent and obviously well remunerated men with a lot to say about the world. They don’t, however, appear to be happy people. I enjoy two pints of beer with them but have the feeling I’m taking part in a discussion that has happened before and will happen again.

As I curl up in my tent two final memories sweep into my mind. One of a band of the Royal Marines marching up our street on an evening in the early sixties. The second of being awoken by my brother to look at the sky at midnight. The sun had gone down but the sky was still showing day. Not quite the land of the midnight sun but a land where the problem is still what to do once the sun has passed the yardarm.

IMAG0012-001

Photographs:

  • My big brother’s school: Miller Academy, Thurso
  • My granddad on the beach at Thurso. The apparent snow is neither weather nor the age of the film. All pictures taken on my granddad’s camera revealed a snow storm.
  • The Episcopalian Church, Thurso
  • The Thurso River
  • A Caithness landscape with three children and a deer
  • The family Johnson somewhere in northern Scotland with new baby and Grandma Johnson (taken in yet another summer blizzard by granddad)

*from Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns

**Ghillie: a gamekeeper who may also act as an expert companion when stalking (deer) or catching salmon.

Day 414: Who Taught You to Read?

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A Journey into Scotland : Part 52

I remember, I remember
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing*

If you go due north from Thurso (the name means Thor’s river mouth) the next landfall is the North Pole. As that is only a floating mass of ice, and a precarious one at that, you must continue, now heading due south, before you meet solid ground on the Siberian Peninsular. That makes a total of 3,500 miles of open sea between Thurso and the next landfall. Of course you could always veer a tiny bit to the east and go to the Orkneys. A ferry from Scrabster to Stromness takes 90 minutes.

It is perhaps the biggest regret of this journey that I didn’t get onto that ferry. Not that I wasted my time by staying in Thurso. It simply would have been nice to visit the Orkneys. George Mackay Brown was still living in Stromness at the time of this cycle ride. I would never have had the nerve or cheek to call on him but it would have been something to have been in the environment that inspired his verses. I’ve long admired the composer Peter Maxwell Davies (Sir) and feel there must be something in the Orcadian air that could only have done me good. I didn’t catch the ferry. I stayed in Thurso and that was the best thing to do.

Before they built the nuclear power station at Dounreay, Thurso was a town of 3,000 people on the banks of a river with which it shares a name. The town is laid out on a classic grid pattern around a central square. In the late fifties the town tripled in size, almost overnight, as first construction workers and then a thousand or more or the country’s leading scientists and engineers made their home in mainland Britain’s most northerly town. Large estates went up overnight, including the one we lived on. Curving street patterns of crescents and circles were added to the nineteenth century north south grid. The town absorbed this revolution remarkably well. It doesn’t look like an old town with a new town attached. It is still small by the standards of important settlements. You can walk across it at a gentle amble and sit on the low hills to the west and watch crows and gulls on the low hills to the east.

This is a town whose Nordic and Gaelic roots are as strong as its British. Stavanger in Norway is as close to Thurso as Newcastle is. I met cyclists who said they were (like me) pedalling around Scotland, but who never ventured further north than Inverness. Inverness is indeed a long way north. Thurso is 110 miles further. It’s on the same latitude as Juneau in Alaska.

IMAG0013All of my earliest memories are here and most of my earliest memories are happy ones. This was a place to explore. Our street was the very edge of the new town. We looked out over fields and moss and untamed bog land. From the back bedroom window you could see miles of open country and the harbour at Scrabster and out to sea. Some said you could see the Old Man of Hoy from the the top of the street. Geographically this is unlikely as the sea pillar is hidden behind Rora Head but you could certainly see a fair chunk of the island of Hoy. 

The world I was growing up in was ancient old and brave and new at the same time. The estate where we lived, where we spent a good part of our time was squeaky new. Everyone who lived there had come from somewhere else. There were some strong Scottish accents at the local school (particularly among the teachers) but there were also accents from most other parts of Britain. I spent nearly five years there. Five years in which I learnt to speak, learnt to read, spent twelve hours a day out playing with friends or exploring the local fields and beaches. Five years in which I started school and sang in a Scottish carol service and yet I returned to Furness after all of this with a broad Barrow accent.

IMAG0014I pedalled around the streets I’d known a quarter century earlier and knew not only the main thoroughfares but the back alleys too; the shortcuts, the snickets, ginnels and passageways. I had kept this knowledge hidden, even from myself. Only when I turned one corner did I suddenly know what was around the next. Trees had grown, the houses no longer  so new that they smelt of the linseed in the putty and the paint. Apart from this nothing had changed. It was a safe and happy place to be a child. I was only five or six when we left yet I had been used to going out alone, well beyond the confines of where my mother could look out and see me playing. (And, I hasten to add, she was the very opposite of a neglectful parent).

Every father worked at Dounreay. They all came home at five thirty and sat with the paper in the best chair. After tea they would dig the new back garden and grow vegetables one year before deciding that the local climate and the thin layer of soil, left by the house builders, was more suited to a lawn. In the evenings a great deal of alcohol was drunk both in the hotels and in people’s homes. It was a superb place to be a curious and exploring child who didn’t have to go to school. It was not always such a fine place to be an adult used to cinemas and theatres and the life of bigger towns further south. Once the day was done there wasn’t a great deal to do and many filled the empty spaces with drink.

Thurso HomeMy old house was unmistakable. Seeing it was a peculiar feeling. I no longer had anything to do with it. No right to any of it, yet it was inside me as an integral part of who I was; who I am. I didn’t want to intrude in any way but I did want a photograph to show to brothers and sisters to link us back with our past. Today there is no way that I would knock on the door and ask if they’d take a photograph of me on their front step. In 1987 it took a lot of courage and not a little cheek. The lady was delighted to take a picture of me. Even showed me through into the garden (which seemed much smaller than I remembered) and posed with her baby for a photograph of her own.

Over tea she told me everything she thought I might want to know about the Thurso of the 1980s. She didn’t recognise any of the names of the people I had known, had grown up with. I suppose they all drifted back to England as well. The house looked well. It suited a young family and this young family seemed very happy indeed.

Thurso Home Front DoorI thanked her for her great kindness. The house may belong to different people in a different time but there was still enough there to spark the memories. I’m dodging black and white memories of footballs and bogeys (homemade go-carts) from the early sixties as I make my way up towards the shop and the school.

The modest building is still a shop though the name has changed. To my infant eyes this had been a veritable Bloomingdales or Harrods. This was Collett McPhearsons. An emporium that sold everything. I once put a birthday sixpence into the chocolate machine on the wall outside. The coin dropped into a void and the drawer wouldn’t budge. I told the lady behind the counter and there were no questions asked. She gladly gave me a bar of chocolate from the in shop display, patted me on the head and sent me on my way.

Collett McPhearsonThe closest descriptions, to the freedom and quiet adventure of my own childhood, that I have read is in To Kill a Mockingbird. There the pre-school Scout Finch seems to have the same licence to roam her home neighbourhood as I had. We never had a Boo Radley but when I got to the gates of my very first school I was reminded of something else we had in common.

I’d longed to go to school. I envied my brothers and sister as they set off each morning. They’d tell me all they had been doing, all they had been learning and somehow, along with being read to by my mother, I had become a pretty good reader by the time I turned five. Like Scout, I couldn’t recall a time when reading wasn’t a part of what I did.

I cannot remember my teacher’s name. I’d waited years to go to school. On my first day I’d forbidden my mother from going with me (she followed just out of sight). I’d been given a desk next to a boy called Scott, and a tidy box to keep my books and counting shells and pencils in. The teacher then asked the class if any of them knew what was on the black board. She had written the alphabet in upper and lower case in the sort of careful calligraphy I have always envied. I put my hand up and on command began to read out the letters.

I thought she’d be pleased with me for saving her the job of having to teach me. She was furious. More furious than I had ever seen an adult get with a child.

“Who taught you to read?” she demanded.

I didn’t know. It was just something I had grown to do. I still don’t know who taught me to read. She held forth for as long as I could stand. If she hadn’t stopped I’m sure I would have cried and that was something I was determined not to do on my first day. I had never looked forward to anything as much as starting school and by lunchtime the fire of that enthusiasm had died. It never re-kindled.

Pennyland School

* from I Remember I Remember by Thomas Hood

**in the early Thurso pictures I’m the one by the Austin A30 (my granddad’s car) looking away to my left. In the photo taken on Thurso beach we seem to have gathered an extra to the family group. I’m the one looking down at the sand.

Day 413: Remember It? I Could Walk it Blindfold

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A Journey into Scotland : Part 51

Bringing it All Back

The Caithness electricity pole four were making solid progress on the bacon, the white pudding and the runny egg. The cyclist from England was going more slowly. Of all the meals in the day breakfast is the one to be savoured the most. There are many reasons for not drinking to excess. Being able to enjoy breakfast has to be high on my list.

That I was hungover was certain. But, it was a different sort of hangover. I knew the effects of beer on my system. I was never one of life’s natural drinkers and by the time I’d drunk my peg I was ready for bed. This was usually long before any serious level of drunkenness was able to come into play. My constitution simply didn’t allow me to drink enough beer to over-scramble my brain. When I awoke I was always a good deal less inebriated than when I went to bed. Beer went through the system and the head cleared. Whisky was proving to be a different proposition.

With beer you go to bed drunk and wake up sober, relatively speaking. With whisky it was proving to be the other way round. I’d woken with a head of concrete and a mouth as dry as a Saharan breeze. I used the glass above the sink to re-hydrate and had suddenly been moved into a state of intoxication that was new to me. I made it back onto the landing before the floor began to move. The choice of the five doors didn’t seem so important now. I had to sit down to stop the world from beginning to rotate. I’d felt a novice when it came to drinking the supposed “water of life”. I was proving equally inept at coping with the aftermath.

Realising I couldn’t stay out on the landing and not being in any state to try the wrong door, and find myself fumbling around in the dark of somebody else’s bedroom, I went down the stairs and out of the unlocked back door.

My bicycle was standing red and proud against the whitewashed wall of the inn. It was night but clouds were skeetering across a moon that, if not quite full, was quite as full as I was. I wasn’t dressed for moon bathing. The long distance cyclist doesn’t carry brushed cotton pyjamas and I was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a tee shirt. This didn’t matter as much as it might to a totally sober man. I was relishing the coolness and some ground that stayed where it was when I walked on it. I re-trod the path down to the bay and stood for as long as it took. I had no sense of time. It sounds quite Romantic now but it wasn’t. I had found somewhere to be alone with the most unpleasant of feelings. To be stumbling in both body and mind. I wish I had been able to enjoy the bay under a magical sky but I wasn’t. It was horrible: a nightmare state of mind that I couldn’t switch off or wake up from.

Eventually I felt clear enough to go back to the hotel. The door remained unlocked and those at the top of the stairs no longer seemed an unfathomable mystery. By now I was clear-headed enough to comprehend the concept of room numbers. I curled up in a warm and welcoming bed and willed myself back to sleep simply because being awake was much too much.

 

The breakfast was glorious and I still feel some guilt about not being able to fully appreciate it; to do it justice. It did me good though and so did getting back onto the bicycle and heading east.

wobbly bridgeThe mind is a complex and wonderful thing. At one stage it has me sitting on a rotating staircase or a shoreline where the ocean lies flat and motionless and the sand rolls in waves. A few hours later it is remembering things that had lain forgotten in some quiet and dusty shelf of memory. The first fifty miles of my journey had been on roads that meant something to me. The next were all opening out like the next page of an unread book. And now I was back where the turn of the path, the twist of the light, the frame of a wall meant something. I have a small selection of photographs from the early sixties when we lived up here. Very few, but enough to trigger memories of days out. But this was a forgotten world. As I approached a river mouth it was just another fine and noble sight until, suddenly and unexpectedly, I remembered it with my former mind. I knew there was a bridge down there. A suspension bridge. A bridge that wobbled as you walked on it. As children, we called it the wobbly bridge. We came here often. Had picnics here. Here were sand witches as well as sandwiches. I felt like Scrooge on being taken back to his old school.

The old bridge had been washed away in winter floods some time before. The new bridge was more solid but much smaller. In my infant memory, this bridge had been as big as The Golden Gate. For thirty minutes or more I sat in the dunes and watched small ghosts play on the sand. The memories flooded back and tears of simple happiness sprang from my eyes. For the second time in just a few hours I was glad I was alone to absorb the moment.

dounreay l-sWe measured our days out along that coastline; it was invariably towards Sutherland that we went. A big black Wolseley with four children in the back. Crossing the county line “Now we’re in Caithness,” my father would declaim. “And now, we’re in Sutherland.” The most prominent landmark wasn’t Dunnet Head  with its lighthouse (mainland Britain’s most northerly point), nor the Orkneys lying offshore. The most familiar and friendly sight was a nuclear reactor. A series of low lying buildings, some chimneys and a huge green ball. Like a monstrous ball cock from some giant’s cistern. This was Dounreay and this was the reason we lived up there.

The green ball is a 139 foot high steel sphere. Inside this almost comical landmark was Britain’s first water cooled fast breeder reactor. There were eventually five nuclear reactors on the site. What my father’s role was has remained something of a mystery. There were civil reactors and military installations at Dounreay. I do know that there were an awful lot of people from Barrow up there. Barrow people have long been world leaders in engineering. A great deal of Dounreay was built by Barrovians. It was to test the generation of power for domestic use and for the fuelling of submarines. The whole plant always seemed very peaceful to me. Always a friendly sign that we were nearly back home. And yet, a major reason it was built there was a genuine fear of explosion. If anything had gone wrong it would be a terrible disaster but it would be a terrible disaster nearly 700 miles away from Westminster.

Thurso L-SCaithness is flat and windswept. I was coming in with a strong breeze behind me but the wind was knocked out of my sails when the town of Thurso came into view. The whole journey, the imagining, the planning, the riding had been leading up to this moment. Five hundred and fifty miles of cycling, a near lifetime of waiting had led to this moment. This very place in space and time. And once again the memories started to tumble into place. I suddenly knew that I was about to pass an old house painted white and if I turned up the road past this then I would be heading back towards my old front door. I had only just started school when I was last here and yet I suddenly knew my way around. It was both wonderfully exhilarating and not a little bit scary.

“Fair seed time had my soul and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”*

Pennyland House

William Wordsworth from The Prelude

 

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