Narrow Bathrooms

I must have been to York train station before, because I distinctly remember taking an early-morning train down from Edinburgh, many years ago. All of my recollections of this long-ago trip are of the journey itself, perhaps because it was my maiden voyage—so to speak—in First Class, and I recall that being an excellent experience. I have no memories of the railway station itself.

I am mildly embarrassed about this as I stare up at the curved, arching iron and glass roof, which must have been a considerable feat of engineering when it was built in 1877, and is really quite spectacular. I, of course, have no idea of the identity of the architects, but Wikipedia knows, and so I hereby doff my cap to Thomas Prosser and William Peachey.

I am on my way to Harrogate, on the next leg of my 2022 UK Tour, and have missed my connection in York. I would like to say I missed it because I was enjoying the roof so much I forgot to board my train, but the reason was much more prosaic, there being some sort of problem with the overhead lines between York and Doncaster.

No matter, I am not in a rush. I make it to Harrogate eventually, and settle in to my digs, my Airbnb host showing me round on my arrival, and being really quite proud of showing me the bathroom I will use, which they converted from a corridor during Lockdown. It is, as one might expect, a long and particularly narrow bathroom.

Since I last wrote in these pages, I have spent a short stint in Horsham, a very pleasant little town in West Sussex, with some cobbled streets, nice buildings and an Everyman cinema (I didn’t visit it, mind).

My Airbnb room there featured what I reckon must be the World’s Smallest Ensuite, a short, narrow room, so short and narrow that I’m sure it must previously have been a small cupboard. It had a shower at one end, the toilet at the other, and the World’s Tiniest Sink lodged in between. These three were in such proximity that—had one tilted the shower head slightly—one could have taken a shower, and shaved, while sitting on the loo, thereby performing three morning necessities at one time, making for commendably efficient ablutions, albeit fraught with various risks which might be better not to detail. I did not attempt to pull this off, at any rate.

After Horsham, it was London-Edinburgh-London on the train, followed by a camping stint at the Wildfires Festival in West Sussex, where I got alternately burned by the sun and drowned by the rain, as is the way of British camping, really. I expected nothing less.

Then once more to London for a few days before returning to Edinburgh for some extended respite.

Now Harrogate for a few days, another pretty town with an Everyman cinema, and an Airbnb with a lumpy bed, which might be the reason I’m writing this at 2:33am…

In the footsteps of Beckham

Hackney Marshes, 6am. The sun is up, but only just, and the vast expanse of grass is still damp with dew. There are a few fellow runners out at this hour, along with a dog walker or two, as I circumnavigate a number of cricket outfields, and several football pitches. It was on these pitches that a young David Beckham honed his skills, maybe even was spotted.

I am reasonably confident that any athletics coaches in the vicinity will not be spotting me today, as I lumber around the white-lined perimeter of pitch N7. The mercury is to hit 26C today, and even at this unearthly hour it’s warming up.

Multiple circuits complete, I run back along the towpath by the River Lea, over a deserted footbridge, and past several tied-up barges with quirky names.

A fox emerges from the bushes, and darts back in again, before I have time to question if it was the culprit responsible for distributing the contents of my sister’s food bin across the garden path during the night, and then defecating in the middle of the gateway. On arriving back home, I find myself increasingly keen to find a fox to help me with my enquiries in this matter, as I clear up all the food detritus before the heat of the day causes a stink.

Today’s work venue is Chingford, where David Beckham went to school, as it happens. It’s my sixth day there, and all has gone well, apart from some momentary confusion on Day 1 when I blindly followed the citybound crowds at Clapton down to Platform 1, when I really needed to be on the quieter Platform 2, heading out of town, towards Essex and the M25.

I experienced the glory of the M25 on Friday night, heading north to visit some old friends for the weekend, but despite my trepidation it was child’s play compared to the static queues on the M1. However, I was in no rush, and made it in time to have a decent burger near Kenilworth Road, prior to taking in a raucous first leg of Luton Town’s Championship play-off v Huddersfield Town. 

There followed a weekend of mostly sitting around in the sunshine, watching play at the local cricket club, who conveniently have their ground just on the other side of my friends’ garden gate, making it perhaps the best back garden known to man. Cricket-loving man, at any rate.

So, the London leg of the tour has been a reasonable success. I am developing quite a fondness for bagels from the Jewish bakery on Brick Lane, and crumpets, and the warmer temperatures.

This weekend I head southwest to Horsham for the next date on the tour. I am unsure if David Beckham ever made it to Horsham. I shall enquire.

Moments on the M6

Thursday in Wombourne was a picture of how I imagine an English country village looks in the summertime. The sun obligingly came out, and the first floor windows of the practice where I was training overlook the village green – an immaculate cricket ground in the centre, flanked by tennis courts and leafy trees. There was no cricket on Thursday, but there was some village tennis going on from time to time.

The day’s work done, I pit-stopped at McDonald’s, and then hit the road for London.

Prior to leaving Edinburgh, conscious of the amount of time I would be spending in the car, I lined up a few playlists for the journeys. I’ve been doing this since the days when making an actual mixtape was required. It is a somewhat faster process in the mp3 era.

For this trip, I decided to playlist some classic albums, all of which I worked my way through as I headed down the road from Edinburgh on Monday.

For the Wolverhampton-London leg on Thursday I kicked off with August & Everything After.

Something I love about music is the way that a single specific phrase in a piece can arrest your attention, and no matter what you are doing at the time, compel your attention to drop everything else, tune in, and savour that one moment again, every time you hear it. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard it, and the song itself might not even be a favourite – the moment itself transcends the song.

There’s a syncopated horn part right at the end of U2’s Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of. It’s subtly low in the mix, you have to listen to pick it out. And it only appears once, in the penultimate repeat of the chorus. But I can feel its approach as the song nears its conclusion, and it brings a smile every time. Many times I’ve wondered why they didn’t make more of it, even give it a second airing. But they didn’t, and it remains an almost-hidden gem, and maybe that’s better.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto, second movement. Starts with two full minutes of lush but muted orchestral parts, setting the scene. Then…the piano comes in. A single note, high in the register, not clamouring for your attention, but completely unmistakable. I think it’s the most quietly dramatic entry in music.

And, as ever, it’s all about context. You can’t smash all these little moments of genius together in a highlights reel…they have to be listened to in the surrounding environment of their song to appreciate them.

Arguably, in the same way, songs benefit from being listened to embedded within their albums. It’s where they make the most sense.

Raining in Baltimore is a largely morose, perhaps unexceptional track. But there’s a moment, just before the two minute mark, when the accordion comes in with a slowly descending motif, and it just…lifts. 

I enjoy this moment somewhere on the M6, working my way south-eastwards. It might be raining in Baltimore, but the Midlands are dry and warm, the clouds gradually dissipating as the evening wears on, the sun sinking lower, catching my wing mirror first, then appearing in the rear view.

I don’t think I’ve ever driven into London before, certainly not from this direction. I negotiate my way through bustling Wood Green, and feel transported back in time as I reach Stamford Hill, with ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews materialising in every direction, on foot and on bicycles, sporting black hats, coats and long sidecurls. It’s genuinely surreal.

With the sun now below the London horizon, and just as fat Charlie the Archangel slopes into the room, I turn into my sister’s street in Hackney. A fox darts across the road.

On arrival I learn that Maggie has, this very day, acquired a bass guitar and a practice amp.

I am earplug-ready.

The Boy Wonder and Wolverhampton

On a Saturday, early in April, the Boy Wonder and I made our way east along the Golf Coast Road. He and his mum – my sister – were in Edinburgh for a long weekend. It was a breezy and mostly sunny day in East Lothian. We made quick work of Longniddry, Aberlady and Gullane.

‘Turn your phone off and talk to me,’ I said.

He killed his screen and put it back in his pocket, only semi-reluctantly.

‘Can I drive?’ he asked.

‘You’re thirteen,’ I reminded him.

He seemed to find this an unacceptable reason for his request to be turned down.

On the beach at Yellowcraig, we kick a ball about, with the wind making it awkward, and a bit chilly. We passed and volleyed our way along the beach eastwards.

‘Hang on,’ he said. The football was suspended for a time, while he found a rock pool and attempted to recreate something he saw in a TikTok video. It didn’t work. I suspect trickery may have been involved in the original. 

Back in the beach car park, he suggested I let him drive for a bit. I resisted. We set off for North Berwick, and the conversation turned to lunch options. Having earlier hit up McDonalds for Second Breakfast, the gastronomic bar for the day had been set high. My suggestions of “fish and chips” or “a sandwich from Costa” were met with a disapproving silence.

We were no further forward on this most important of issues as we rolled into the neatly kept streets of the East Lothian seaside town, round the one-way loop, past the award-winning toilets, and back up the High Street, passing Greggs. 

‘Oooh, Greggs,’ he said. ‘I’ve never been to Greggs, but my friend says you can’t beat it.’

And that was the lunch decision made. We sat on the beach and ate sausage rolls and chicken bakes in the spring sunshine.

‘Well? Was your friend right?’

‘He wasn’t lying.’

Now, one month later almost to the day, I find myself in Wolverhampton. A change of career has landed me here, on three days of training courses, learning about outer ear disorders and cerumenolytics. All in all, I expect to be away from home for a full month. How does one pack for being away for a month?

I wasn’t sure, so I threw the limoncello, some chocolate and a spare pair of pants in the car and set off. I stopped in Moffat, having taken rather longer to get there than I would have liked, finding myself behind an especially-slow-moving caravanette for a long stretch of the Beeftub road.

The public toilets in Moffat, I discovered, are most definitely not award-winning. It’s been a long time since I drove south with any regularity, but many things remain the same. Most of the buildings and shops in Moffat, for example, and certainly their paintwork, which doesn’t appear to have been refreshed in the last twenty years. And the increasing southward busyness of the M6, peaking around Manchester, and settling down thereafter.

Wolverhampton is a new destination for me. It has an interesting-looking mosque, a lot of roundabouts, a city layout designed by someone with a one-way street obsession, and a grimly industrial vibe. 

My travelling companion Shona and I were booked into a country hotel near our training venue. I collected my room key at reception, made my way along several corridors, through multiple double-doors, passing bizarrely mirror-lined alcoves along the way, and found my room. On entering it, I was reminded forcibly of Mordor, although I confess I’ve never been.

The paintwork was in poor nick, the taps were tenuously attached to the bathroom sink, the light switch for the bathroom gave way a little on pressing it. There was a bare bulb in the light fitting beside the bed, the shade having been broken by some earlier occupant. The mattress springs in the bed introduced themselves to me, individually, when I lay down. The mains socket nearest the bed didn’t work, but the lamp on the dresser did pass a PAT test in 2018, so that was something.

We stayed one night, Shona faring much worse than I with a sleepless night brought on by a full-scale domestic abuse situation unfolding in the adjacent room, before she headed home, and I beat a retreat to an Airbnb in Wolverhampton. 

Tomorrow is the final day of courses, and then it’s on to London, where the Boy Wonder will no doubt want to drive my car again. 

I shall resist, again.

Bridges and Punctuation.

My Peebles sojourn has drawn rapidly to a close.

Last night Gary sallied forth from his country house headquarters to join me for a walk. We ambled over the Tweed Bridge and down into Hay Lodge Park. Peebles, being a town that is built around a river, has a pleasing number of bridges punctuating the landscape. A bit like New York, really, with a rather more sedate pace of life. And the bridges are, in general, very old and quite lovely. Although it’s probably easier to find a postcard for sale in New York.

Earlier in the day a friend sent me a picture from Pitlochry, of a rotating postcard stand, crammed with quality-looking Colin-Baxter-esque postcards. So that’s where all the postcards are these days. I was a little envious.

Gary and I wandered along the river bank, climbing and descending along uneven dusty paths broken up by gnarled tree roots and ancient sandstone rocks, the Tweed burbling along happily below. I was minded of my recent reading of Night Soldiers, the story featuring a grander European river, known to us as famously as the Danube, but known by many other names as it snakes eastwards across the continent: from its Black Forest source as the Donau, into Vienna, then as the Dunaj through Slovakia, splitting Budapest in two, flowing as the Duna along the western edge of Serbia, before serving as the Romanian-Bulgarian border and emptying out, now as the Dunărea, into the Black Sea.

The Tweed, to my knowledge, remains the Tweed for its entire and somewhat shorter existence, and Strauss probably never wrote a famous waltz about the Tweed, but still, a river holds a certain fascination, especially when viewed from a bridge, and can be watched for hours as it goes on its way.

The path climbed alongside a beautiful viaduct, built at an angle across the river, which brought purrs of pleasure from Gary, something of a connoisseur of buildings and architecture and many other things besides. At the top we walked along the route of the former railway line, and continued on to meet a quiet road, where we were beset by giant killer winged creatures. However, we prevailed against them mainly by running away, crossing the Manor Brig, dating from 1707, and climbed a lung-burstingly steep hill, requiring a pause at the top, for thought, and chocolate and water, not to mention the recovery of air into the lungs. We had an exquisite view looking southwest along the Tweed valley, and, once we’d set off again and rounded the next corner, of Peebles itself nestled comfortably in its glen. 

It was downhill all the way from there, past a serious-looking horsey establishment, with a floodlit enclosure, and impressive looking horses grazing in a field. There was a sign on the roadside as we approached the main buildings.

On Tuesday I had walked on the other side of the glen, and as I neared Peebles Hydro and the main road I passed the end of some forest trails which are clearly well-used by mountain bikers. On the roadside near a cluster of houses was a sign, which I contend could have benefitted from some punctuation. It read

CYCLISTS SLOW DOWN CHILDREN & ANIMALS

I don’t think the writer of the sign intended to convey the message that children and animals were slowed down by cyclists, much as I don’t think the person who had created this sign with the wording

SLOW HORSES AND CHILDREN

intended us to think the local horses and children were a little dull.

But a little punctuation would have helped their cause.

We found ourselves in the southwestern suburbs of the town, sparking memories for me of house visits to a nearby client in my audiology days, and followed John Buchan Way signposts from there to the car park, once nearly heading down a driveway by mistake due to a questionable signpost placement.

This morning I reprised last night’s walking route, only running this time. I should say that I ran most of it, but punctuated the running with some walking at times, notably on the aforementioned hill climb.

It being earlier in the day, the giant killer winged beasties had not roused from their slumbers, but at that point in the route I stayed as quiet as I could, just in case, as quiet as someone whose lungs are bursting can, at any rate.

From the top of the hill, and the Peebles and Tweed Valley panoramas, I followed the same route into the suburbs, past houses with names like The Croft, and The Anchorage, the garage door of which was being raised just as I ran past. I glanced over hoping to see a fine boat moored inside, but sadly there was only a Jaguar SUV.

Along lanes squeezed narrow by tall nettles, dodging these with what I considered pretty nimble footwork, past the High School’s playing fields, and grass hockey pitches where a whole platoon of rabbits were performing various manoeuvres.

Forgot about the misleading signpost, found myself in the driveway briefly, made a sharp exit, down the lane I was supposed to, and then into the town itself, across bridges, up braes and down various wynds and gates, along the edge of Eddleston Water again, back to the caravan, a shower, lunch and a siesta.

Peebles, you were lovely. Deserving of more postcards.

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Solo travelling, loneliness, and singleness.

Sunday 6 Sep

Time to head for home.

I make a mid-morning stop in Stonehaven. Sit on a sunny café balcony overlooking the harbour, with a substandard coffee and an A+ traybake, and read about lighthouses.

Read about the prolific Stevenson family – how four generations of them built most of the lighthouses in and around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

About how one of these Stevensons – Thomas – was greatly disappointed when his son Robert Louis announced that he would be pursuing a career in writing instead of lighthouse engineering. Perhaps he forgave him after he wrote this:

“There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it.

The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather; the Skerryvhor for my uncle Alan;

and when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”

And, y’know, when he forged something of a successful career in writing.

This has been a great trip. I have not, generally, enjoyed solo holidays. When attempted in the past I have found myself longing to share the experiences with someone. But this time I was surprised by how rarely feelings of loneliness overtook me.

And in this I need to acknowledge the positive effect of social media. It helps with this. It really does. Sharing photos of places visited and sights seen via Instagram, and Facebook, and written experiences via this blog, and seeing people respond, help provide that sense of connection that otherwise is missing.

Strikes me now, fourteen years on, that this was probably the main driver for me starting this blog in the first place – keeping a record of my trip to Australia in 2006-7, a diary of my travels for posterity – of course – but also a means of staying connected with friends and, in a relatively non-immediate way, sharing those experiences with them.

Big shout out to Nicola and Disco, my virtual travelling companions on this trip. 

But on the occasions when feelings of loneliness did catch up with me, I found the best way was to embrace them. Briefly. It’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of loneliness at times. No sense in pretending they’re not there. So I embraced them, and even dwelt in them, for as long as I needed to. 

And no longer than I needed to. Any longer, and I get lost in a miasma of self-pity and spiralling thoughts that take me nowhere good.

I sometimes view families in a curiously detached way. It doesn’t escape my attention that the parents are my age or younger. I sometimes idly wonder what it’s like. I know, cognitively, what it’s like. I have enough friends who have told me. Told me of the sleepless nights. The constant demands for your attention. The tears and the tantrums. Balanced with the joy and the pride. 

And I have experienced these things in a detached way, as an uncle and a friend of the parents. But I don’t really know.

Nor do I want to. Not at all. And yet there’s a fascination, which is similar to the detached fascination I experience when I see couples on the bus. Or in the street.

I wonder what it’s like. I know what it’s like. But I also don’t.

And so I walk the road less travelled. Viewing couples and families with detachment. Wondering how one decision can make life, ten years down the road, say, so different. So very different. 

Sometimes I feel like Peter Pan. Like I’ve never grown up. Proper grown ups enter into committed, lifelong relationships. Get married. Have children. I haven’t. I go to the cinema a lot. Sometimes at antisocial hours on a school night. Frequently on my own. It’s ok, going on your own. It’s actually pretty good.

I invited my friend (married, with young children) to the cinema the other day (pre-COVID). He didn’t come. “Our lives are very different,” he said. It was a 9:30pm showing on a Sunday night.

The first times I ate out in restaurants alone, I was on training courses with work, far from home. It felt weird. I was in a strange town, far from everyone I knew, and it was just weird. Now, eating out alone is as normal as breathing. 

I have great friends. I love hanging out with them, going to films, eating pizza, ice cream, meeting over coffee. I love these encounters. But at the end of the evening, we wave goodbye, and go our separate ways. 

Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have someone who would still be there tomorrow.

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Sunrises and Smugglers.

Saturday 5 Sep

After yesterday’s full and busy itinerary, with its 6:17am start, I resolved to take things a little easier today. I gave myself an additional two full minutes in bed and got up for the sunrise at 6:19.

I can’t quite remember the last time (before yesterday) I witnessed a sunrise. And the thought of having seen two on consecutive mornings is frankly mind-boggling.

Singing along to Justin Townes Earle in the car later

Ain’t seen a sunrise
Since I don’t know when

I (with, I admit, a dash of smugness) change the words to

…since THIS MORNING!

Which doesn’t, I confess, fit the song rhythmically or thematically, but I’m on holiday.

Faced with a plethora of beach choices, I settle on Balmedie Beach, on the basis that it’s the closest, and thus will maximise the good weather beach time, given that the forecast is for it to cloud over by the afternoon.

Walking from the car park, I crest the final sand dune to discover a massive sandy beach stretching away to the north and south, but my heart sinks just a little at the eleven wind turbines rising up out of the sea just offshore.

I am not entirely proud of this reaction, since I know that wind-generated energy is clean and green, and therefore A Good Thing, and also subsequently discover to my dismay that my views are momentarily aligned with Donald Trump on something, finding out that he complained to the Scottish Parliament in 2012 that the turbines would spoil the view from his golf resort.

And, what’s more, just yesterday I was eulogising over the beauty of a lighthouse in the middle of the sea.

I kick off my flip-flops and carry them, walking northwards through the fringes of the surf, away from the turbines. It’s breezy, and clouds frequently obscure the sun, but it doesn’t rain.

I come across a bunch of sandpipers scuttling backwards and forwards with the incoming tide – it looks like they’re playing chicken with the water.

After a few miles, with the beach still stretching endlessly off into the distance, I park myself on a sand dune once again, make coffee, and eat my lunch, pondering the difference between wind turbines and lighthouses.

It’s a curious one. Both the lighthouse and the wind turbine are entirely man-made. Both are there for laudable reasons. Both are brilliantly conceived and (especially when built in the middle of the sea) genuine feats of engineering.

But the lighthouse is somehow more beautiful to me. The achievement of the lighthouse engineers is also considerably more impressive when one considers that they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, without the assistance of modern shipping and helicopters. But, purely from an aesthetic perspective, the turbine is too sharp, too angular, has too many edges for me. But like them or not, I guess they’re here to stay.

I walk back the way I came, with the wind getting up and the tide coming in. The beach is deserted. I take the opportunity to run, and fling my arms wide, and sing at the top of my voice. And maybe even skip and dance a little. Then I notice there are two people sat back on the dunes, watching the antics of a crazy person, no doubt preparing to call the police if I turned in their direction. Ah well, I’m on holiday.

I drive a little further north, to Collieston, purely on the basis that it has an ice cream shop called Smugglers Cone, and in doing so stumble across perhaps the most glorious find of the trip – another gorgeous little seaside fishing village, built in a natural cove, flanked by cliffs on one side and dunes on the other, with a great little harbour and a rich gin-smuggling heritage.

In the late 1700s an estimated eight thousand gallons of foreign spirits were being landed here, and the surrounding area, in a given month.

I eat ice-cream and read a book, sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour, where wet-suitted youngsters are jumping off the harbour wall, and a young family paddle-board their way around the cove.

In the evening I attempt to eat local (at Brewdog!) but they’re fully booked, and so I walk along Union Street to the familiar surrounds of Pizza Express, a chain in some trouble even pre-COVID.

With sparsely-arranged tables and furniture stacked in the corner, it looks like they’ve just moved in. With so few diners, it was a fairly soulless experience, if I’m honest. Made me wonder: how much of our enjoyment of a meal out is conditional on the atmosphere?

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Lighthouses, but still no dolphins.

Friday 4 Sep

I rise early, with the forecast having promised a clear sky in the morning. The Airbnb I’m staying in is about 50m from the beach, and right beside where the River Dee flows into the North Sea. There is a steady stream of ships making their way into port as dawn breaks.

I walk down to the beach to watch the sun come up. There are several mad Aberdonian women swimming. And a guy with a drone. 

The sunrise is beautiful. On returning to the flat for coffee, my Airbnb host asks if I saw the dolphins, which were frolicking off the end of the pier. I didn’t.

I head north to Cruden Bay, and hike along the clifftop to Slains Castle. Before that I stop off in Boddam for a quick photo of the lighthouse.

Lighthouses. They fascinate me. Sometimes short and stumpy, but more often slender and elegant, beautifully engineered, and yet capable of withstanding the worst that the seas and the elements throw at them. For hundreds of years.

I grew up with the light from St John’s Point Lighthouse in Co. Down illuminating my room every night. It’s the nostalgia, no doubt, which has fostered an ongoing fascination with them for me.

The locals here have funny accents. The facemasks aren’t helping. I find myself, in conversation with a local person, hearing a full sentence and fully recognising it as English, and having a vague sense of understanding, and yet they get to the end of the sentence and I haven’t a scooby what they said. I adopt a ‘nod and smile’ approach at these times.

The locals here also have fast cars. I am losing count of the number of high-performance cars that I find agitating on my rear bumper, harrying like a sheepdog at my heels. And I’m not a slow driver.

The next stop on the Harbours, Castles and Lighthouses tour is Rattray Head. This, I reckon, is positioned at the most north-easterly point of Great Britain. There are no signs to tell me that, indeed there are no signs to advertise its presence at all, which is refreshing.

Rattray Head Lighthouse is what I later learn is called a ‘rock tower’ – a lighthouse built on a rock out from the coast, not on land. As such it sits in the sea, and looks all the more dramatic for it, I think.

It takes a bit of getting to, mind. After a long-ish drive down an increasingly ropey lane, I abandon the CR-Z on a grassy verge (avoiding sheughs) and walk the remaining mile or so, past a French campervan (of course) and over the dunes.

When I crest the final sand dune, there it is, rising out of the sea like a lone sentinel. And there’s only one other person to share the beach and the view with. I park myself on a sandy slope, facing the sea and the lighthouse, and make espresso, like the UK’s most northeasterly coffee hipster. There are seals, and crashing waves, and the sun is shining. 

I spend a large part of the afternoon in the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. Thanks to COVID, all tours (which I have booked ahead on this time) are for bubbles only. Ergo I get a personal tour at no extra cost. My very own personal tour guide – Michael – is interesting and engaging. Although clearly a local, as from time to time incomprehensible phrases float past me, like a cloud of random syllables. I can only wave at them as they drift past. And smile and nod, of course.

The lighthouse at Kinnaird Head, where the museum is based, was built in the 18th century, inside a castle. It was the first one owned and run by the Northern Lighthouse Board, which used to be called the Commissioners of the Northern Lights. I think they should have kept their old name.

The original lighthouse at Kinnaird Head has now been replaced by a newer automated one. Which prompted the question – are lighthouses really necessary these days given the effectiveness of modern navigation systems? I was desperately hoping he’d say yes.

‘Yes.’ 

Turns out sailors have more confidence in an actual lighthouse showing them where they really are, than a GPS system telling them where it thinks they are.

I continue west, picking my way along the coast, taking every right turn that looks like it might have something interesting at the end of it. It always does. I visit Pennan, and Crovie – both not so much villages as single rows of houses, squeezed into the space available between the cliffs and the sea. It’s a massively steep gradient to get down to both villages, and back up again. How do the residents get up those hills in the winter? 

Westwards again, accompanied all the while by Natalie Merchant…

Hypnotised 
Mesmerised
By what my eyes have seen

Through MacDuff, and the best fish and chips of my life in Whitehills, near Banff. My faith in the region’s fish suppers is restored. I eat it in the car while watching a farmer gathering up round bales and stacking them in groups. It’s that time of year. Already I have driven past many fields of wheat, or barley, or corn. Or hay. Or something. I am a little fuzzy on the horticultural specifics. It’s golden, at any rate.

This farmer is whizzing around his field in what looks like an agricultural sand buggy, with a front loader pincer thing which carry the bales. It’s all a bit different from my childhood, when bales were almost always rectangular (round bales were a new-fangled thing) and they were small enough that they could be lifted and stacked by hand.

I drive on to the iconic Bow Fiddle Rock, hoping it would be catching some late evening rays from the setting sun, but the sky is overcast. Still, it’s an awesome rock formation. I’m the only one there.

A long day over, I drive a cross-country route back to Aberdeen. Halfway through the journey I come across what I now believe to be Aberdeenshire’s only slow driver. I am stuck behind them for 10 miles.

[Update: apparently Duncansby Head, near Wick, is the most northeasterly point on the GB mainland. I do apologise.]

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Castles and Hipsters.

Thursday 3 Sep

Heading north, I make my first spontaneous unscheduled “saw the sign and made a snap decision” stop at Glamis Castle. I do love a good castle, and the Shakespearean connections are a bonus.

It’s closed. Covid. I console myself with a completely scheduled stop at another place referenced (I imagine) in classic literature – McDonalds (Forfar).

Arrive at Dunnottar Castle mid-afternoon. It’s only open these days if you book ahead on the website, but (without ever having actually been in) I reckon Dunnottar Castle is best experienced, and certainly photographed, from a little bit away – like Edinburgh Castle. So I take photos from a little bit away. From every conceivable angle, except “from the sea” which would be tricky.

Drive on down into Stonehaven, meeting a combine harvester on the road in, which takes up the ENTIRE road. It’s a nervy moment. I nearly end up in a sheugh, but the combine driver gives me a cheery wave, so I felt better.

I’m aiming for a couple of coffee shops, both of which turn out to be closed (flooding, not Covid). Seems like either Ellen or Francis did for them. I find another one, and take a coffee and a traybake down to the harbour.

Discover the compact little harbour to be unexpectedly picturesque. Translucent blue water, a sandy beach, and – beyond the walls of the harbour itself – grassy cliffs which provide a gently spectacular backdrop. And the sun is shining.

There’s even a hipster, complete with flat cap and man-bag, on the sand.

I bite into a traybake large enough to sink one of the boats on the water, and feel like I’m in the Med. With the exception of the traybake and the hipster.

Later that evening, I phone mum from the car, while parked at Torry Battery, where I’m eating fish and chips and watching the ships leave the harbour. She tries to impress me with her knowledge of Doric. It seems to be confined to “Quines” and”Loons”. I remain unimpressed. Am also unimpressed with the fish and chips, which I imagine would generally be of high quality around here. I must have picked a dodgy place.

Apparently Torry Battery is a great spot to watch dolphins from. I discover this afterwards. I didn’t see any dolphins.

The Nashville Diaries, part III

The reminder of my time in Nashville was spent profitably, with many root beers, tacos and great friends. 

The entire root beer research could be summed up by:
Kroger’s own brand root beer: terrible and to be avoided.
Everything else: pretty great.

With a special mention for Sarsaparilla, which is the best. I still don’t know what Sarsaparilla is.

Saturday’s back porch party was a whole lot of fun. The sun went down and the fairy lights came up, and I sat sipping root beer in the warm night, catching up on old times and new with some of my favourite people in the world. Much insect repellent was applied, as Ryan’s pre-party deck-spraying had not proved to be effective at keeping the mozzies at bay.

JJR proved to be a leading authority on insect repellent, as he is on many matters, and also regaled us with tales of his recent roadtrip to New Mexico.

Flying home a few days later, I found myself randomly upgraded to an emergency exit seat, with effectively infinite legroom. This pleased me greatly.

Across the aisle in the central block, there were two N Irish girls, with an American lady to their left.

The American lady was volubly excited to learn that her travelling companions were Irish. I overhead the beginnings of the “I have relatives from Ireland!” conversation. 

Meanwhile I was trying to work out how to ask my own neighbour to remove his elbow, which was protruding over our shared arm-rest by 3-4 inches.

“I had a DNA test. You can get that done with your saliva now y’know…” floated over from my left.

“Hey man, I’m going to have to ask you to move that…” I began, pointing at the offending elbow in my airspace.

He moved his arm and grunted an apology. And then, shortly after, crossed his legs in such a way that his right foot was now encroaching on my lower airspace. But I was rich in legroom, and I didn’t feel the need to mention it.

“I’m three-quarters Irish, one eighth Polish, one eighth Dutch!”

“Where were your relatives from?” enquired one of the N Irish girls, politely, as we always do, in these circumstances. 

“Oh… I don’t know! Their name was Lynch!”

Well, that’ll help.

Midway through the flight, I glanced to my left and noticed that the Irish girls had retreated. Somewhere. They didn’t reappear for the rest of the flight. It was a full flight. I am fairly convinced they were hiding in the toilets.

Today it’s my day off. I decided to spend the middle part of it driving out to North Berwick, with Steampunk’s Communal Work table in mind as a destination.

There are more direct routes to North Berwick, but the Golf Coast Road remains my favourite. I have tested the mettle of most of my cars through Longniddry, Aberlady and Gullane, and the bends and straights in between. But particularly the bends.

Just as I was passing Longniddry Bents, the blues groove of Gary Clark Jr.’s When My Train Pulls In kicks in. It inspires a head bob, not a completely horizontal tennis-watching-style one, but more of a shallow ‘V’ shaped one, with the chin hitting the bottom of the ‘V’ on the beat. It’s very very hard to not head-bob to this tune.

I find myself behind a slow-moving Volvo, still head-bobbing. When the overtaking opportunity finally arrives just before Aberlady, I turn Gary Clark Jr. down a little so as to better enjoy the sweet engine note which comes when the accelerator is floored in third gear.

Despite several of these moments occurring recently, I am still well on my way to attaining 2-leaf status on my dashboard plants. It occurs to me that vegans might not enjoy this car so much. Looking at those plants all the time must make them hungry.

Later in the afternoon I bus it up to Lauriston Place in an attempt to give away some of my blood. However, not for the first time, I am thwarted. Perhaps the insect repellent hadn’t worked, but whatever, having suffered from a tummy upset on my return from Nashville, I am persona non grata. West Nile Virus, maybe. I catch a 44 home again.

This evening will be spent at the opera. Nicola is going to be there, and has promised to wear face glitter and leopard print. It’s a while since I’ve been at the opera, but from memory I am confident she’ll fit right in.