James had never seen the Irish Rugby team play at home so Friday morning saw us on an early train to Holyhead under blue skies and sunshine. I was trying to remember whether I had ever been west of Chester by train as we are usually driving to Anglesey to visit friends or to take the ferry to Ireland. The railway soon meets the coast and the tide was out on the Dee Estuary so lots of birds were feeding on the sand but we sped fast too quickly to identify many. At Holyhead there is a seamless transition from the train to the ferry terminal which is at the end of the platforms. It is also a short walk over a modern bridge to to the town centre.
I had hoped that as we were sailing west and sunset was around an hour before we were due to arrive in Dublin, that I might get some sunset shots but the advancing weather front brought dense cloud which put paid to that idea. Taxis were in short supply at the port despite two ferries arriving within a short time but one arrived eventually and we were soon ensconced in our quayside hotel. That evening we met some friends from Dublin whom we had not seen for several years and returned to the Winding Stair Restaurant. I have still not managed to be there when the bookshop on the ground floor is open. On Saturday morning we walked along the quayside and crossed the river to Trinity College. Several hungry gulls were looking hopefully at passers-by.
Rowan Gillespie’s 1997 sculpture ‘Famine’ also stands by the river.
Our destination that morning was the Book of Kells exhibition which was over-booked on our last visit. Near the college we passed a pub which had been open since 7am. I later learnt that this was originally to serve the market traders. There was no market that day but several people inside. There is an explanatory exhibition about the Books of Kells, Armagh and Durrow, the old manuscripts on display and then you can visit the old college library.
It is a fabulous building, housing around 20,000 of the library’s oldest books and lined with marble busts. On our visit there was also a display of ephemera relating to Oscar Wilde. There is Ireland’s oldest harp which dates from the 15th century and a copy of the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic. The rest of Saturday was spent meeting up with friends and enjoying the rugby match which Ireland won. We had planned to spend Sunday morning visiting a few more places in the city in a leisurely fashion before catching an afternoon boat back to Holyhead. However, a text received during dinner changed our plans as the afternoon ‘swift boat’ was cancelled due to bad weather and we had to take the early morning one. Some time ago, catamarans were introduced on several of the Irish Sea routes to reduce the time of the crossings. However, their movement meant that they were rapidly dubbed ‘the vomit comet’ and were also said to create waves big enough to wash fishermen off the walls of Dun Laoghaire which was the port ferries from the UK previously came into. As we boarded the ferry, the police were escorting an Asian man onto the boat. However we later saw him wandering around unescorted and he disembarked with the rest of us. I hope that they had not had to protect him from harassment. I read today that hate crime rates have now overtaken sectarian crime rates in Northern Ireland but I do not know if this is the case in the Republic. In addition to cancelled boats we also had cancelled trains. The person in the rail ticket office in Holyhead did not seem to know which were running and which were not. The first train was a relatively new, warm Arriva train which only took us as far as Llandudno Junction but with views of the mountains in Snowdonia with a dusting of snow. After that we were squashed onto a bus to Chester and then a very full Virgin train home, determined to make our next visit somewhat longer.
Or just over 22 hours to be precise. Our train pulled into Piccadilly Station with enough time to settle into our hotel in Dale Street before sunset. The sun disappeared quickly behind the buildings and lights came on accompanied by the sound of distant fireworks.
This part of the city reminds me a little of the garment district in midtown Manhattan which we visited last year. There are even a couple of wholesale fashion houses in some of the side streets. One more recent addition is Chapter One at 19 Lever Street; an independent bookshop which opened in 2016. Their website notes that in 2013, over 1,000 bookshops in the UK closed down and from 2013 to 2015 not a single new UK bookshop opened. It is also a cafe, welcomes people who want to sit and work and has interesting decor. There are not a lot of books on display but they also sell online and host a weekly creative writing group.
The main reason for visiting Manchester was to see some live music recommended by friends we had made at Cornbury Festival in the summer. Rusty Shackle are a Welsh indie rock group who were performing at Gulliver’s pub on Oldham Street which regularly hosts live music. En route we had an early evening meal at Turtle Bay, a Caribbean restaurant near the venue.
We arrived at the pub before the venue door opened so had a beer downstairs in the bar. It had some interesting light fittings.
The venue upstairs appeared to have been made by combining three rooms with ceiling roses, chandeliers and painted a deep red colour. It chimed with Rusty Shackle who have standard lamps on stage and one by the mixing deck. The support act was a group from Colne called Folkestra who describe themselves as ‘a punk-driven rock-fuelled folk machine’. My musical preference was for Rusty Shackle who came on at 9.30pm. In addition to the usual guitars and drums, the bass guitarist also played a trumpet and one of the other guitarists did some percussion as well. Here they are setting up.
The next morning we headed wandered around the city centre doing a little Christmas shopping. The Christmas market stalls were under construction but it is likely to be after Christmas before we have another day in the city.
Chester Visual Arts has had a free exhibition of 1960s Pop Art prints from the V&A collection on since the end of July. It finishes on Sunday and today, the Cheshire Art Fund had organised a pop up lecture on Pop Art by Adrian Sumner. This was a good excuse to get on the train and learn a little more about it. We had visited the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh last summer but my art studies at school did not venture beyond the end of the 19th century and a lot of the modern art I have studied since has been abstract modernism. The exhibition was of prints with some textiles and wallpaper. Photography was not allowed. After a bit of shopping, I returned for the lecture. Adrian covered a lot of material. I learnt that Eduardo Paolozzi produced some early Pop Art in the 1940s and 1950s. I know him mainly for his later sculpture (and looked after some of his relatives when I worked in Edinburgh 30 years ago) so it was interesting to discover some of his other works. Adrian took us through from the earliest days to modern artists in both Europe and the USA. As he has been a lecturer in art I was a little surprised that he went on for over 75 minutes (I left before the end at this point) and did not encourage audience participation. Outside on Northgate Street there are some three dimensional works. This sculpture was installed in 1992 as a celebration of Chester’s 900th anniversary celebrations.
There was also this baby elephant called Janya which means ‘life’ in Hindi sculpted by Annette Yarrow in 2010. She grew up in India in the 1930s and 1940s and this sculpture was a gift to the city from the zoo. It chimed with my interest in natural history because the other day I was reading something which said that while there are clear morphological differences between Asian and African elephant (including ear size), it has now been discovered that there may be at least two species of African elephants, the Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) which look the same and are only distinguishable by DNA. A third species, the West African Elephant, has also been postulated.
On our way back to the station, we passed the cathedral which had this installation outside.
There was no notice to explain what it was and who created it and we did not have time to go inside and find out as we had a train to catch. I have used my art fund pass a lot, although this was the first local event I had been able to attend and they have been able to fund numerous artworks for the nation. Chester Visual Arts aims to establish a permanent contemporary arts centre in Chester and I wish them luck.
On our frequent journeys to and from Edinburgh, Moffat has become a regular place to pause. Not only is it on the scenic A701 but the town also has a lot to offer. It is, as far as I know, the only town in Scotland to have a statue of a sheep in the centre instead of some local worthy. I must confess that at university we used to tease a guy from Moffat about this. The ram is a reminder of how important the wool industry has been to the town. I understand it even holds sheep races every year in August and unsurprisingly, the local rugby team is called The Rams.
However, Moffat’s growth from a small village into a popular resort began in the 17th century when Rachel Whiteford discovered its sulphurous waters. They were believed to have healing properties. My 1894 copy of Forrest’s Illustrated Guide states ‘Moffat has now been for more than two centuries a place resorted to by strangers on account of its mineral waters’; citing chronic gout, rheumatism and ‘serious intestinal derangement’ as disorders which would benefit from them. The town has three wells in the surrounding hillsides but the Moffat Well brought it fame and prosperity. The current Town Hall was built in 1827 as a bath house where people could drink and bathe in the pungent sulphurous waters. Visitor numbers grew in the 18th and early 19th centuries, with people staying to ‘take the waters’. Victorian luxurious hotels were built to accommodate the increasing numbers of tourists and several are still hotels today. Another consequence of Moffat’s fame as a Spa Town is the existence of the oldest pharmacy in Scotland. It still has many of its original shop fittings preserved. Moffat Well is a short drive or walk 1½ mile walk out of the town into the hills. It is something we hoped to do on our journey south today after a balmy few days in Edinburgh where I wondered why I had brought my coat but the low cloud, rain and the need to get home before Storm Ophelia reached western England meant we satisfied ourselves with a quick coffee in the town centre. There are also riverside walks and walks up into the surrounding hills. It is close to the Southern Upland Way and the Annandale Way. The Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall is 10 miles away in a hanging valley with walking trails nearby.
Moffat also has a campsite and several other accommodation options. There are many cafes and it even has its own Moffat Toffee. Parking is free in the town centre and in the car park at the south end. There are many independent shops including a book shop which I usually pop into when I stop off. The town hosted the World Gold-Panning Championships in August 2017.
As you leave Moffat heading northeast towards Edinburgh, you pass over a small bridge at Gardensholm Linn that was part of a murder story which gripped the whole nation in the 1930s. Dr Buck Ruxton, a physician from Lancaster had murdered and dismembered his wife and their housemaid and travelled to Moffat to dispose of them in newspaper parcels in an area still known as Ruxton’s dump. His downfall was due to pioneering forensic science at Edinburgh University examining the evidence and the use of his local Lancastrian newspaper which identified the perpetrator as someone not local. He also put the parcels in a smaller stream that was in full spate at the time. Had he put them in the Annan River, they may have been washed out to sea without being discovered. Ruxton was convicted and later hung in HMP Manchester in 1936.
Despite all this history and Moffat’s situation as a staging post on the road from Dumfries to Edinburgh, it barely gets a mention in Alistair Moffat’s book The Borders. However, we are discussing walking the Annandale Way at some point which has a loop north of the town around the Devil’s Beef Tub and then heads south to Annan and the coast. Today we had to content ourselves with driving back down the motorway with a curiously red sun peeking out from the clouds.
The morning we left home was only the second misty dawn with rain drops hanging on spiders’ webs draped on the bushes we had had in September. The incoming ferry was late arriving and watching all the arriving vehicles drive off, we noticed that there must have been a classic car event somewhere as several old cars appeared, even three 1930’s Rolls Royces similar to the one my father used to have. After a night on the boat we disembarked to endure lengthy security checks just before the sun rose in Caen.
The rest of the journey was easy but we did see long queues of lorries heading north on the N10 south of Angoulême. Foreign HGV drivers have been blocking roads as a protest against the high tolls on the autoroute. Drivers do not pay road tax for their vehicles in France so the tolls are the way money is raised to maintain the network. We arrived in time for a walk by the river near the local château where some sunflowers were still in flower. Many more are drying before harvesting. Persimmons and kiwi fruits are harvested after the first frost.
The village our friends live in is on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one of the routes in France that converge at St Jean Pied de Port before the path continues on through Spain. There was a crucifix and a scallop shell (worn by pilgrims and a way marker for the trail) on one of the buildings.
Over the next few days we visited markets in Branne and Libourne where these lobsters awaited their fate in the fish market.
Libourne is attempting to control the urban pigeon population by building a dovecot on the riverside and when the pigeons nest there, the eggs are replaced with ceramic ones. The waterfront here is under renovation, due for completion in 2025. Inevitably visit to vineyards and wine buying took place at Château la Sablière and a local wine co-operative and an art and craft exhibition in St Émilion.
We visited Bordeaux in the evening for a dinner cruise along the Garonne. The meal was very enjoyable although it was the first time I have had avocado as a dessert.
Tomato plants were being grown in tubs along the waterfront and I assumed this was free food. A couple of days later while doing some shopping, these were being removed. Other walks were around Lac de la Cadie which is also used for watersports and fishing and around the 100 Years War battlefield and Talbot memorial in Castillon la Bataille. Summer re-enactments are held in July and August involving large numbers of people and horses.
The local grape harvest was underway. Much of it is mechanised but grapes for the better wines are still hand-picked. Château d’Yquem grapes are picked and examined six times before being declared suitable. All too soon it was time to leave on a wet, misty morning with the trees colouring for autumn. Again we were fortunately driving in the opposite direction to the heavy traffic and we did not have too many delays at the port before we were back on the ferry and on our way home. It was still misty when we got to Portsmouth but today we have some warm autumn sun at home to enjoy the colours and catch up on garden jobs.
The last weekend of August (the hottest August Bank Holiday since records began) saw us back in Edinburgh to catch some of the last music and the Fireworks concert at the end of the Festival. Flagstaff Americana are a mainly Scottish group with an Australian playing bass guitar and a lead singer from Northern Ireland. They play a selection of country and rock music which is right up James’s street and also do regular gigs at the bar & bistro, Biblos. We saw them in the Fringe last year at Henry’s Cellar Bar in Morrison Street and this was their venue on Sunday evening. Here they are getting ready to perform.
On Monday evening, after walking down to town with only one flyer being thrust in our faces, we joined the long queue to enter Princess Street Gardens where there is a seated are at the Ross Bandstand and standing/picnicking tickets for the gardens. I had treated us to seats so we enjoyed the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and guests while watching the fireworks a little closer than I saw them last year from the top of Calton Hill.
The Scottish schools began their autumn term in mid August and the rest of the UK returns to school this week. Monday is Labor Day in the USA and another sign that autumn is on the way. However, although we have plenty of mellow fruitfulness: I am busy making apple juice, damson and sloe gin, passata with tomatoes and soup with cucumbers, we have only so far had a fleeting glimpse of mist before the sun burnt it off yesterday morning. Summer is not over yet and some are saying an Indian Summer is forecast. Traditional recipes state that sloes should not be picked until after the first frost but if we did that now, they would all be eaten by birds as our first frost is still weeks away and they are ripe.
A friend commented recently that we used to pick blackberries in October and now they are ripe in August. I now have figs ripening outside which I could not have done several years ago. We will be extending our summer a little more during a week in southwest France very soon and I am also busy planning more journeys.
I have to confess, we have not walked the 24 miles of the Water of Leith from the source in the Pentland Hills, nor the 12 plus miles of the Water of Leith Walkway from Balerno to Leith. We did not have time to complete the full length of the Walkway so chose to walk to Leith from the point nearest to us.
As soon as we had returned from Ireland, friends were asking why I was not in Edinburgh enjoying the Fringe. We did come up in the middle of the month as we had some work which needed to be carried out on the flat and had selected a few samples of comedy, music and photography from the Fringe to enjoy as well. Some sensible residents stay away completely as getting around is more difficult and takes longer if you have to pass through the main tourist areas; fending off the flyers constantly shoved in your face. After enjoying Dan Willis, a UK comedian living in Australia presenting a ‘Whinging Pom’s Guide’ to the country, Ed Byrne, the Edinburgh Photographic Society’s Annual Exhibition and a great night with Lorna Reid at the Jazz Club, we were ready for a change of scene. We have walked a few sections of the Walkway in the past but fancied a bigger chunk today. It is a two mile walk to our nearest section and includes a bit of the Union Canal.
The Visitors’ Centre is at Slateford just next to where the river flows under the aqueduct carrying the Union canal. We had a coffee before hitting the trail just under the aqueduct where a sign told us it was seven miles to Leith.
There are currently a few diversions due to path closures. There has been a landslip and one section has been closed for six months while this is investigated and decisions made about action. Other sections are closed due to works on the Flood Prevention Scheme. Back on the path we enjoyed the greenery including trees and wildflowers but also spotted large clusters of an introduced problem plant: Himalayan Balsam. It is an annual but produces 800 seeds per year which are propelled huge distances and can be carried by water. It out-competes native flora and is very difficult to eradicate.
Other places have street art.
We passed the Balgreen Community Garden with raised beds made from sleepers like my own and an invertebrate hotel.
There are numerous places along the way where you can join or leave the Walkway and it connects with some of the cycle routes. Occasionally the path leaves the riverside for a short stretch for example, in the Dean Village.
It passes St Bernard’s Well, built on the site of an spring and which is open on Sundays in August. Here is an interior shot I took a couple of years ago:
Before we reached Leith we came across a family of swans having a grooming session. The swan’s partner was watching nearby.
After a succession of signs all saying Leith was 1¾ miles, we eventually reached The Shore. There is a Turkish Cafe and a pub, Salvation ready to restore you and for fine dining, Restaurant Martin Wishart is a little further along. After some refreshments it was time to catch the bus home. With all the diversions we had in fact clocked up 12 miles.