September Swimming

Today—15 September—was the last day of the official bathing season in Scotland, a day that would have previously passed me by as just the fifteenth of September. I didn’t even know there was an official bathing season in Scotland. I thought that sea swimmers were just mad women trying to reap the benefits of cold water therapy.

On 21 June this year, The Outdoor Swimming Society organised an event they called The Longest Swim for the Longest Day. There was an article in the Guardian the next day, with photos and interviews with many of the people taking part, including some at Portobello. It was a horrible day—grey and cold.

The next day was sunny and warm. At 5pm it was 20C. I wandered down to the edge of the prom, looked at the water, felt the warmth in the sun. 

‘If I’m ever going to do this,’ I thought, ‘it’s going to be today.’

So I did. 

I pushed through the seaweed, the cold water shock, put thoughts of jellyfish and Leviathan to the back of my mind, where they didn’t entirely stay, and, after some lengthy consideration while the water lapped at my stomach, I dived headlong into the next wave. 

And, I have to say, it was quite lovely. There were distinct warm patches, which I initially thought must be where some kid further up the beach had peed in the water, but there were too many, and some pretty cold ones swirling around too, so I hunted down the warmer bits and stayed there as long as I could.

Since then I have gone for a swim once or twice per week. I always wait until 5pm or so, to give everything—the air, the water—time to warm up as much as it’s ever going to do.

Some days it’s been calm as a millpond, on others the waves crash into you and almost knock you off your feet. On these days, you feel something of the primeval power of the sea, inspiring a sense of awe, and the recognition it’s not something to be messed with.

It’s been invigorating, I’ve slept better on nights when I swam that day, and I’ve had zero menopausal symptoms since I started, so those middle-aged women are definitely onto something. It’s also been a means of some much-needed exercise, the cricket season once again having wound down, and some unidentified leg injury having thwarted my running efforts since my Peebles trip back in June.

I’ve swum on my own mostly, although you’re never on your own, swimming at Porty; occasionally with friends, twice with my sister and her family when they came up for an August visit; and the highlight was the day my 81-year-old mum tottered down to the water’s edge and joined us all in the surf—three generations in the water together. But not in the altogether. 

I have learned many things, including the phrase in the altogether, that SEPA provide daily forecasts of water quality across all the bathing waters in Scotland, that the quality deteriorates during and after heavy rainfall, that the bathing season runs from 15 May to 15 September.

And so, not having a wetsuit, my swimming odyssey has likely come to an end for 2021, with today’s swim being noticeably chillier than that first dip back in June. However, the forecast is good for tomorrow, and so the temptation to be even more hardcore—and swim outside the confines of the official season—is strong…I think I might have turned into a middle-aged woman.

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.

Peebles and Postcards

It’s Monday, and I find myself in Peebles. Not entirely accidentally, you understand, there was a certain amount of planning involved, although one couldn’t describe this holiday as over-planned, as I began thinking about it approximately twelve hours before I left the house.

I am here courtesy of Wiseman, who, along with the lovely Mrs Wiseman, are custodians of a static caravan here. And they offered it to me for a short break, and I jumped at the chance, relishing the opportunity of a change of scenery.

And so here I am basking in the glorious sunshine, or at least I was until I got too hot and retreated inside, because the long hot Scottish summer has finally arrived, as I knew it would. Were I to be sitting on the caravan’s decking, as I was earlier, I would be surrounded by rolling hills. Albeit I wouldn’t really be able to see the hills on account of all the other static caravans in the way. But I know they’re there, and imagine they must be very picturesque indeed.

This morning I went for a run, my first foreign run, as I like to think of it, and promptly got lost multiple times. I also found the tarmac considerably more unyielding than sand, although I had taken the precaution of wearing socks and trainers, which helped.

I ran alongside Eddleston Water into Peebles. I was the only runner I saw, and consequently had the midges almost all to myself, which was pleasing. The only people around to share the midges with were a few dog walkers, and I was only attacked by one dog.

What with the midges and the attack dogs, I wouldn’t say I’ve felt immediately welcome here, but I returned from my run and consoled myself with an iced root beer on the caravan decking, and suddenly everything seemed better again.

In the afternoon I walked back into Peebles, ostensibly to look for some postcards, but I knew there might be an ice-cream opportunity lurking along the way, and indeed there was, and it was very good.

Postcards, however, were harder to pin down. It seems like postcards are now relics of a bygone era. Has the selfie killed the postcard star, as it were? Eventually I found a shop with a considerable amount of tourist tat, and asked the proprietor if he had any postcards. He replied that they did, and pointed to the floor, where there was a box of assorted postcards depicting various Scottish scenes, mostly from the Highlands, some of snowbound Munros.

They didn’t feel all that local, I would say. Where are the rotating racks out on the street, full of local postcards portraying pictures of the local town hall? Am I the only one to mourn the loss of these?

I purchased some assorted postcards of Scotland, only one of which showed a glimpse of Peebles (in its bottom right hand corner), and a classic cheap touristy pen with Peebles printed on it, with the full intention of finding a beer garden where I might write.

However I couldn’t find my way to the beer garden I was hoping to, and besides, I was beginning to develop concerns for my staunchly Irish complexion, which was reddening slightly under the full force of the blistering Scottish sun, and so I retreated back to the caravan decking, where I consumed an Irish-inspired Scottish beer, and remained there until quite recently, when it all got a little too hot.

I wrote postcards to my nephews and niece, apologising for my handwriting, which was never that great to start with, and has deteriorated due to being out of practice at writing with an actual pen, and more recently has deteriorated even further due to me dislocating my finger last week in an unfortunate accident. I gave my nephews and niece three separate stories explaining the finger injury, all of which were more exciting than the truth, but I feel one must maintain one’s mystique as an uncle.

And with that, I think it’s time for tea. 

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.

Islands in the sun

The summer has faded here in Scotland, although not without a welcome September reprise of beautiful sunshine and warmth. Many of my off days these past months, and not a few lazy evenings of extended twilight, have been spent wearing out the Golf Coast Road to Longniddry, Yellowcraig and North Berwick. 

In August I made my now-annual pilgrimage across the Irish Sea to the Openskies festival, once again in the excellent company of Ickle Bef, on a ferry which charged £1.65 for a cup of tea and £2.00 for a cup of hot water. 

The weather forecast for the weekend was absolutely apocalyptic. We camped anyway, praying madly that the weather would miss us, which it did, and we came away with tents and belongings mostly dry and all intact. Even the fairy lights – a lovely set of plastic pink flamingoes generously donated by DL – survived. The deluge, it transpired, had been diverted towards Wales, where it landed with full force where my sister and her family were camping. Our diversion prayers were non-specific in a directional sense, and my conscience is clear.

Sports-wise, England won the Cricket World Cup, failed to win back the Ashes despite Ben Stokes’ monumental heroics in Leeds, and the Red Sox had a disappointingly average season.

Ireland appeared to be alarmingly ill-prepared for the Rugby World Cup, but still I approached their opening game against Scotland with hope and a degree of expectation.

Sunday 22 Sep | Ireland 27-3 Scotland

Later that day Ryan texted me from Nashville.

“What’s happening to Scotland?”

I was feeling slightly daunted at the prospect of figuring out what, indeed, was happening to Scotland in the current Brexit and IndyRef2 climate, not to mention how to condense that into a text, when a further message clarified that he was talking about the rugby. 

I reminded him of my Irishness, which is something I am happy to do for people when they are inclined to forget, and especially when Ireland are doing well and most especially when they’ve just beaten Scotland.

Six days later, Ireland faced the hosts Japan in Shizuoka. 

I woke up early. Like, 4am early. Three hours later I gave up on further sleep, and made my escape to Sainsbury’s, which I had discovered to my surprise was open at such an hour on a Saturday morning.

I returned home with bacon and croissants. The croissants were freshly-baked and still warm, and so good it sort of made me want to get up early on a Saturday morning more often. Sort of. 

Then I watched Japan puncture the hopes of an island, and I wished I’d stayed in bed.

Saturday 28 Sep | Japan 19-12 Ireland

The afternoon was sunny and breezy on the coast. A few friends joined me on a fast boat trip from N Berwick, which skimmed over the choppy waves to three islands in the Forth – the Lamb, Craigleith and the Bass Rock. The Lamb, we discovered, is now owned by Uri Geller, who is convinced that the ancient Egyptians buried treasure somewhere on it. Our guide explained that the Lamb was made of basalt, one of the hardest naturally-occurring substances known, and openly wondered how the ancient Egyptians would have buried anything in it.

Having completed a slow circuit of the Lamb, we sped through the sea spray to Craigleith and did the same, and then on to the Bass Rock, and its 150,000-strong colony of gannets. At this time of year their numbers are thinned out somewhat, but there was still enough to make a considerable din, and their guano was, well, fragrant. 

As we circled the island I discovered that it not only has a lighthouse, but also a 14th century castle. In fact, the lighthouse has been built inside the castle. This makes the Bass Rock, in my view, about as epic as it could possibly be. An island with a lighthouse AND a castle? I feel sure the Famous Five must have visited.

The Longest Day

It’s getting on for the end of June, dear reader. The country remains in unresolved Brexit turmoil, although attention has now shifted to the Conservative Party’s leadership election, which will determine our next Prime Minister. Once this is resolved, for better or worse, Brexit will again, I imagine, consume us all. 

In Edinburgh, the summer so far has been unusually damp. Unusually damp, I say, for it has been damp even by Scottish standards. 

Accordingly, the cricket season has been patchy. Last Saturday the Holy Cross 2nd XI, of which I had been carelessly – but happily only temporarily – left in charge, played their first game in a month.

We were away to Musselburgh. I lost the toss. This was the first indicator that it wasn’t to be a good day. We were asked to bat on a damp wicket, and bowled out for 21, which – for those not in tune with cricketing matters – is a pretty low score for one batsman, never mind a whole team. 

Captains and managers in sport are frequently said to have “lost the dressing room.”  I took this a step further by losing the dressing room key, which went missing from the scorer’s table at some point during the first innings. Fingers were pointed and accusations levelled.

In due course the key was located, in one of my team-mates’s pockets.

Normally at this point we would all ‘take tea’, which would involve picking at whatever meagre fare the home team had produced, before commencing the second innings. However, such was the low score that Musselburgh needed to chase, we simply went back out again.

Four overs later, Musselburgh required 7 runs to win. I threw the dice, and made my first bowling change, bringing on Ollie the Offspinner. Ollie delivered his first – entirely respectable – ball, and the batsman, in an act of considerable discourtesy, deposited it over long-on for six.

It bounced on the path which ran beyond the boundary, right over the wall, into trees and dense foliage, and was lost forever. We found another ball from somewhere. The same batsman edged this one through the slips and it was all over. 

We trooped into the changing rooms. The showers were cold. We emerged again, and the tea, sadly, met our expectations fully.

A dismal performance, a lost game, a lost ball, a lost dressing room key, cold showers, and a poor tea. At least it wasn’t raining.

The following Friday we celebrated 2019’s longest day, on an East Lothian beach. We really should have been at Akva, our monthly Swedish haunt, but the weather had taken an upturn, as if acknowledging that the longest day deserved better. So we cancelled our booking, in the process denying ourselves Akva’s pagan midsummer celebration complete with flower crowns and frog dancing, whatever that is.

Suitably equipped with fish and chips, we wandered down the sandy path to the beach. The tide was in. The fish was excellent, the chips too, although sand – unfailingly able to find its way into every available orifice – found its way into my box of chips, and became a most unwelcome garnish of the grittiest possible kind.

Nicola, garlanded most appropriately with a flower crown, produced a couple of bags of Haribo from somewhere, and we watched the sun sink slowly in an almost flawless blue sky, painting a pencil-thin orange stripe towards us across the water, and the wet rippled sand.

We walked eastward to the end of the beach, on the way enacting what we thought frog-dancing might be, and parked ourselves on a massive piece of driftwood, as the sun sank even lower. Eventually, just after 10pm, it dropped behind that little hill across the water in Fife, whose name escapes me now. 

I remember someone telling me that there are parts of the village of Falkland which are in shadow for six months of the year (or thereabouts), due to their proximity to that hill.

We returned along the Golf Coast, courtesy of Sonic Boom Bef’s thrill-a-minute driving, and stopped for a McFlurry at Fort Kinnaird.

It was at this point that I noticed TK Maxx. It was looking as good as a TK Maxx ever has, I would venture to say. The distant horizon, still burning a fiery red, was reflected in its polished glass frontage. This, combined with the odd solitary tree and manicured grass of the Fort Kinnaird car park, made for a striking image. Made me think of Malibu.

“It’s just like Malibu,” I remarked to Nicola.

Nicola snorted.

I’ve never even been to Malibu. Later, I found a picture of the TK Maxx in Malibu (although of course it’s TJ Maxx there). It was surprisingly unimpressive-looking, although there were real palm trees in the picture. Fort Kinnaird for the win, I say.

We found a table by the window, with a gorgeous view across the roundabout to Screwfix, and Bef had her first ever McFlurry. It was a momentous day.

You’re never too old for a paddle

 

Sunday last I enjoyed the pleasing coincidence of a hot and sunny day off. I visited a different church in the morning (a change is as good as a holiday and all that), napped in the afternoon, and decided to make the most of the long summer twilight and headed to the beach in the evening.

I realise that a visit to the beach means that for the next week I will be finding sand everywhere, in all of my possessions, even the ones I didn’t take to the beach, but I decide it’s worth it.

So after a high-speed 57mph trundle out to East Lothian, I arrive at 6.20 — 10 minutes before the chargeable parking period expires. It’s £2 to park for the whole day, and while that’s entirely reasonable, £2 for 10 minutes isn’t, so I sit tight for a bit. My phone has ZERO reception, which makes the minutes drag by.

Eventually at 6.25 I decide that a parking official would have to be vicious to penalize me for 5 minutes of unpaid parking, and so I sashay confidently towards the beach, meeting lots of families coming the other way, possibly because a shark has been spotted offshore, or perhaps because it’s getting towards the kiddies’ bedtime.

I head straight for the water, which feels surprisingly warm. It should be said that I measure all seawater temperature against the benchmark stored in my head, which is the Atlantic in October. At that temperature, the initial meeting of feet and water produce a shock to the system that results in not only a sharp intake of breath, but a momentary suspension of all life-systems, which of course gradually (over the course of say 30 minutes) gives way to a “come-on-in-the-water’s-lovely” feeling. Then a marginally bigger wave comes in, and brings about a meeting of the icy water with part of one’s leg that has hitherto not been exposed to such extremes. At that point the bubble of one’s “come-on-in-the-water’s-lovely” delusion is burst most emphatically.

So, with the context now firmly set, the water is surprisingly warm. I paddle along the water’s edge for a fair bit, making it round a couple of headlands, before returning the way I came, carefully avoiding jellyfish all the way. I meet a few fellow-paddlers, some of which, it must be said, are dogs. But one gentleman calls out as we pass

“You’re never too old for a paddle!”

“Pardon?” I reply. Too old to hear well, it seems.

I retreat from the water, and wedge myself into the seaward slope of a large sand dune, whereupon I am immediately set about by a plague of flies.

The Bass Rock is off to my right, Fife is straight ahead across the Forth, and a small rocky island with a lighthouse is on my left. The Lighthouse Island (I later learn it’s called Fidra) looks like something straight out of the Famous Five, and I have a strong urge to get in a boat and row across to it. But there are no boats, and I forgot my swimming cozzie. Plus, y’know, there may be sharks. So I Instagram it instead.

It’s Father’s Day. I sit on the sand dune and remember my dad, while the grains of sand gradually work their way into my bodily orifices and the flies continue to annoy.

I’m pretty sure I never heard my father say he was proud of me. Truth is, I’m not sure if he ever was. It’s nine years now since he passed. I’m reasonably confident he would be proud of me, if he was alive today. I’m not overly concerned about this, despite these musings, as I have learned to get my significance from my heavenly Father. But it would have been nice to hear.

Just this last week I watched my good friend Alyn bury his father up in Dundee. His father was a good, godly man, as was mine, and neither of them, it’s fair to say, were given to incautious displays of emotion. But they were both doing the best they had with what they had been given.

Father’s Day these days produces not only nostalgic memories of my dad, but the increasingly acute awareness that I could, at my advanced age, not only be a father, I could be a father whose children have all gone to university. Or away somewhere, inter-railing, or on an angst-ridden gap year, finding themselves.

It’s interesting how life has worked out. I don’t regret anything for a moment. Well, of course, that’s not strictly true, there are many things in my life that I regret, many decisions I would reverse if I had the chance to do them again.

But I’m happy with all the big decisions I’ve made, and this particular evening’s somewhat smaller-scale decisions have all been successful too, culminating with fish and chips on the beach at North Berwick, with the setting sun casting a golden, undulating ribbon across the Forth.

Here’s to creating new memories.