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.



  • 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_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.


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


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.

Day 410: Thousands are Sailing


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A Journey into Scotland : Part 50

This Empty Land

The road out of Tongue is one of the delights of British cycling. On the map it is marked as an A Road meaning that it ranks just one below motorways as a major route. On the ground you find something more resembling a country lane in both size and volume of traffic. Anyone trying to get anywhere in this part of the world uses it; it’s just that there aren’t many people, so unhappy with where they are, that they wish to be somewhere else. It occasionally spreads into two lanes but is often a single track with passing places and cattle grids. In winter, wind and ice are bigger dangers than snow and in summer motorbikes do their bit to destroy the peace and beauty that attracted them. Without these it is close to heaven.

Would that it had always been like this.

Here the coast is inlets and river mouths. The settlements are tiny ports and the emptiness is, at times, eerie. You cycle through a stand of birch trees and suddenly the road opens out under an enormous grey sky. On one side the world tilts up to the moors and on the other the northern sea. This is the last of Scotland for modern day travellers. For many this was, indeed, the last of Scotland. There is a reason why so few people live here and barely anyone away from the coast. The land, in the obscure legal tracts of history, ended up as the estates of the lowland wealthy. It had been the home of  thousands of crofters who scratched a living from the thin soil with the aid of a cow or two and some sheep. The new landlords saw the commercial possibilities. People were not economic at all. Strewth man, they barely produced enough food for themselves and their families. The people needed to be cleared away to make room for something with a bit of profit in’t.

dunnet headThere is a problem with the history of the Highland Clearances. The very term is emotive and sparks reactions that don’t always fit the facts. This hasn’t been helped by popular myth makers who have sold a history of Scotland that speaks to the emotions more than to the facts. The greatest offender has also been the most successful. John Prebble was a Canadian, born in England, who wrote a series of three books of Scottish history that  have variously been described as “faction” (i.e. fiction with some facts thrown in) by Professor Tom Devine and as “utter rubbish” by Gordon Donaldson. (Both are esteemed historians yet Prebble’s books have struck such a chord that some still choose to defend the populist against the experts.)  I’d bought all three books in the visitor centre while passing through Glencoe (the scene of book one) and had been roused to the utmost indignity at the wrongs done to the Highlanders by the agents and absentee landlords (often, at the end of the day, rich members of the English aristocracy). There is some truth in what Prebble writes. This has always been the problem with unreliable historians. Because there is truth some people make the mistake of assuming it is true. It isn’t.

The problem with Prebble is twofold. One, the stories of Glencoe, Culloden and the Highland Clearances are remarkable enough without being told through the silkscreen of mythology. His one-eyed histories do a dis-service to the events. Secondly, he does his job rather well and paints such a clear picture of heroes and villains that the reader doesn’t have to do great deal of sifting through the evidence. This is what happened, he declares in bold black and white.  These were the wrongs and these were the rights. These were the villains and these were the victims. We have grown, as a nation (and are not alone in this) in wanting to be able to appropriate blame. We haven’t always been quite so keen, at times, in ensuring that the blame falls in the right place.

The highlands were cleared and often forcibly. Crofters were removed from the interior of northern Scotland in two main phases: from the 1740s onwards they were moved off their small farms and into villages (often on the coast) where they were used as low paid labour in fishing and the processing of kelp. During the nineteenth century, they were forcibly removed from the land in order to allow the large scale farming of sheep in enclosed estates and the hunting of deer. It was a process that had been happening for over a hundred years throughout the British Isles. Small holders didn’t have their tenancy agreements renewed and either became labourers on larger farms or migrated to the industrial cities. There is a big question mark over how the lands fell into the hands of the estate owners in the first place. In the case of the highlands and islands of Scotland there is a point where lands owned by clans became lands owned by clan chiefs. Industrialists and lawyers, as well as the already landed gentry, moved in and bought huge tracts of the north. Sir James Matheson bought the Island of Lewis in the 1820s with money made by exploiting the opium trade in China and India. Having made millions as the biggest drug dealer of his time he had little compunction in clearing the crofters and cotters from his newly acquired lands.*

rannoch moor 5Where did the people go? In England and the Scottish lowlands (the clearances were a part of the huge social and economic change that goes under the joint names of the agrarian and the industrial revolutions) the small holders either ended up in villages that were (often) newly created for the purpose of housing them. (In Ayrshire alone there are 340 such settlements; on Mull, which is about the same size, there are 6)**, or they went to the rapidly growing industrial cities in search of work. In the Highlands of Scotland and throughout Ireland thousands sailed to a new life in Australia, Canada and the United States. The process took place across the whole of the country but was at its most brutal in the Highlands, The Hebrides  and in Ireland.

There were several factors that made the “Clearances” (The term was coined later by Sir Edward Pine Coffin) a major crime in the far north. To begin with there was nowhere for the people to go other than the emigration boats that took the displaced to the New World. There were no big industrial cities and they were not wanted as farm labour in the way that the landless and dispossessed were needed in the lowlands and England. Down south the big farms were labour intensive. Ditches needed to be dug for drainage, walls and hedges had to be built and maintained. There were also a lot more crops to harvest. In the north the estates were capital intensive but required very little labour. One shepherd per 600 head of sheep.

A second thing was a diabolical breach of trust. One traditional outlet for the mass unemployed has always been the army and in the later years on the eighteenth century crofters and cotters were given assurances of their long-term tenure, on the lands they regarded as ancestral, if they joined the army. Thousands enlisted. During the Napoleonic wars the Highlands provided proportionately more fighting men than any other part of the country. When Napoleon was safely out of the way, dying from the lead in his wallpaper, on St Helena, the promises were quickly forgotten. It added to the resentment at evictions which, in turn, led to greater force being used.

On top of this was the hideous speed of the evictions. Lowland and English smallholders had been cleared away over several generations and partly absorbed into the community. The Scottish Clearances were much quicker and this was down to tenancy agreements. In the south 5, 9 and 18 years agreements were the norm. In the Highlands these agreements were for a single year. This led to many tenancies expiring at the same time which, in turn, led to mass forcible evictions. In order to stop crofters and cotters returning to their homes the roofs were demolished and the houses set alight. Eye witness reports talk of being able to see over two hundred and fifty buildings burning in the twilight, on a single night, as wretched families sought refuge by making their way to the coast. A good number died on the way.

What turned a horror story into a catastrophe was the failure of the potato crops from 1846 onwards. The potato famine didn’t account for as many lives as across the sea in Ireland but hit very hard in the lands north of the Great Glen. In the ten years, following the arrival of serious blight in the crop, 16,000 Highlanders were forcibly transported to Australia and Canada.

pentland firthThe moors became empty of people and their place was taken by massive flocks of sheep. A tough way of life was done away with. Very few crofters made more than a third of their living from their farms. They needed to sell skills as wheelwrights, stonemasons, carpenters and soldiers to achieve subsistence. It is a way of life, under the old clan system, that has been romanticised and even glamourised by people such as Prebble. There wasn’t much to commend the clan system. Clan chiefs and chieftains were among the men who were ordering the clearances and who became incredibly rich on the suffering of the people who once lived on these hills and in these glens.


On a grey, overcast day I can feel the huge emptiness around me. The sheep and cattle still roam the fells which sweep down to the slate grey waters of the North Atlantic. In defiance I start to sing a Woody Guthrie song but it dies on the wind.

*His grave in Lairg in Sutherland is an ornate affair decorated with garlands of poppies. But not the sort that commemorate the glorious dead.

** Tom Devine
NB A bibliography for the Journey into  Scotland will appear at the end.

Day 409: When You Get to the Sea, Turn Right


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A Journey into Scotland: Part 49

I Can’t Remember My Earliest Memory

It was 1987 and September had become October. You could almost add a month on top of that for how far north I’d pedalled. Twelve of the fourteen newly qualified English teachers, I’d spent the last twelve months with, were banking their first pay cheques and contemplating that it might be all worth it after all. My life was in a crisis. I’d been either brilliant or incompetent on teaching practice and was finding it hard to sign on for a full career. It wasn’t the fear of failure. It was something greater than that. I’d only go into teaching if I thought I could do it better than most who had taught me. As a pupil I’d had a rough deal from the system. It just wasn’t set up for somebody like me and I wanted to make sure that those, of a curious, independent disposition, who followed weren’t let down too. I’d set off to cycle fifteen hundred miles to every place I had ever lived in the hope, that the re-tracing of my life, and the sheer exhaustive scope of the challenge, would clear my head. I had offers as work as an actor, a musician and a composer. I’d grown fond of the idea of marching to my own drum. On the other hand the country was in recession and we had two small children and no dependable source of income.

Farr Bay East-001I’d set out from Barrow-in Furness and spent half a day revisiting eleven of my first fourteen years on the planet. The missing three years were four hundred and fifty crow flown miles to the north. It had taken me eleven days to hit the north coast. (If you weren’t following this in the spring, then you can catch up on as much or as little as you wish in “Journey into Scotland” on my home page.) It had been a hugely enjoyable adventure. I wasn’t feeling the absence of a classroom or a salary. I’d had a scare when a large silver coach from Surrey had knocked me spinning off the road. My initial fear was that I’d torn ligaments or badly sprained my ankle. The fact that I was gingerly riding my bike again within an hour and back on the grand tour within 48 suggested that I’d jarred and bruised it. It hurt but it did little other than slow me down for a few days. I set off earlier and arrived later but I kept to my schedule. (Barring an enforced day off experiencing the palm fringed delights of Plockton and Loch Carron.)

All the way up the west coast (and a few diversions inland) I’d marvelled at a simple magical fact about Scotland. No matter how glorious the scenery, the landscape and the air, the following day would beat it into a cocked hat. The Southern uplands of Dumfries and Galloway made me want to linger but were soon forgotten as I rode along the western shore of Loch Lomond. Rannoch Moor became Glencoe and I was sure I’d reached the peak of perfection. Nowhere, surely, could beat this. And then I rode the road to the Isles from Fort William to Mallaig.

Mallaig was one of a hundred towns and villages, I’d never heard of before, but which I’ve longed to return to ever since. Kilmacolm, Crianlarich, Achnasheen, Plockton, Dalry are all now part of who I was and that makes them a part of who I am.

The moment when I started quoting Shakespeare unprompted,

“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”

arrives in Sutherland. Staggering rough hewn beauty in a landscape so vast it is difficult to conceive of in a country as small as ours. To be here was a feeling of jubilance; to have pedalled every yard under my own steam* was one of my greater achievements.

After 48 episodes, I quietly left this journal aside in June and wandered around England for a while. My 1987 self was left quietly on top of a Sutherland hill brewing tea and looking out over the Kyle of Durness and away towards Cape Wrath and the entire top left hand corner of these islands. I’d pedalled further in a day than I had at any point of my journey. My tweaked ankle made me walk with a John Wayne lurch but was happy to turn pedals for hours at a time. I was back inside the lands of living memories. I know the north coast in that pre-umbra of memory from earliest childhood. 

On teaching practice I had a class writing about their first recollections. Writing is the most wonderful of tools for exploring the mind and twenty five heads were bowed over their tables and twenty five pens were uncovering thoughts that they would later share with some pride. One boy wasn’t having this though. He was fearful of writing and saw it as just another of his inadequacies. Another way to fail. He sought reasons not to put pen to paper. He measured his success in lessons by the blankness of his sheet or the subversiveness of his doodles.

“I don’t know what to put.”

“Write about the first thing you can remember.”

“I can’t remember being born.”

“Neither can I. Just the first thing you can remember.”

“Like my earliest memory?”

“That’s right. Your earliest memory.”

“I can’t remember my earliest memory.”

And neither, young Robert, can I. I thought I could. I lived here on the north coast of Scotland between the ages of two and five so I’m pretty certain that my consciousness of who I am and what I’ve done dates back to here. That cold northern sea looked over the change from a thing that ate and slept and cried to one who read and walked and wandered off alone. Who sledged down an icy road and who skimmed stones on lochs and paddled in the surf.

I stayed the night in the youth hostel at Durness. Ironically I can remember very little of this other than a cold floor. In the morning a fellow cyclist and I made our way to Smoo Cave and tested the acoustics by singing into it. He was a fitter and faster pedaller than I was and set off over the hills saying he’d meet me again at Tongue. He was there outside a pub enjoying his second pint by the time I got there. It wasn’t quite mid-day.

kyle of tongueHaving spent a fortnight at a leisurely pace I was infused with a desire to get to where I knew best. I’d snapped a gear cable and was without the larger cog at the front. It didn’t make a great deal of difference as I turned back south to ride against a stiff breeze along the shores of Loch Eriboll. It was here that some of the greatest discoveries were made that unfolded the geological history of the planet. I had my head down into the wind and was attempting, for the first time on the journey, to ride quickly. The speedometer on the handlebars made a mockery of this. Many of the sea lochs have been bridged but the few hundred yards that a seagull flies to get from one shore to the other is the best part of twenty miles for the cyclist. The uplands between there and Tongue are amongst the most beautiful in Scotland. I confess to missing the opportunity to soak in that beauty. Like a cyclist on the Tour de France, I flew through the grandeur more aware of the desire to reach my destination than take in the views.

I didn’t join in the early lunchtime supping in Tongue but headed in my determined way towards the county boundary that would bring me back to where I once lived. I’d cycled hundreds of miles to reach the most magnificent part of Scotland and all I wanted to do was to get to the flatter, bleaker, boggier, windier lands to the east. I wanted to get to Caithness because that name had been on the very first home address I’d ever written out. The one that ends with Solar System, Galaxy, Universe. The world was huge. Those were the Orkneys out there to my left. I was going home.


pentland firth

*Give or take a couple of ferry rides.


Day 406: My Vegetable Love Should Grow


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Mostly Concerning Food

An Entirely Meat Free Week

When I was at infant school we all had to bring something in for the school harvest festival. Some sheafs of wheat were purloined by Miss Ullack along with some cooking apples and in between, this traditional display of the bounty of the summer, were the lost products from the back of every mother’s (it was in the sixties…dad’s only entered the kitchen to wash paint brushes and fix bicycle punctures) food cupboard. The bounty was later distributed among the elderly of the town and how they must have rejoiced at the arrival of 23 assorted tins of PEK ham and marrowfat peas. I’m certain that the same tins came round year after year.

We had our own harvest festival this week as I stripped the last tomatoes from the six plants that have produced their weight in fine fruit. The peppers have done well too and the chillies have been as much of a delight to watch grow as they have been to pick and cook with.

DSC_0016We’re well stocked for chutney. In addition to our own we’ve got some really delicious green tomato chutney from both Steven and from Pat. I’ve never made ketchup though and that gets my best attention. There are as many recipes as there are recipe books. They mostly follow the three part process of cooking up and reducing vegetables, blitzing and sieving and then adding sugar and vinegar and reducing to the desired thickness. I follow this using the ingredients that I have; 900g of red tomatoes, a large green pepper, two red onions, 3 yellow chillies, 1 celery heart, 3 cloves of garlic, chef’s measures of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, ground coriander, allspice, salt and 300 ml water. This was brought to a gentle simmer and then reduced by a third (about 35 mins). The sauce was then blitzed with hand blender and passed through a sieve. What didn’t go through was added to a simple tomato and onion sauce and served with spaghetti for tea.

DSC_0017The strained sauce (twice though the sieve if you want a more refined ketchup …the word comes from Malay) has just short of half a pint of vinegar and just over 200g of soft brown sugar added (which, coincidentally was exactly what I had in the cupboard) and brought back to the boil. Once it had reached a nice thickness I switched off the heat, let it cool a bit and put it into jars. Because of the green pepper it is browner than shop varieties. It is also spicier and tastier. (And I speak as a huge fan of Heinz Ketchup.)

DSC_0010On Wednesday the family arrive to watch the final of Great British Bake Off. Easy and tasty are the watchwords. Meat-free is the rule. Pizza is the answer. As an experiment I try the ketchup as the tomato base for the pizza. It is an experiment I repeat the following day and intend to go on repeating as long as we have any left. The pizzas are topped with variations of anchovy, grilled peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes together with both Wensleydale and Mozzarella cheeses. Jolly let her love of pizza be known to all but I’m afraid that, though she ate well this week, it wasn’t on leftover pizza.

DSC_0009For pudding we had Hollywoods. These are based on descriptions in a Michael Rosen poem of the same name and were the hit of the summer when David and Melissa were with us in 2013. Unfortunately they were both down in Devon on Wednesday night. We varied from the recipe slightly in missing out the jelly and using whipped cream rather than squirty cream from a pressurised can; we also made our own chocolate sauce. To compliment these Frances had made some really delicious brandy snap baskets which were filled with whipped cream. The snap and crunch of the biscuits, the knickerbocker glory of ice-cream, fruit, custard, cream and chocolate sauce. I’ll leave the sentence hanging. For sheer good-humoured eating pleasure they were hard to beat. The chocolate sauce was my favourite part (though all of it was nice).

DSC_0011One large bar of Bournville chocolate is opened and each person in the kitchen steals a couple of chunks. What survives (most of it) is melted in a bain Marie. Once melted a tbsp of golden syrup, half a teaspoon of vanilla paste and enough milk to allow it to flow (just). Simple but well worth it.


Saturday morning in Sheffield. You only get plates like that in places that have either given up or which have quite an opinion of themselves. The eggs Florentine were nice. The finely chopped chives and paprika based seasoning on top were better from a visual than an eating perspective but the Hollandaise was good and the eggs only slightly over-cooked. A good effort but if you’re charging £7.50 in a northern city then you need to be getting it spot on. The coffee was superb but I’d have preferred it if they’d not been quite so keen to impart their own musical tastes on customers who might wish to read a newspaper or book. I can only take so much of Coldplay and Fleet Foxes.

DSC_0001Monday was a simple Aldi lunch. Two tuna steaks slowly griddled and a bag of salad (rocket and watercress). All I added was salt, pepper, lemon juice and some olive oil.

DSC_0013I love brandy snaps. Expect a whole lot more of these.

DSC_0019Savoury and sour chick peas. This is a wonderful dish and, if you are using canned chick peas, very quick and easy. Onions, peppers, chillies, fresh tomatoes are cooked down in vegetable oil (the onions for about ten minutes on a low heat before anything else is added…slow cooked onions equals extra sweetness in the dish) before adding cumin seeds, ground coriander, fenugreek, fennel seeds and turmeric. Once these have worked in add two tins of drained chick peas and enough water to make the sauce you want. Before doing any of that reserve some finely chopped onion (about half) chilli, salt and the juice of 2 lemons in a mug. Add this along with a good teaspoon of garam masala a minute before serving. Serve with flat bread of choice.

DSC_0020There was enough fruit and custard left over from the Hollywoods to make a trifle for two on Friday. A nice way to start the weekend.

DSC_0024I’ll never get bored of poached eggs on toast. I actually preferred these to the eggs Florentine higher up the page. The difference is in how well you cook the eggs. We cook them nicely in this house.

DSC_0025I had just enough dough left over after cooking a small loaf to make myself a pizza for Thursday lunch. I rolled the dough slightly thicker and cooked it at the highest temperature the oven goes to. Very much enjoyed.

DSC_0028Friday tea. Aubergine Roussillon. Aubergines in a home-grown tomato sauce topped with crumbled Wensleydale. Aubergines have never been my favourite vegetable but with dishes like this one I am starting to change my mind.

DSC_0038Perfect with some country style bread.

DSC_0040As was the last of the spicy chick peas.

IMGP4967The photo doesn’t do this justice. It’s a bowl of vegan curry that was being handed out free to the good people of Nottingham last Saturday. There were plenty of takers and everybody was enjoying it. I certainly did.

DSC_0002A good old Ernest Hemingway breakfast. Fried potatoes and fried eggs. Just needs tomato ketchup to keep “Papa” happy. We happen to have several jars of that.

DSC_0003Toast and marmalade and a mug of Yorkshire tea.

DSC_0005Beans on toast and a pot of Yorkshire tea.

DSC_0007My favourite snack; oatcakes, cheese (Oglefield) and apple. And a pot of Yorkshire tea.

DSC_0010 DSC_0012DSC_0018The simple tomato ragu made from the ketchup that didn’t want to go through the sieve.

DSC_0019 DSC_0020 DSC_0023I like my eggs runny.

“We’ve got to speed things up in this hotel. Chef, if a guest orders a three-minute egg, give it to him in two minutes. If he orders a two-minute egg, give it to him in one minute. If he orders a one-minute egg, give him a chicken and let him work it out for himself.” Groucho Marx as written by SJ Perelman

DSC_0025 DSC_0026The ketchup and Roussillon took up the last of the red tomatoes. This old fashioned green tomato relish comes out of The 1950s Good Housekeeping book. It recommends that you keep it for four months before using. I made the sandwich below before the relish had cooled. It was wonderful. If there is any left in four months (which I very much doubt) I’m sure it will taste even nicer.



DSC_0038My three course meal from my piece on Ashby de la Zouch. Whitebait that I rather fancy went from freezer compartment straight into the fryer. Quite tasty though tasted more like chip shop scampi than whitebait.

DSC_0039Seafood pizza. There may have been seafood on there but the taste of the tinned tuna over-powered everything else on the plate. I never have been keen on tinned tuna.

DSC_0041And a sticky toffee pudding that came via the micro-wave route. To be fair, it tasted much better than it looks.

IMGP0232-PANOAnd a photograph of Loch Erne. I took the photo. Google developed it. My target is to develop my developing skills over the next fortnight. And to continue meat free until December.

Have a good week


*Title stolen from Andrew Marvell “To His Coy Mistress”

Day 315: Well-Meant Untold Stories

Please ignore. I’ve published this so I can experiment with the blog editing processes without risking losing anything I need to keep.

If you are reading this, and you happen to be an expert on blogging and WordPress in particular perhaps you can help me.


I want to

  1. sort my posts into categories
  2. open a separate blog for my food diary

All help would be gratefully received


Once again apologies if you were hoping for something interesting.





p000a044 Old Photo Postcard Ashopton Derbyshire



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