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.

DSC_0038

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

 

Day 412: Pies, Puddings and Pikelets

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Mostly Concerning Food

A simple week. No meat. No feasts. No family gatherings. A couple of little jaunts out but mainly a quiet week at home eating sensibly and well. A little bit of baking. I made a batch of shortcrust pastry using all butter and an egg and that brought about a couple of pies which saw us through the early part of the week. I even made some pikelets. The weekend papers came with some recipe booklets from Paul Hollywood. I’ve tried a number of his recipes in the past and have always found them easy to follow with excellent results. These are right up my street; older, more traditional recipes from different parts of the British Isles. I’d quite fancy doing a food and travel project where I get to explore different parts of the country and eat the traditional foods thereof. Jolly limits my travel opportunities (along with two fine feline fellows) so a saunter through the regional foods of Paul Hollywood’s recipes is a decent substitute.

On the tight-fisted side, I looked on the bookshop shelves  and the freebies in the Telegraph have almost all of the best recipes. Between the two booklets there are a couple of dozen. I have a lot of cook books and very few that I’ve followed more than 24 recipes from. The pikelets are his (except I only had self-raising flour which worked just as well) and the leek flan is close to his recipe. Everything else this week has either been something I’ve made up myself (can anyone really claim a recipe for onion soup or pumpkin pie?) or else something I’ve made so often I’ve forgotten where the original recipe came from.

I rarely follow recipes to the letter and even when I do I’m careless with measuring (often using tablespoons instead of scales, an approximation of liquid rather than use a measuring jug). I like getting a sense of the thing developing. I like food. I like eating good food, I like buying good ingredients. I even enjoy growing food. Most of all I like cooking food. If I’d taken to it in my younger days I think I would have made a reasonable career out of it. I didn’t. I cooked at home instead. After fifty years I’m still cooking at home, still enjoying it; and occasionally turning out dishes that beat those that I enjoy in restaurants. It isn’t really my game though. I set out to put traditional home-cooked meals on a plate. I don’t try to produce ornate arrangements of food. I haven’t the time, nor the inclination to produce little blobs of sauce or coulee or ganache to decorate a slice of pie. When I’m eating out I absolutely love these.

DSC_0003Next to a bowl of cereal, the simplest and quickest meal I make. Tortillas with cheese and (I think) red onion. Cooked quickly on a griddle these are ideal to eat before cycling or when watching sport on telly. I ate these while watching a lecture on the Scottish Clearances (on Youtube).

DSC_0004I’m lucky in that I seem to have been born with the knack for making good pastry. Ever since I was a little boy I’ve turned out pies and tarts where the shell is as good as the contents. This pastry is half butter to plain flour by weight with a pinch of salt, an egg and 10 tablespoons of cold water (which was fractionally too much … no problem, I put extra flour on the board for a (very light) kneading). I rarely follow rules about keeping everything cold (butter tends to come out of the fridge so is cold and the same with water from the tap) and rarely let the pastry rest in the fridge before using. Mine is rolled and in a pie tin almost as soon as it is formed.

The leeks were lightly boiled and tossed in a little butter. They were placed into the pastry case (already blind baked) and a mixture of 3 eggs, double cream salt and pepper is poured over. Blue cheese (Stichelton) was crumbled on top and baked at 160c for 40 minutes.

DSC_0006Monday was Canada’s Thanksgiving and I made a pumpkin pie to pay a quiet tribute to that country. Again I blind baked the pastry case. Not quite sure what went into the filling. I’ve had a tin of pumpkin flesh in the cupboard for a while. To this I certainly added cream, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg and some brown sugar. I have no idea of the amounts. Just until it looked and tasted right. I’m not an expert on pumpkin pie but if this fellow was served up to me at a Canadian party I wouldn’t send it back.

DSC_0007My mistake with this French onion soup was to use large sweet Spanish onions. They did eventually begin to caramelise but only after giving off the best part of a pint of water. What normally takes 20 minutes took nearly 50 and even then I had to settle for a much lighter colour than I would have wished for the final soup. Very enjoyable but very sweet.

DSC_0008T was working late on Wednesday. Neither of us are big eaters after seven o’clock so I made a few Marmite and cheese straws. The pastry had been resting in the fridge for two days so was well chilled. It was easier to control in the rolling than very fresh, room temperature pastry but was not noticeably superior in the final product. Not the product lasted long enough to draw any serious conclusions.

DSC_0010Another instant meal for someone who didn’t want to go to the shops. A pile of pancakes enjoyed with sugar and lemon (and a very attentive dog…who got one in the end …without sugar or lemon!)

DSC_0011With soup the question is often whether to blitz of not. If I’d had company coming round I would have reserved a third and blitzed the rest before pouring the chunky soup back in. For family, I prefer soup to be as simple as possible. This is potato and leek with some carrot and the last (for quite a while) of the Spanish onions. The English ones are scruffy buggers in comparison but have three times the flavour!

DSC_0012

DSC_0001Pikelets area huge treat. I’m not sure if they are known outside the U.K.. I’m not certain how well known they are inside these borders. They are traditional in parts of Wales, the Midlands and the North. They are related to the crumpet in being made from a yeasty batter and having lots of holes in the top.  They are thinner and less regular. I enjoy making crumpets but pikelets are much easier and quicker. These went perfectly with cheese or strawberry jam.

The batter needs to rest (and grow) for at least an hour before cooking (which takes a very few minutes on a medium hot griddle or heavy based frying pan…cast iron in our case). Recipe either on request or in Paul Hollywood’s new book.

DSC_0002DSC_0003I could write an entire blog post on the difficulty of finding somewhere to eat in Huddersfield earlier today. There are good places but they tend to open in the evening. There were certainly plenty of places that didn’t tempt me. After two hours searching I had a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in a really nice Asian dessert shop and settled for a cheese and onion sandwich when I got home.

DSC_0005This salmon paté was from Waitrose and was not bad at all.

DSC_0006There is an art to preparing a grapefruit. It is time consuming and relaxing at the same time just so long as you don’t rush. If done properly the grapefruit is one of the great simple pleasures of life.

DSC_0011 DSC_0015 DSC_0020IMGP4980Thursday breakfast at Marks and Spencer. I’m sure a great deal of thought has gone into this egg and salmon concoction. It’s OK.

IMGP4983-001We stopped into an Italian restaurant in Chesterfield and had a very good bowl of pasta each (forgot to take photos …sure sign I was impressed) and followed it with pud. This lemon tarte did me proud. The snake is a jelly of Earl Grey tea and the foam is a froth of grappa…the first alcohol I’ve had in half a decade… to be honest it didn’t add that much. The filling had been added to a baked pastry case rather than cooked in it. I enjoyed it enormously.

IMGP4982-001T had the Semi Freddo and was equally well-pleased.

IMGP4986Having criticised Huddersfield’s lunch service I enjoyed my breakfast.

IMGP4987

And the cake and ice cream that saved the day.

 

Day 411: The Entire North Coast in Two Glasses

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A Journey into Scotland : Part 51

Usquebaugh

I’d passed through Tongue with the speed of a proper cyclist and the stamina of one in serious training. I’d even turned down the opportunity to sink a glass or two with another who had pedalled a long way to be here. It was the first day of my entire ride when I was trying to hurry along. The end result was inevitable. I was getting to the point where I could cycle all day at ten miles an hour. This included getting off to push the laden beast up steeper hills and stopping to brew tea on any vantage point it seemed a pity to miss. Whenever I found myself in company with another pedaller I found they wanted to go along at twelve miles an hour and this was outside my ability.  I’d need a new training regime, to lose a bag or two or to invest in a new bicycle. One with an engine on it.

At twelve o’clock I felt fine. By two I was gone. My hopes of reaching my goal before sundown were blown away on the south-westerly. Thurso had managed without me for 23 years. It was going to have to manage an extra day. I dropped down into a place that had those glimmers of memory. We had been taken, as children, to an hotel at Bettyhill. Our parents had been treated royally while we children were entertained as though we were the most special in the world. A waitress was given over entirely to us and kept us happy with games of hunt the thimble and musical chairs before showing off the piéce de résistance. The first record player I had ever seen and the first records. I have no recollection what records they were. It doesn’t matter. The lady put the magical black discs on the spindle and the music poured out. A lifelong love of listening to recorded music was born there and then. Not happy with merely changing entire outlooks, she wanted to show that the record player could start itself. The 7 inch single was positioned at the top of the spindle and some switches pressed or tweaked and the plastic disc dropped onto the turntable and the arm swung across.

CaithnessI can almost hear the background hiss and the tump as the stylus touched the record. She still had one trick up her sleeve. The loading of five records onto the spindle at once and watching them drop, one at a time, as each finished its song. By the time the fifth record was playing the drag was considerable but the delight of four young children was undiminished.

We begged to go back and we did. For my brother’s fifth birthday.  (That would make me three and a quarter.) The same lady looked after us and I have yet to go to a party that I enjoyed more. Without the aid of photographs I can still see the cake being brought in with the candles blazing. It was a magical occasion at the time and the magic has probably grown a little in the memory of intervening years. It isn’t difficult to find the Bettyhill Hotel and I’ve already decided that I want a glass of lemonade and a slice of sponge cake to try to re-live a special moment from early 1961. The hotel is closed.

wobbly bridgeI don’t know if it was the disappointment or the onset of tiredness but my legs had lost all interest in turning pedals. The smallest and slightest uphill stretches were a slog and downhill merely prefaced another uphill pull. The urge to get to Thurso was strong but the day was dimming early and an open bar at the Farr Bay Hotel drew me in. A roaring fire and a friendly welcome from a mildly eccentric elderly man with a Bertrand Russell shock of white hair made me want to stay. I began with a pot of tea and took the table nearest to the fire and listened while my landlord regaled me with information he felt any visitor to the north coast should have. He had an infectious enthusiasm and a way of holding you with a stare that punctuated his monologue, mid-sentence, and held you with a raised bushy eyebrow. There was more than a touch of Private Frazer (as played by the brilliant John Laurie) from Dad’s Army about the man. I couldn’t be entirely sure if he was genuinely pleased to see me or if he was shamelessly sending me up. He showed great interest in my Thurso childhood and expressed glowing admiration for my long journey up the west coast to get here. He had a way of making me wonder if I was making the right decisions by popping in the question “Are you sure?” or “If you really think so?” or “If you’re quite sure?” It was really quite unsettling.

I’d spent the last week sleeping in a tent on moors and lonely foreshores interspersed with youth hostels with cold water and shared dormitories. Now I’d finally got to the gates of my destination I decided to treat myself to a night in a comfortable room. “Well, if you are really sure?” he questioned as he showed me a room out of the ideal home exhibition, perfect cottage bedroom range. Floral wallpaper and watercolours in frames. A big fat comfortable double bed and a wash set of bowl and ewer on the washstand.

“The bathroom is just down the corridor. There’s plenty of hot water if you want a bath. That is if you’re really sure you want to stay here?”

Farr Bay WestI did. I bathed, I changed and I walked out and followed the path that brought me to the unexpectedly perfect beach of Farr Bar itself. I was the only person there and I followed the curve of the narrow bay as far as the incoming tide would allow a person who is respectful of such things. The last of the evening light was fading as I re-entered the bar. By now it was well patronised by a handful of locals, some more late season tourists and four engineers who were staying there while erecting poles to carry electricity to parts of the north that didn’t yet receive it. They accepted me into their circle, bought me a pint of heavy and shared stories of how we came to be in that bar. Three were from Aberdeen and one was English. After a couple of beers they went off for a prearranged meal and I was left with the landlord as my sole interlocutor.

As with most old pubs in the north it had the most fabulous array of whiskies behind the bar. I didn’t drink whisky myself but couldn’t help be impressed with the range of bottles. Some were ancient, some modern. A few I had heard of, many that I couldn’t even begin to pronounce. I’d occasionally wished I liked whisky. There seemed something very wise and grown up and peaceful about taking a “wee dram”.

The landlord caught my stare and put my thoughts into words. “Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but, you look like the sort of man who doesn’t often drink whisky but are wondering whether you shouldn’t make some kind of an exception this night.”

I admitted that he’d read my thoughts pretty well but added that I was a little afraid of my capacity to drink it.

“Och, don’t worry. I’ll pour you a glass of the gentlest of all the whiskies. This one (he said taking a particularly ancient bottle from the second shelf) is the only single malt whisky distilled in the county of Sutherland. Sip it slowly. It’ll melt your tastebuds.” He paused with the tip of the bottle touching the lip of the glass, looked at me with his cocked bushy eye-brow and added “That is, if you really think you should?”

kyle of tongueHe poured without a measure and the measure he poured more than doubled the quantity of whisky I had drunk in my life up to that point. He taught me that the pint is the chaser and the two drinks lasted me a pleasant 45 minutes or more. The bar filled up. Conversation flowed and the fire and whisky filled me with a warmth I hadn’t felt on that journey. When he saw my glass was empty he pulled down an even older bottle and said. “How about a wee drop of this. It’s the only single malt whisky distilled in the county of Caithness. By the time you’ve finished that one, you’ll have done the entire north coast in two glasses.”

The second measure was more generous than the first. I sipped slowly. I never got over the heat and strength of the drink. Always felt a ridiculous novice and had the sense to pass on storytelling and to become an auditor.

That night I slept well until, waking, I felt drunker than I had ever felt before. I also had an urgent need to use the bathroom, which was down the landing. On returning to my bedroom I found myself drunk and alone at the top of a strange staircase with five doors to choose from. One of them was my cosy bedroom. The other four weren’t.

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