Carry On in the Central Belt

“Listen, listen. Ooh – aah – titter ye not. Ooh no missus… Settle down now, settle down,” as Frankie Howerd might have said.

First of all, my apologies, for the cheeky title to this blog – well, we all need to promote ourselves a little.

Second, some explanations, for those not born in the UK and for younger readers. Frankie Howerd was a very funny comedian who appeared in some of the many Carry On films produced from the late 1950s through to the late 1970s. Carry On films were known for their cheeky and vulgar humour – a bit like the heading on this blog.

That said, I am not a big fan of Carry On films but find Frankie Howerd very funny. I particularly enjoyed the BBC television series Up Pompeii!, first broadcast in 1970, in which Howerd played the lead character, a Roman slave. Various aspects of the programme would not pass the political correctness test now, but Howerd’s performances, and the way he talked to the audience in the studio and at home, are a masterclass.

There are many examples of the programme online, probably from someone’s home video recordings, this is Nymphia featuring another Carry On regular, Barbara Windsor (no relation to Her Majesty The Queen)…

Anyway, rather like Frankie Howerd, I digress. I am, in fact, writing about the Central Belt of Scotland, the country’s area of greatest population which includes its two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

If you picture a map of Scotland, and think of it as a body, the central belt would be where the waist is, albeit that the body has short legs. Err, like me.

Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I visited Edinburgh in both 2015 and 2016 (my blogs “Reflections on Edinburgh…” and “Auld Reekie”) and Glasgow in April this year (my blog “Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow”).

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View of Edinburgh from the roof of the Camera Obscura building (image: Graham Brown)

In May it was the turn of Edinburgh, again. We stayed in the same conveniently-placed hotel, next to the transport interchange between trams, buses and trains at Haymarket, albeit now changed from a Tune Hotel (in which you paid for all extras) to the Haymarket Hub Hotel (in which everything is included). Visiting Edinburgh two months later in the year than our 2016 visit it was noticeable how busy the city was with tourists – and how expensive our hotel was as a result.

I feel going back to a city for a second visit relaxes the mind – there is not the urgency to get around all the essentials, rather Kathie and I could concentrate on whatever took our fancy.

So it was that on our first full day we made a late start, after a late evening/early morning at a friend’s house, and wandered from the hotel along the nearby Dalry Road to visit the series of charity shops on either side. Prices, not surprisingly, were higher than in Orkney’s charity shops but we found a few bargains including a CD of Hanna-Barbera cartoon music – ever since we got home I have been annoying Kathie, and our dog Roscoe, with the theme tune to Top Cat, less than a minute long, brilliant, concise writing, snappily arranged and played…

On another day we took time for a relaxed stroll in the sunshine through Princes Street Gardens, running alongside but below Edinburgh’s principal shopping street and with great views of Edinburgh Castle.

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Scottish American Memorial in Princes Street Gardens (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoyed the sculptures on display, and were particularly impressed with the Scottish American Memorial, given by Scottish-Americans – I know there are many of you out there – to honour Scots who served in the Great War, or First World War as we now know it. We thought Roscoe would have appreciated the shepherd on the frieze with his Border collie. The memorial was designed by R. Tait McKenzie and erected in 1927.

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Kathie Touin poses with Wojtek and his polished nose (image: Graham Brown)

But I think everyone’s favourite sculpture is Wojtek the bear, by Alan Heriot (2015). Wojtek was adopted by Polish troops in the Second World War, served alongside them, and enjoyed beer and cigarettes. After the war he was retired to Edinburgh Zoo. Like many tourists, we posed with Wojtek and noticed they had rubbed his nose to a bright shine.

The Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens was cordoned off for restoration but, my goodness, we could tell by peeking through the hoardings that it will be spectacular and colourful when it is unveiled. Produced in France, it was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London, bought by gunmaker Daniel Ross for £2,000, transported in 122 pieces and placed in the gardens in 1872.

Just along Princes Street from the gardens is Edinburgh Waverley station. We walked through there one evening and caught a glimpse of something very special. So, after some online checking about the next appearance, we returned at nine the next morning – an early start for us on holiday.

The excitement for us, and others, mounted as we stood on the platform, there was even a policeman on duty to ensure good order, and then, yes, here she comes…

The steam locomotive Flying Scotsman, one of the most famous in the world, arrived, looking resplendent. She was in Edinburgh to haul a series of excursions across the Forth Rail Bridge.

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Flying Scotsman in Edinburgh Waverley station (image: Graham Brown)

 

Kathie and I were thrilled – yes, we both were. Kathie had not seen the Flying Scotsman in steam before, if at all, and I had to cast my mind back to remember when I had last seen this venerable locomotive, built in 1923, running.

I think it was about 1968 when I went with my father to watch the locomotive run along the main railway line south of Peterborough. It occurred to me that the Flying Scotsman was about 45 years old then, but now has more than doubled in aged to 95 – a sign of my age!

My late father, Clive Brown, always took a great interest in railways. His father, my grandfather, worked for LNER, the company which operated the Flying Scotsman before the railways were nationalised in 1948.

I remember also that my father rode on the footplate of the Flying Scotsman and wrote an article about his experience when the locomotive was visiting the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. There is a framed photo of my father and the driver standing in front of the loco here in my office.

Other outings during our Edinburgh trip included…

the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden – we only got part way round, so will need to return on another visit, but we did walk through all of the glasshouses;

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John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (image: National Galleries Scotland)

the Scottish National Gallery, a return visit, where my favourite paintings were John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, Thomas Warrender’s Still-Life (a curious mix of ancient objects in an apparently modern setting) and, new to public display, Valentin Serov’s Alexandrvitch, Tsar of All the Russias;

the Mexican food store Lupe Pintos, in Leven Street, a must for Kathie to get her Mexican cooking supplies (they also have a shop in Great Western Road, Glasgow);

and Camera Obscura, a fun half-day for children of all ages. It is in a narrow building with steep stairs over several levels so it is not for all. But there are super views of the city from the roof terrace, the wonders of the Camera Obscura itself, and then a series of fun, interactive (two words that would normally put me off) illusions as you walk back down through the various floors.

Naturally we ate out at several restaurants, I would say my favourite for food, atmosphere and decor was Viva Mexico in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where we have eaten before. It might look busy from the outside but there is a cosy basement so do check if there is a table. If you have only ever visited Mexican chain restaurants in the UK (they were once fashionable in London) you should try an authentic experience.

However, the original reason we were in Edinburgh at this particular time was for music. We booked the trip in order to see the wonderful Gretchen Peters again, then discovered that during the same short visit we could also see the musical Wicked and the phenomenal guitarist Nils Lofgren.

Nils was brilliant, performing a show at the Queen’s Hall as part of a tour to mark his 50 years on the road. What a great guitarist he is and, though this can be overlooked, an expressive singer and handy songwriter. For those who do not know Nils’ work, he has spent many years playing in bands for the likes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. He appeared with multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta, who was fabulous.

We saw Wicked many years ago when we lived in London though for some reason – my tired and stressed life in London, perhaps? – I did not have a great recall of the show. But I know Kathie, like her Mom, is a big fan of The Wizard Of Oz, so when I discovered the back-story Wicked would be playing in Edinburgh at the Playhouse Theatre I jumped at the chance to book tickets.

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Leaving Edinburgh Playhouse after Wicked (image: Graham Brown)

It was an impressive production, great movement and costumes (we were only sat a few rows from the front), and the two women taking the lead roles – Amy Ross and Helen Woolf – were fabulous singers with great presence. As Kathie said, they had some really big numbers to nail, and they did. It was super as well to hear a live band coming from the orchestra pit. And the Playhouse is a superbly ornate theatre, originally a cinema modelled on the Roxy Cinema in New York.

And our final Edinburgh show was due to be Gretchen Peters, touring the UK with her keyboard player (and husband and all-round good egg) Barry Walsh to mark the release of her new album. She brought a band with her, and support artist and accompanying singer Kim Richey.

Unfortunately I saw none of this – on the night of the concert at the Queen’s Hall I was sick in my hotel room, and very fed up. If I’m honest, I am still not over this disappointment but I try to remember what my mother (and probably yours) would say on occasions like this….

“Worse things happen at sea…”

“There are many people in the world worse off than you…”

And so on. And she would be right. So I must get over it.

Having met Gretchen and Barry on previous tours I did drop them a line on social media to say I could not attend and it was very sweet of both of them, and Kim, to send me get well messages at what would be a busy time for them. Thank you all.

Gretchen’s new album, Dancing With The Beast, produced by Doug Lancio, Gretchen and Barry, is the follow-up to the 2015 Blackbirds. Gretchen’s songs tackle some difficult themes such as the state of the so-called United States, abuse, the ageing process and loss – “50 minutes of exquisite-sounding emotional devastation, depression, murder and heartbreak” according to The Tennessean – but there is compassion and hope in there too.

The song Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea will become a firm fan favourite, like Five Minutes on her Hello Cruel World album. In fact, here is Gretchen singing the song at the end of the Queen’s Hall concert (dammit)…

I’m no critic and I’m not good at describing the music I like in words. Really, you need to buy Dancing With The Beast, and Blackbirds, and, while you are about it, the previous album Hello Cruel World. There is also an excellent double album, The Essential Gretchen Peters. I could go on…

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Frankie Howerd – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Howerd

Wikipedia: Up Pompeii! – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Pompeii!

My blog: Reflections on Edinburgh – and back to a busy Orkney – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/reflections-on-edinburgh-and-back-to-a-busy-orkney/

My blog: Auld Reekie – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/auld-reekie/

My blog: Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2018/05/17/brief-impressions-of-a-trip-to-glasgow/

Wikipedia: Hanna-Barbera – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanna-Barbera

Wikipedia: Scottish American Memorial – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_American_Memorial

Wikipedia: Flying Scotsman – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Class_A3_4472_Flying_Scotsman

Royal Botanic Garden – http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/home

National Galleries Scotland – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Lupe Pintos – http://www.lupepintos.com/

Camera Obscura – https://www.camera-obscura.co.uk/

Viva Mexico – http://www.viva-mexico.co.uk/

Nils Lofgren – http://www.nilslofgren.com/

Wicked – http://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/

Edinburgh Playhouse – https://www.playhousetheatre.com/

Gretchen Peters – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Gretchen’s videos – https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters/videos

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Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow

In late April I made my first proper visit to Glasgow for many years. When I say proper I do not mean previous visits were improper, they were just very short.

I paid a brief visit with my parents as a teenager, and two brief day trips for work when I was at the BBC.

And I have changed planes at Glasgow Airport on several occasions but that does not count – airports are strange islands of people, baggage, cafés, bars, security checks and duty free shops which are pretty much the same wherever you go in the world.

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Loganair Saab aircraft at Kirkwall Airport preparing for departure to Glasgow (image: Graham Brown)

My first impression of the trip was to be impressed at Kirkwall Airport with the recently changed livery on Loganair’s Saab airliners. For many years Loganair planes travelling between Orkney and mainland Scotland have flown under Flybe colours as part of a franchise agreement. But now the planes have a distinctive white and tartan scheme, emphasising it is Scotland’s airline.

Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown) and I stayed in Glasgow at a Premier Inn (speaking of places which are the same wherever you go) but it was conveniently placed and our room had a splendid view of the River Clyde.

The hotel was built as part of the redevelopment of the former shipbuilding area of the Clyde, and we learned something of this when we visited another of the new buildings, the Riverside Museum, a 15-minute walk from our hotel.

The museum has a fascinating collection of classic cars, old buses, trams and trolley buses, railway locomotives and a huge collection of detailed model ships. At one time thousands of the ships sailing around the world were built in Glasgow, as were many of the steam locomotives running on tracks across the world.

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The author and a Hillman Imp (image: Graham Brown)

I had my picture taken with one of the first Hillman Imp cars produced at Linwood, Scotland. I learnt to drive in a Hillman Imp, well, two actually, as both the driving school and my mother had blue examples.

Moored outside the museum and also open to the public is the 19th century Clyde-built sailing ship Glenlee. After a long career sailing the world’s oceans as a cargo ship she became a training vessel for the Spanish navy. Now she is back home and beautifully restored, though I imagine the restoration work never stops.

I would recommend the Riverside Museum as a great day out, even if you are not particularly into vintage transport.

Our hotel was next to BBC Scotland’s Pacific Quay headquarters, opened in 2007. My previous visits to the BBC in Glasgow were to the old premises in Queen Margaret Drive so when two former colleagues offered to show us around we jumped at the chance.

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The author outside BBC Pacific Quay (image: Graham Brown)

Although having something of a box appearance from the outside, once inside the layout is innovative and the atmosphere pleasant. We managed to peek at the sets for the TV comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys and at the live BBC Radio Scotland phone-in with Kaye Adams.

Along the river next to the BBC is the Glasgow Science Centre. This was noisy, because of the large number of schoolchildren visiting, but there are some clever hands-on exhibits – try visiting in the afternoon when it is quieter. The IMAX cinema and planetarium were fun as well.

One evening we travelled with a friend by train from Glasgow Central Station, with its wonderful wood architecture, to the neighbouring town of Paisley for the Paisley Beer Festival, held in the magnificent town hall. I have not been to a beer festival for years (honest) but soon got the idea.

At the entrance you get a souvenir beer glass. You then take this to one of the volunteer bar staff and choose a beer, then another, and another… you get the idea.

The breweries participating, each offering a number of brews, were arranged alphabetically along the long bars, which took up two large rooms. We were pleased to see Orkney’s two brewers – Orkney Brewery and Swannay Brewery – both represented. My favourite beer of the five or six I sampled was Nene Valley’s Egyptian Cream.

For our final day in Glasgow we visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. If you were to visit just one place in Glasgow I would suggest this should be it – and it is free.

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Spitfire inside the Kelvingrove (image: Graham Brown)

The 1901 red sandstone building itself is impressive, even before you enter. Once inside it has a fabulous eclectic collection of paintings, sculpture and objects. My favourites include a Spitfire aircraft hung from the ceiling, The Floating Heads by Sophie Cave (also hanging from the ceiling), Mary Pownall’s startling sculpture The Harpy Celaeno (1902), and paintings by the French Impressionists and the Glasgow Boys.

We paused at lunchtime to listen to the daily recital on the museum’s magnificent pipe organ – what a treat.

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Mary Pownall’s The Harpy Celaeno (1902) at the Kelvingrove (image: Graham Brown)

Unfortunately we missed Salvador Dali’s famous painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross, normally on display at the Kelvingrove, which was away at another exhibition. But, never mind, it will be a good excuse to go back another time to see it.

Earlier in our stay we spent an afternoon visiting Glasgow’s city centre shopping area, mainly because Kathie needed to visit the Marks & Spencer lingerie department (we do not have M&S in Orkney). While Kathie was doing that I called into WH Smith – their shops look tired and old-fashioned these days – and TK Maxx, where I bought some colourful socks and a brown leather belt.

I also bought a Glasgow Evening Times from a vendor outside M&S, I believe in supporting local and regional newspapers, now very much under threat. And, sadly, I noticed several homeless people in the doorways of shops.

Throughout the trip I made good use of my new over-60 bus pass, so there are some benefits to getting older, but I did not need it on the evening we went to the SSE Hydro, just a short walk across the Clyde from our hotel via the Bell’s Bridge.

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Our view of Noel Gallagher at the SSE Arena (image: Graham Brown)

This was, in fact, the original point of our Glasgow trip, Kathie booked tickets to see Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds in concert. It was my first arena gig in many years and I was struck by people’s behaviour during the headline act – using phones, constantly going out to the bars for drinks – and by the deluge of plastic glasses left behind at the end.

But the music was LOUD and good, the band excellent, and the big-screen projection, showing the musicians on stage but frequently overlaid with stylish animation, was impressive. I even recognised some of the songs.

We certainly packed a lot into our four-night stay in Glasgow and, better still, came away with a long list of things to do next time. This month we are making a return trip to Edinburgh – more of that in a future blog.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Loganair – https://www.loganair.co.uk/

Riverside Museum – https://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/venues/riverside-museum

Wikipedia: Hillman Imp – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillman_Imp

Tours of BBC Pacific Quay – http://www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/tours/pacificquay

BBC Radio Scotland – https://www.bbc.co.uk/radioscotland

Wikipedia: Kaye Adams – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaye_Adams

Glasgow Science Centre – https://www.glasgowsciencecentre.org/

Paisley Beer Festival – https://www.paisleybeerfestival.co.uk/

Kelvingrove – https://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/venues/kelvingrove-art-gallery-and-museum

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – https://www.noelgallagher.com/

The first seven weeks…

Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

So, how is 2018 for you so far? Some small triumphs? Some big positives? And, for some, of course, there will have been loss and sadness. Sorry.

The world rolls round, our nervousness about the Korean peninsular slightly eased by the Winter Olympics; Brexit continuing to breed uncertainty and division, in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere; we’ve had more dangerous nonsense from the United States President; more cases of the abuse of children and women coming to light; disturbing news about Oxfam; and another horrific mass shooting in the States.

For Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I the year had a very quiet start. We had stayed at home over the Christmas period while our Border collie Roscoe recovered from an operation (he is doing very well, thank you for asking). Our first notable outing was our village Hogmanay event in Quoyloo Old School which must be, I think where it happened…

On 3 January Kathie and I both crashed with the flu. And I mean crashed. Within a few hours of feeling unwell we were both in bed, hardly able to move, not wanting to eat. I have had “flu-like colds” before but not the flu – this was wicked.

For several days we alternated between bed and short, exhausting periods in front of the TV. We had to ask a friend in our village to go shopping for essential supplies for us, making sure she left them in the porch and did not come into the plague house.

In the past I have thought an illness would be a great opportunity to catch-up with my reading but, when it came to it, I did not have the energy. Thankfully the programmes I had saved on the BBC iPlayer Radio app provided some entertainment and brain stimulation.

We got to day ten of the illness before I felt well enough to take Roscoe for a walk.

After nearly a fortnight I felt well enough to go into the RSPB Scotland office in Stromness, where I had been asked to provide cover for a colleague.

Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)

Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)

Since the end of December we have experienced an unusual amount of snow in Orkney – never enough to cause drifting but enough to make some of my journeys to work a little tricky. And, this is the exciting part, enough for Roscoe to roll around in.

We had really heavy snow the first winter we lived in Orkney (December 2010) but that was before Roscoe came to live with us. Then it became so bad that only very large tractors were able to drive down the track past our house and they left a channel so deep that when I walked in it the surrounding snow came up to my waist.

Older Orcadians tell us that in their youth it was much more common to get snow here and archive black-and-white photographs of Orkney seem to bear this out.

Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)

Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)

My latest stint working at the RSPB was, essentially, the second half of January. One aspect I enjoy about going to work is the chance to listen to CDs in the car (not that I don’t enjoy Kathie’s conversation when she is in the car). The Audi A1 which I inherited from my father has a very good sound system.

So it was that I found myself, for the first time in some years, listening to my double Les Misérables CD (Original London cast) all the way through.

To go back some years…

I was not particularly interested in musicals though both of my parents enjoyed them. I remember as a child my father would burst into extracts from Oklahoma as he walked around the house – “There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow…”

Then in the 1980s I have a memory of my mother talking enthusiastically about a moving song (which turned out to be Send Him Home) from a new musical (which turned out to be Les Mis) which she had heard on the radio.

In 1986 I moved to London and so began a series of visits from my parents. Inevitably, they wanted to go to the West End theatres and, in particular, musicals. The first one they chose was Les Misérables . It was not the first musical I ever saw but the first that really hooked me – since then I have seen the show about half-a-dozen times. It ranks as my favourite musical, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. I challenge you to sit through a decent stage production of either without regular need of a hankie to wipe your eyes.

One of the Les Misérables productions I have seen was by Orkney’s Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society (KAOS) in 2015 – the first time an amateur group in the UK had performed the show. I admit I was slightly dubious about going to see this production but the local cast did it proud. Well done all.

Listening to my CD while driving between our home in Quoyloo and the office in Stromness (it took a few trips before I finished, it’s only a nine-mile journey) I was reminded again what a stupendous work Les Misérables is – a tale of love, loss and redemption, with some great soaring tunes, and a timely reminder of what it is to be at the bottom of the heap in society.

Theatrical history tells that Les Mis got very poor reviews when it began and it is remarkable how, in an age before social media, the audience’s love for the show and word-of-mouth overcame this early setback.

The original French version, based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (most lyrics). The majority of the English words were written by Herbert Kretzmer, a South African who had a long career in Britain as a journalist and a lyricist. When I first worked at the BBC he was one of the national newspaper TV reviewers who regularly called into the press office.

Les Misérables logo

Les Misérables logo

If you get a chance to see Les Mis on stage, or listen to the CD, please do. But remember your hankie. Incidentally, I have yet to watch the film (movie) version as I am nervous as to what they have done with it.

This first six weeks of 2018 have seen completion of two projects at our house: the guest room en suite, delayed for months by a mystery leak which turned out to be water seeping through the actual porcelain of the toilet, and a new stone wall at the front of the house, designed to cover the drab concrete blocks and to prevent anyone falling off our frontage.

This past weekend Kathie and I did some tidying outside, filling the new “lower flower border” – oh yes, we have an upper border as well – with compost, much of it from our own bin. And Kathie constructed a stone bench from pieces of stone we have about the place – the sun even shone allowing us to try it out.

Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)

Back in early February Quoyloo Old School – of which Kathie and I are “Managers”, ie committee members – was hosting a dangerous goods course for lorry drivers or, if you are American, truck drivers. Thankfully this did not involve dangerous goods in the school, but it did involve the Managers providing the lunchtime catering.

Two of the Managers, John and I, donned aprons in order to serve the soup. Our Chair, Edith, thought this rather funny and she asked if, in a previous life, we had ever thought we would find ourselves in a remote old school, dressed in pinnies, serving soup to lorry drivers. Answer, no.

Anyway, it was a manly apron from the Kent & East Sussex Railway, not a pinny.

Graham Brown

P.S. Kathie and I went to see The Darkest Hour last night. A great performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. And, I must admit, hearing again some of Churchill’s speeches has made me feel my English language skills are a little inadequate.

To find out more

BBC Radio – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio

Wikipedia on Les Misérables – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Mis%C3%A9rables_(musical)

The Orcadian on Orkney production of Les Miserables – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/first-for-orkney-production-of-les-miserables/

Quoyloo Old School on Facebook – https://en-gb.facebook.com/Old-School-Quoyloo-462982410411472/

Kent & East Sussex Railway – https://www.kesr.org.uk/

And the trailer for The Darkest Hour…

RSPB Scotland: Orkney Local Group AGM

A different format for the blog entry this time… Here’s an article I wrote on behalf of the RSPB Orkney Local Group for The Orcadian, Orkney’s weekly newspaper. It was published on 11 January, 2018 (thank you, guys). I have added some links to the RSPB’s work and activities at the bottom of the article.

Highlights – and some of the challenges – of RSPB Scotland’s year in Orkney were outlined at the charity’s Orkney Local Group AGM.

Orkney Manager Sarah Sankey told members about a detailed programme of monitoring, surveys, land management and conservation work undertaken including a survey of all 21 square kilometres of RSPB land at Birsay Moors to provide baseline data for the future. Reserves staff are also studying to see how some of the Birsay Moors habitat can be restored.

Also during 2017:

Additional funding allowed for three contract staff, plus additional sabbatical staff, to survey breeding waders on 90 sites across Orkney. This will help determine the impact of stoats and their removal. The data is still being sorted so there are no results to share yet.

A third year of monitoring great yellow bumblebees was completed and, for example, more than 100 were counted on Copinsay.

The Hoy white-tailed eagles proved a disappointment, the pair were on their territory in February but by March had gone. However, three white-tailed eagles were seen hanging around over Hoy through the year and the RSPB Eaglewatch went ahead to help visitors and locals engage with these majestic birds.

The RSPB’s Outdoor Learning Officer Lindsey Taylor visited 50 schools in the year, engaging with more than 1,000 schoolchildren.

Egilsay CU chick Christine Hall

Egilsay curlew chick (image: Christine Hall, RSPB Warden)

Members were given a presentation about the RSPB’s work on its Onziebust reserve, Egilsay, by Project Officer Mike Partridge and Egilsay Warden Christine Hall.

The management of the farm has been taken in-house with the aim of improving habitats for species including curlews, corncrakes and great yellow bumblebees. The infrastructure of the farm is being improved and it is planned to host wildlife-friendly agricultural training events there.

This is a five-year programme and RSPB Scotland has secured grant funding from RSPB central funds (50%); the Scottish Government and EU Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme; Highlands & Islands Enterprise; and Coastal Communities Fund (Big Lottery Fund).

The RSPB purchased 271 hectares of land on Egilsay between 1996 and 2002 (55% of the island). The island once supported a small population of breeding corncrakes, but has not had a calling male since 2014.

However, among the birds recorded on the Onziebust reserve in 2017 were: 42 pairs of curlew; 28 displaying male snipe; 45 pairs of lapwing; 50 pairs of redshank; and 63 pairs of oystercatcher.

The meeting also enjoyed presentations on: the Orkney Native Wildlife Project in which RSPB Scotland is working with Scottish Natural Heritage to eradicate stoats – a public consultation is under way (see The Orcadian of 30 November and 14 December); conservation in Poland, compared to the UK; and satellite-tagged hen harrier chicks which are providing new information on the birds’ behaviour.

Local Group Chairman Dick Matson praised the wide variety of work undertaken by volunteers for RSPB Scotland in Orkney and highlighted some of the events organised by the local group including boat trips into the Gloup, viewing Harrier Sky Dancing and spotting migrant birds in Sanday.

The Orkney Local Group committee was re-elected at the AGM on 23 November: Dick Matson (Chairman), Pauline Wilson (Secretary), Graham Brown (Treasurer), Grace Currie, Kathie Brown, Shirley Tolley and Robert Wilson.

Graham Brown

To find out more

RSPB Orkney Facebook page

RSPB Orkney blog

RSPB website

 

 

Now We Are Six(ty)

Well, clearly there has been some error of calculation. But, it is said, I turned 60 in the month of December. Reaching the ages of 30, 40 and even 50 did not concern me much. But 60 does seem more challenging, that bit closer to the, well, the end, I suppose.

Still, Winston Churchill – admittedly in different circumstances, in which he was looking forward to the end (of the Second World War) – said: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

I think I will settle for that.

And remember Churchill was already 65 years of age when he became Britain’s Prime Minister as the country faced perhaps its darkest hour. So maybe I have more I can achieve yet.

My birthday was marked on the Friday night by a dedication on BBC Radio Orkney’s request show thanks to Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin). She asked for Nils Lofgren’s 60 Is The New 18 (from an excellent album called Old School) without realising some of the lyrics are a little colourful…

However, Radio Orkney has played worse – some of the chart sounds requested for small children are clearly inappropriate (klaxon, klaxon, old fogey alert).

A party was arranged for the Saturday night at Quoyloo Old School which, for those who do not know it, is our village community centre. Unfortunately it coincided with some wintry weather and icy, slippery roads.

Kathie and I started to think there might just be a few folk there who had managed to walk but, in the end, about 30 people braved the conditions to make a memorable evening. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much I forgot to take any photographs. Sorry to those who asked to see them.

Not everyone was able to be there, of course – it would be too much to expect family and friends from the south of England to venture all this way in December for a party and, within Orkney, conditions were varied. Two of our friends set off by car, only to nearly slide off the track from their house, so wisely thought better of it.

Kathie booked a cake for the party but we never got it because the cake-maker was taken ill with a suspected kidney stone (I hope you are better now).

However, I must thank Kathie for all the hard work she put into the party – my only regret is that she did not stop dashing about all night. I love you.

Since turning 60 I have done a few daft things which, normally, would pass almost without comment but, after such a big milestone, it encourages thoughts of there being something potentially wrong.

For example, I was waiting to greet Kathie outside the house with our dog when I managed to loose my footing and fall over, though, if I may say so, I did it quite elegantly and without injury. And only the other day my T-shirt felt a bit uncomfortable – later I discovered I had put it on back-to-front. This is nonsense which I shall ignore.

Sixty is also the age when some of the body’s aches and pains start to be felt. A few months ago I noticed my right-hand small finger is slightly bent and a little painful. I visited the GP only to be told something like, “Oh, it’s age, there is nothing you can do.”

I understand from others that this reaction is a familiar refrain from doctors these days. Given how people are living longer they might need a re-think.

Reflecting on my crooked finger which, with the blessing of a long life, I might have to put up with for 30 years, I think I am going to seek some alternative treatment. I have already noticed that exercising and manipulating the digit makes it feel better – so there is something to be done.

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Roscoe, in his blue post-op coat, shreds Christmas wrapping (image: Graham Brown)

Speaking of medical matters our dog, Roscoe, a Border collie, underwent an operation a week or so after my party to remove a non-malignant but fast-growing fatty lump from his side. Hence we have spent a quiet Christmas period at home while he recovers – which he is doing, and thank you to everyone who asked after him.

In our little family in the past it has been Kathie who has faced numerous operations – if you ask her she can give you a list – but, curiously, this year was bookended by Roscoe’s op in December and mine back in January (see below for my blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia”).

Now I have turned 60 I feel I should have some profound thoughts to share. That is one reason why this blog entry has been a little delayed – I’ve been struggling to come up with anything very enlightening.

I was struck by some words posted on Facebook by the wonderful songwriter Gretchen Peters, who turned 60 in November. She wrote about her fifties being a “remarkable decade” and it made me think about how my life has changed in the past 10 years.

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Blurred Roscoe playing in the snow – without his post-op coat and well on the way to recovery (image: Graham Brown)

The biggest change was Kathie and I moving to Orkney, in 2010. It was an inspired move for us, we love it here (see numerous previous blog entries). We have also had Roscoe come to live with us. I have unexpectedly become a (part-time) employee of the RSPB, and I have re-discovered the joys of volunteering – also for the RSPB, and for Quoyloo Old School and for the project which marked the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire.

Anyway, Gretchen Peters is touring the UK again in 2018. If you get a chance to see her, and her talented husband Barry Walsh, do take it. Kathie and I will be at the Edinburgh Queen’s Hall concert.

Gretchen concluded her thoughts on turning 60 by writing about her work and her new album, due out in 2018: “It’s what I do, and what I can do in this most uncertain hour, as Paul Simon put it.” She is referring to the politics of her US homeland, and to Paul Simon’s song American Tune (see below for lyrics and for my blog entry of a year ago, “That Was The Year That Was”).

I am not musically creative – in our family that is left to Kathie, who is also working on her new self-composed album. Some of the early demo tracks sound great.

So, for me, as Churchill said, “We must just KBO.”

May I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, healthy and fulfilled 2018.

Graham Brown

Find out more

Wikipedia on Winston Churchill – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill

My blog “That Was The Year That Was” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/that-was-the-year-that-was/

My blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/nhs-orkney-mrs-brown-amelia/

Gretchen Peters’ website – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Lyrics to Paul Simon’s American Tune – http://www.paulsimon.com/track/american-tune-6/

My 60th birthday request on BBC Radio Orkney – https://www.mixcloud.com/radioorkney/friday-requests-with-dawn-copland-8th-dec-2017/

A-hoy – we’re over here

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Kathie Touin and Roscoe on a cold walk in South Walls (image: Graham Brown)

Sometimes it is good to look at life from a different perspective. And that’s what Kathie Touin and I did when we went to Hoy for the weekend.

Hoy is one of the Orkney islands, in fact the largest after Orkney Mainland where we live. We can see the hills of Hoy from our house.

One of the pleasures of living in Orkney is being able to take a short break, or even a day trip, to somewhere that involves ferry travel. A journey over water makes me feel as if I am getting away from it all.

So on Friday morning (it was 3 November, fact-fans) we set off with Roscoe, our Border collie, in Kathie’s Ford. We were only staying three nights but we had enough clothes for several days and plenty of food – we heard just before leaving that Hoy’s Stromabank Hotel was not open for evening meals on this particular weekend.

The ferry port you need in Orkney depends where you are going and which company you are travelling with. By my calculation on Orkney Mainland there are three different departure points for journeys to the Scottish Mainland, and then a further four ports for journeys within Orkney. These “internal” journeys are operated by Orkney Ferries, in effect a subsidiary of Orkney Islands Council.

For our journey to Lyness in Hoy we departed from Orkney Mainland’s Houton ferry terminal, sailing across Scapa Flow which was the main anchorage for the Royal Navy in both world wars.

There is an excellent naval museum at Lyness but we were not visiting on this trip because, like many Orkney tourist attractions, it closed at the end of October. In fact, it will remain shut for all of next year while it receives a major revamp.

So, after checking the second-hand books at Lyness ferry terminal (take your pick, donations to the RNLI, Kathie chose two) we turned right and headed towards the hills of North Hoy which we can see from our house.

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The author and Roscoe at the Dwarfie Stane, Hoy (image: Kathie Touin)

Kathie had never managed to get to the Dwarfie Stane so that was our first visit. It is truly remarkable, it appears to be a Neolithic tomb, but it is hollowed out from a huge solid piece of rock. How long it would take someone – or some people – to do that with stone tools I cannot imagine.

The reverberation inside the stone particularly impressed Kathie. Roscoe posed for a photograph sitting inside the entrance.

Next stop was to the splendid Emily’s Ice-Cream Parlour and Wild Heather Crafts, a short drive around Mill Bay from the Lyness ferry terminal. You might imagine it is a little cold for ice cream in November but Emily also serves lovely lunches and all-day breakfasts. The cafe is open on Fridays and Saturdays out of season – something we welcomed, as we returned for lunch again the next day.

Then we took a leisurely drive south to our weekend accommodation. We told everyone we were going to Hoy for the weekend though we were, technically, staying in South Walls, a neighbouring island that is joined to Hoy by a road causeway.

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Late afternoon in November at one of the lovely beaches in South Walls (image: Graham Brown)

South Walls is very different from North Hoy – much flatter, more reminiscent of the rolling countryside where we live.

Our first stop was at the shop in Longhope, J M F Groat & Sons, next to the harbour in which Longhope lifeboat is moored. This shop seems to have everything – food, drink, newspapers, a Post Office, washing machines for sale, and delightful knitted hats in animal shapes (Kathie bought two).

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The beach and cemetery at Kirk Hope bay, South Walls, a short walk from our weekend accommodation (image: Graham Brown)

From the windows and gardens of our lovely self-catering accommodation, Old Hall Cottage, we could see a range of Orkney islands – Hoy, of course, Fara, Flotta, Switha and South Ronaldsay – and the Scottish Mainland.

We could also watch many ships passing by. The smartphone app MarineTraffic was really useful for identifying vessels, sometimes on long journeys across Europe.

So, here we were just a short distance as the crow flies from our home, but across the water and with a completely different perspective. Very refreshing.

We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing in our accommodation, eating and drinking, talking to friends who joined us for the first night, and walking with Roscoe.

Our dog particularly enjoyed the beaches – there was one a short stride from our house – and we also explored the remains of a World War Two radar and guns site.

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Longhope lifeboat memorial (image: Graham Brown)

Just below Old Hall Cottage, just above the beach, is a cemetery with a wonderful memorial to the eight men lost in the Longhope lifeboat disaster in March 1969 – it is a statue of an alert lifeboat crew member stepping forward as if he is about to respond to a call. Just outside the cemetery is an informative display about the events of that awful night nearly 50 years ago.

We ran out of time on our weekend for the Longhope Lifeboat Museum – that must be top of the list for next time. However, earlier in the year we saw the musem’s lifeboat at Stromness (see previous blog entry).

But that’s Orkney – always something more to do.

Graham Brown

Postscript one

You might remember from my previous blog entry that I was elected to Harray and Sandwick Community Council. I am pleased to report the first meeting was fine except afterwards I fell over a kerb in the dark as I was walking back to my car. I might raise the subject of lighting at the next meeting!

Postscript two

It’s a busy time of the year for Quoyloo Old School, where Kathie and I are on the committee. Thank you to everyone who made Saturday’s Harvest Home such a brilliant success, what a fantastic turn-out. We are lucky to still have this traditional event taking place each year in our village. Coming up on Friday 24 November is the next quiz night, all are welcome whether you have a team or not, 7 for 7.30pm.

Postscript three

The RSPB’s motto is “giving nature a home”. I think they may be taking this too literally. We recently had some RSPB bird food delivered. A couple of days later Kathie was unfolding some of the brown paper packing material on our counter top when a mouse appeared to hop out. Could this be correct? The paper had not been chewed. Do mice hibernate, or sleep for long periods? We then spent a few days setting humane traps from which the mouse was able to steal the food without getting trapped. Was it underweight after its journey to Orkney in the box? Thankfully, the fourth triggered trap did contain the mouse which we were able to release outside (but not near the house).

Speaking of the RSPB, you can find out what the charity has been doing in the past year in Orkney at King Street Halls, Kirkwall on Thursday 23 November. The meeting, “A year in Orkney”, begins at 7.30pm. All are welcome, members and non-members, admission is free.

To find out more

http://www.oldhallcottage.co.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoy

http://www.orkneyferries.co.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarfie_Stane

https://en-gb.facebook.com/wildheathercrafts/

http://www.longhopelifeboat.org.uk/museum/

https://en-gb.facebook.com/Old-School-Quoyloo-462982410411472/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/rspborkney

Hello again

Now, where were we? Oh yes, writing a blog, at least one a month is my self-imposed rule. I see I published a blog each month until, oh, there was no blog in June. But there was one in July and then – err, nothing since. So, it is time to get this blog back on track. Oh to be like our neighbour Sarah Norquoy who writes something like eight blogs a month (well worth reading, by the way).

Since mid-July I have been either working full-time or showing three sets of visitors around Orkney. I took early retirement before moving to Orkney in April 2010 and I found full-time work pretty exhausting. That said, they are a good crowd at the RSPB office in Orkney and I do enjoy spending time with them.

Anyway, here we are again – what do I have to tell you?

Welcoming visitors to Orkney in July and August was a reminder of why my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney. There is so much to see, beautiful islands to visit by ferry, lots of history (including neolithic, Viking, both world wars), wildlife, empty beaches and wonderful people.

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Statues in the grounds of Trumland House, Rousay (image: Graham Brown)

Trips with our friends included two visits to the island of Hoy, which have prompted Kathie and I to book a weekend trip there in November in order to see more. One day we sailed to Rousay and enjoyed a picnic in the grounds of Trumland House in the rain and midges – but we enjoyed it. Incidentally, if you are thinking of visiting Orkney, please do, and be reassured that midges are not usually a big problem.

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Kitchener Memorial, Marwick Head (image: Graham Brown)

We visited the beautiful St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and the small but packed and fascinating Orkney Wireless Museum. We discovered more about neolithic times at the amazing Ness of Brodgar dig where pre-history is being re-written, and we looked at the memorial wall bearing the names of 737 men lost with HMS Hampshire in 1916, unveiled last year next to the Kitchener Memorial.

And we took the family of three who stayed with us to experience West Mainland Show in Dounby, not far from where we live, the second biggest agricultural show in the county. It is a great social occasion.

Having visitors is a good way of making you look up – both literally and figuratively – to appreciate what you have. One day we drove to our house from Stromness, a nine-mile journey I take when I return from the RSPB office. “Graham, this is a wonderful commute,” said my friend as we drove through the countryside and past Stenness Loch. He is right.

Other recent highlights for Kathie and me, though not with our visitors, include the Stromness Lifeboat 150th anniversary event and the HMS Tern open day.

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Stromness Lifeboat, Longhope Lifeboat Museum vessel, Longhope Lifeboat and Thurso Lifeboat in Stromness Harbour (image: Graham Brown)

Living so close to the sea really makes me appreciate the sterling work done by lifeboat crews, and those in their on-shore back-up teams, and all voluntarily. Orkney is big on charity fund-raising and, as you might imagine, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) is one of the top priorities.

Orkney has three lifeboats – Stromness, Kirkwall and Longhope, Hoy. In 2019, no doubt, there will be moving commemorative events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Longhope lifeboat disaster when the TGB capsized and all eight crew were lost.

At the Stromness event four lifeboats were on display – Stromness, Thurso (from across the Pentland Firth in mainland Scotland), Longhope (current) and the vessel from Longhope Lifeboat Museum.

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Control tower at HMS Tern airfield (image: Graham Brown)

HMS Tern is a former Second World War airbase, also known as RNAS (Royal Naval Air Station) Twatt, which is only a couple of miles from our house. Tours of the site are available and some of the remaining buildings are being restored. This will include, in time, the control tower. The open day was a chance to see progress and, of course, another social occasion to meet friends.

Meanwhile Kathie remains busy with her music: teaching piano, taking guitar lessons, writing, and recording both her own music and guests in her Starling Recording Studio.

Otherwise we try to do our bit, volunteering for the RSPB (as well as my paid part-time office work) and as Managers, or committee members, for our village community centre, Quoyloo Old School.

Events at the Old School include a monthly quiz to which all are welcome. The next ones are 20 October and 24 November. And we have Harvest Home on 11 November.

Coming up, I have a new challenge.

I was persuaded to stand for the Harray and Sandwick Community Council by Edith, a village stalwart who is standing down from the council after 30 years. I was flattered to be asked and, it turns out I have been “elected” – eight people stood for eight places so we all get on. My first meeting is due to be in early November so wish me luck.

Graham Brown

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Rainbow, with faint second rainbow, seen from the track to our house – which is behind you (image: Graham Brown)

To find out more

Sarah Norquoy’s blog – https://norqfromork.com/

HMS Hampshire – http://hmshampshire.org/

Stromness Lifeboat – http://www.stromnesslifeboat.org.uk/station-history.html

Longhope Lifeboat – http://www.longhopelifeboat.org.uk/

HMS Tern – http://hmstern.co.uk/

BBC Radio Orkney In Conversation – Robbie Fraser speaks to Cecilia Pemberton and Walter Crosby about life in the Second World War at HMS Tern –

RSPB Orkney – https://www.facebook.com/rspborkney

Quoyloo Old School – https://en-gb.facebook.com/Old-School-Quoyloo-462982410411472/

Kathie Touin – http://www.kathietouin.com/

PS For a blast of nostalgia, and a demonstration of how radio should be done, try this show I have just listened to: Alan Freeman’s last Saturday Rock Show for BBC Radio 1 from 1978…