Saturday, 24 May 2014

Cycling to Syria

In aid of Unicef's Children of Syria Emergency Appeal, a group of cyclists is cycling the 3,284.5 miles from Edinburgh to Syria at the east end of Princes Street over two days.  I encountered them cheerfully setting up yesterday morning on my way to work.  By the time I passed then again on the homeward journey after 6pm they were into the grimly determined phase.  From the map below they seemed to be on the German border, judging by the white dot.

Their fundraising page is here, if you're moved to donate.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Amazing Antwerp

Cathedral of Our Lady

After being bagpiped in Brussels, we did a quick hop by train to Antwerp.    Because this was my daughter's first visit to Antwerp I was determined that I wasn't going to be the annoying mother-with-camera and intrude on our precious time together by photo-bagging.  So although  Antwerp is worthy of a photo at every step, I only have a few glimpses to show you.


We stayed in a self-catering apartment overlooking Vrijdagmarkt, or 'Friday market'.  Unfortunately we weren't there on a Friday, so missed the market, but the square was a microcosm of Antwerp life.  A mix of cafes, residential apartments and one of Antwerp's major museums, daily life went on under our windows.  Most striking of all, life cycled by under our windows - the square was criss-crossed by cyclists at all times of day.  Early morning workers, the husband on the baguette run for breakfast, children being taken to nursery on the back of bikes, business people with laptop cases strapped on the carrier, students pedaling dreamily towards lectures.

Plantin-Moretus Museum
The museum, Plantin-Moretus, is on the right in the shot above.  If you've heard of the Plantin typeface, it was named after the original printer Cristoffel Plantijn, whose home this was.  The printing presses are still there, set up ready to print 440 years later, together with some of the earliest printed books, ancient manuscripts, paintings by Rubens, and all the furnishings of daily 16th century life.  To make up for my lack of photos you can catch a glimpse in this video - although the ferociously elegant 'visitor' skips past the most fascinating manuscripts! 

Downstairs cafe

Below, one of my few words of Dutch, but an important one: 'winkels' means 'shops'.  This is Antwerp Central Station - a cathedral of rail travel from the turn of the last century at ground level, with two futuristic underground levels dating from 2007.

Antwerp station

More transport - a typical Belgian bike.

Typical Belgian bike

If you're lucky enough to visit Antwerp, do consider staying at Aplace apartments.  Decorated in quirky vintage style complete with vinyl records and a ferocious coffee machine which we failed to master despite looking up a tutorial on daughter's phone, our apartment was an absolute delight.  (Edited to say that the coffee machine failure was all ours - we are not a coffee machine family at all.  Our most technical piece of coffee apparatus is like the yellow 'Koffie-Automaat' in the shot below.)

Aplace living room

Aplace kitchen

Aplace dining area and view to square



More my style
I wanted to stay.  For a long time I've thought that if I wasn't British I'd like to be Norwegian or Canadian, but now I have to add Belgian to the list, or more particularly Antwerpish.  I think Dutch is going to have to be one of this autumn's evening classes.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Bagpipes in Brussels

At the end of March my daughter and I hopped on the Eurostar for a mother-daughter holiday in Belgium.  I have no Eurostar photos for you, because I was so entranced by the journey that I forgot to take any.  Travelling all the way to Brussels by train was magical.  Just a short hop across the road in London from King's Cross to St Pancras International, a quick passage through security, and then on to the train.  The route from London to the Channel Tunnel goes through Kent, and it was lovely to see this part of the UK. There's still so much more of my country that I want to explore.

We spent the first night in Brussels, just off the Grand Place/Grote Markt. The next day we were returning to our hotel after a quick trip to the English bookshop (daughter having exhausted her reading material on the journey from Edinburgh), when we realised that there was a procession forming.  At first it all seemed very Belgian, with unfamiliar ceremonial uniforms. 

And then suddenly - a pipe band.

Followed by what appeared to be 'anciens combattants' (veterans).

The whole procession congregated in the Grand Place itself. Competition for viewing spots was fierce.  I definitely need to polish up my pushing-to-the-front skills. 

The Belgian police band played, and then the pipe band formed a circle and played Scottish tunes, among them Highland Cathedral and The Bonny Lass of FyvieHearing the pipes far from home made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.  No-one around us in the crowd seemed to know what the event was.  I chatted in French to a lady beside me, who said that she wasn't from Brussels herself, but one thing was sure - there was always something going on in Brussels. Very true - just behind the massed flags a joyful same-sex marriage was emerging from the Town Hall.

I leave you with this puzzled piper - any guesses as to what he's thinking?  And if Anni from This is Belgium knows what the event was on 22 March, please tell us!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Sloe gin

or rather the blossom that will form the sloes that will be picked to make the gin.   In the village I come from on Speyside, and where my father still lives, there's a wonderful wild expanse of sloe trees.  My mother used to make sloe gin from the fruit.  If we can time our visit right this autumn I'm planning to make some.  It's not really a gin, more a liqueur made by pricking the sloes and macerating in gin along with a hefty addition of sugar - the sloes by themselves are mouth-shrivelling.

Whether or not I manage to harvest some sloes, it was balm to the city soul to walk among the blossom on Easter Sunday.


On Speyside of course you're never far from whisky, and our alcoholic-themed walk continued as we passed Glenrothes distillery.  A load of draff was coming off.  Draff is the spent barley, which the distillery has no more use for after it's been soaked in hot water to extract the sugary liquid that will be fermented, then distilled.  In the shot below you can see the spiral of hot mash falling into the trailer.  Traditionally it's been used as animal feed, but increasingly now it's going to a biomass plant in the village where it's mixed with woodchips to produce electricity.   More about this mixed environmental 'blessing' in another post sometime!

And then, sadly, we had to leave Speyside to come south, where we were met with a good dose of haar (sea fog).  There's a castle in there somewhere...

Monday, 21 April 2014


We're very fortunate in Scotland to have free personal care for the elderly.  In my father's case it allows  him to remain in his own home, when otherwise he would surely be in an institution because he is too frail to look after himself, although mentally as sharp as ever.

He has four visits a day: in the morning, to help him wash and dress, and to get breakfast; at lunchtime and tea time, to prepare his meals; and in the evening to help him to bed.  The carers also wash his clothes and bed linen.  Beyond the physical help, they keep his mental world alive in a very real way.  He knows all about their children and grandchildren, and they bring local news in to him to the extent that he is one of the best-informed people in the village. 

And as we found when we arrived on Thursday night for the Easter weekend, they pick him posies of spring flowers from his garden. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Chariots of Fire 10k

 You've seen the film's opening shot?  A couple of figures walking on a beach beside the steely North Sea, the ancient university city of St Andrews on the skyline. 

A line of runners appears in the distance, far up the stretch of sand.

 We had our own family re-enactment of Chariots of Fire today, at the 10k of the St Andrews Running Festival. Here are husband and daughter, 3rd and 4th from the right, on the second West Sands leg of the circuit. 

No baggy white shorts and singlets as in the film; instead high performance leggings, trainers and goodness knows what else.  Also hats - in my daughter's case, MY hat, purloined at the last minute because of extreme wind-chill. Nor was there any thought of splashing barefoot through the sea - a safe distance was kept.

Meanwhile the other half of the family tried to keep warm and failed, and as a distraction we took photos of anything that moved and much that didn't.  My son, below, trying to capture the swirling patterns of wind-blown sand. 

The dunes against a darkening sky.

The optimistic aim of runners trying to lob their water cups and gel sachets into a litter bin. 

The hazard, perhaps unique to this race, of children building a sandcastle in mid-route. 

And at the end, a remarkably un-puffed looking daughter, and just a glimpse of her dad trying to keep up with her.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Sweet Thames, run softly

Spring 1977. A tiny tutorial room in an ordinary Scottish secondary school, in a small North East market town.  A dozen or so final year students, taking Certificate of Sixth Year Studies English (now the 'Advanced Higher' qualification).  All of us being challenged by our first encounter with 'The Waste Land', by T. S. Eliot.  For me, as the poem unfolded with each lesson, it was a sense of opening up to a new world.  We weren't taught to a national lesson plan or detailed marking scheme, as sadly seems to be the case nowadays.  We were simply led to a love of literature, to trust our personal response.  Every spring I remember that sense of discovery.  But I hadn't realised how deeply 'The Waste Land' had sunk into my being until we were in London recently.  We stayed in a hotel near the Thames, crossed and re-crossed bridges over the Thames, walked along the Embankment, and took a boat from Westminster to Greenwich.  And throughout, the river images from 'The Waste Land' came unbidden into my mind.

The first two photographs are my daughter's.  There are no rainbows in 'The Waste Land', but they show another face of the river so I had to include them.  I have to confess a technology fail - they were taken on an iPhone, which doesn't seem to like transferring to larger format photos.

Back to my own camera for this shot down river to the London Eye.  We were having breakfast over the river, in a little cafe at Lambeth Pier which juts out over the water.  

We took a slow tourist boat down to Greenwich.  We could have taken one of the fast Thames Clippers, which are used by commuters, but we wanted to take in the detail of the passing riverbanks.  And there were so many details. I was so fascinated that I forgot to take photos.  We passed the mouths of small rivers trickling down narrow creeks, of disused locks; shingle beaches and patches of sand; Shakespearean pubs; a floating police station. So many different faces of the river.  I thought I spotted the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr, whose walls 'hold inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold'. 

Tower Bridge, below, seems to be supported by the pinnacle of the Shard, London's newest tallest building.  Of course I looked for Eliot's crowd flowing over it.


One of the many surprises for me was the number of working boats on the river.  I could imagine myself on Eliot's Thames of 1922.

The river sweats 
Oil and tar 
The barges drift 
With the turning tide 
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar. 
The barges wash 
Drifting logs 
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

Even at the time I was aware that our teaching in English that year was something extraordinary.  Nearly 40 years on the fact that one of the highlights for me of a family trip to London was to experience anew a poem first encountered in that small, bare tutorial room is a tribute to a gifted teacher.  Thank you, Sandy Gibb.


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