Saturday, 14 December 2013

Nelson Mandela and his effect on my thought processes

The news that Nelson Mandela has died, though sad, was hardly unexpected. What I hadn't expected however, was how reflective it would make me feel. People all over the world are mourning and/or paying their respects to the life of a man who not only had a profound effect on his own country and people but to others around the world. I'm reflecting on the effects he, and the struggle against apartheid, has had on me.

It was as an A Level student in the mid-1980s that I first became aware of Nelson Mandela, South Africa and apartheid. I was horrified at the injustice of it and refused to buy anything with a 'Produce of South Africa' label. This was my first engagement with politics and realisation that the world was an unfair place. Everything was black and white to me (no pun intended): white South Africans were all evil and powerful; black South Africans were downtrodden victims.

Later, living in London, I would frequently walk through Trafalgar Square, stopping to stand with the protesters and sign their petitions outside the South African Embassy. It was whilst I was living in London that Nelson Mandela was freed. Soon afterwards a huge celebratory concert was held at Wembley Stadium and he attended and spoke to the crowds. Even though I can't remember what he said, I clearly remember the awe, the exuberance and the emotion of the day.

It just so happened that at this time I was planning an overland trip though Africa. I was going to fly to Nairobi and head vaguely east, west and south. Any way but north really. Having by this time lived in Israel for a couple of years and met lots of South Africans (it being one of the few countries they could go to without a visa), and found out that most of them, despite being predominantly white, were actually quite nice, I was still horrified by the thought of apartheid but realised that things were maybe not as black and white as I'd originally assumed.

Living in Israel during the first intifada had given me a tremendous insight into how politicians and the media (and anyone else with a self-interest) manipulate situations and distort truths. This is true of all involved sides and my experiences both of the intifada and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and my conversations with South Africans, including those who were not white, had made me re-assess a lot of my own beliefs. It was realising that the best way to understand a situation is to see it from the inside: be there; talk to the people involved; experience it first-hand, that made me determined to finish my African trip in South Africa. A place a few years before I wouldn't have dreamt of visiting. The freeing of Mandela and the transition that would have to follow also made a visit at this particular time an exciting prospect.

The majority of African countries at that time, would not allow anyone to enter if they had a South African stamp in their passport. I always carried two passports, a habit I'd got into during my Israeli days as Israeli stamps were equally unwelcome in a lot of other countries, but even so, it seemed easier to make South Africa the end rather than the start of my journey.

As I travelled through the countries of East and Central Africa I'd started by keeping quiet about my plans to finish in South Africa. Yes, Mandela was free and apartheid had been abolished soon afterwards but the country still had white rule and was a hotbed of racism. But although I didn't mention South Africa, other Africans would bring it up. 'Are you going to South Africa?' My cousin lives there. I hear it's wonderful there'. I was bewildered and confused. Did they not know? Was cousin lying to them?

The more I travelled in Africa the more I understood. Africa is a tribal society and most of the countries I travelled through had their own forms of apartheid. It might not have been as obvious as different entrances and water fountains, but the better jobs, houses and chances in life went to the people of whichever tribe had a member in power. I was travelling at the time of the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. This was an horrific example of how this tribal mentality had been taken to extremes. Although the minority tribe, the Tutsis had been in power. This power had been misused and after years of discrimination the majority Hutus had overthrown and massacred the minority Tutsis. Once I got my head round the reality of black Africans discriminating against their own countrymen, I could kind of understand the draw of South Africa. Yes, you would be a fourth-class citizen there, but that was nothing new and at least you could make more money than you could in your own country. The realisation of this didn't sit comfortably with me, but I had to try to adjust my Western, Euro-centric way of thinking and understand things from what was a completely alien perspective.

After a year wandering around Africa I finally arrived in South Africa. I spent over 3 months hitch-hiking the length and breadth of the country, sometimes camping, occasionally staying with friends, but more often than not staying with complete strangers who'd picked me up on the side of the road and couldn't do enough for me. Most of the people I was picked up by and stayed with were white, but I stayed with an Indian family in Durban for a few days and spent several weeks in Cape Town staying with the family of a coloured friend I knew from Israel. Although things were changing and apartheid had been abolished the white government was still in place and everything was in flux. A year of two before I'd have been breaking the law if I'd stayed with my coloured friend's family. The husband of the Indian family I stayed with was a late middle-aged psychologist. He had a PhD, worked at the university, drove a Mercedes. The height of respectability. Yet he told me that a couple of years before when a British psychologist had visited the university and he'd given her a lift, he'd been stopped by the police. She had been taken to one side and the police had tried to intimidate her into making allegations against him. She was white, he was Indian.

Most of the people I met accepted that things were changing and were pleased their country would no longer be a pariah state. Of course some saw the whole idea of black people being intelligent and capable of ruling as laughable and made jokes about the stupidity of the black Africans. But these people tended to be the minority and it was easy to see that they were not exactly well-educated or articulate and so were the chip-on-the-shoulder losers that every society has. Once their white superiority was taken from them they'd be even bigger losers and so really did have more to worry about than everyone else.

Although people tended to have accepted the change, as an outsider it was easy to see how it's one thing to say 'oh ok, we're all equal now' on a conscious level, but much more difficult to change underlying prejudices on a deeper sub-conscious level. The language of South Africa revolved around colour. People weren't just people, they were blacks, whites, coloureds, Malays, Indians. There were white buses and black buses, white taxis and black taxis. In my language a white taxi would be a white coloured car, just as the moniker 'black cab' refers to the colour of the vehicle and not the passenger. In the language of a South African a white taxi was a yellow car for white passengers and the white coloured car (actually a minibus) was what was called the black taxi because this is what black passengers used.

I would rarely hitchhike for long. In even the worst possible places someone would stop within minutes to pick me up. They would be curious as at this time there were very few foreign tourists in South Africa, so they would want to talk to me, ask me about their country and what I thought at this turbulent time. How did they know I was a foreign tourist? Well because 'you never see women hitching in South Africa'. Hmm, I'd think, 'Isn't that a woman hitching over there? And another one a bit further down? And what about the two down there?' But of course the other women were black and so that was different. You didn't even need to say the colour out loud for the implication to be there in your sentence.

Hitching through Transkei I was picked up by an off-duty Afrikaans policeman on his way home from a meeting. He was young, married with two young daughters. He took me home and I ended up staying for a couple of days. The Afrikaaners were known as the more conservative of the white people and the ones least tolerant of change. The police were also not known for their amenability towards black people. As my host was a combination of the two I expected him to spout right-wing drivel at me and I was psyching myself up to bite my tongue. Instead we had a deep and meaningful conversation about how he realises the country has to change, that it was unfair before, that this is a good thing that's happening, but how hard it is to change your feelings inside when you've spent your whole life being brought up in a particular belief system. How do you suddenly change like that? He knew he had to because as he put it, 'My daughters will grow up in a different world. What happens when they bring home a black friend? Or their first black boyfriend? If I can't change I could lose my daughters.' Speaking to him, more than anyone, made it clear to me that it wasn't a case of 'bad white people' and 'good black people'. It's the system that is bad, not the people who have been brought up to believe it to be the truth. Of course this doesn't excuse the people who go to extremes and abuse others because their belief system says they're sub-human, but this goes some way to explain how the system could have remained in place for so long.

Towards the end of my stay in South Africa I had an experience which completely contrasted with all the positive experiences I'd had and showed just how some people were doing their best not to accept the changing situation. I was taken by friends to a white girl's birthday party. It was a private party held in her house and the guests were a mix of white and black people. The front door was open as people were coming and going. The party was in full swing when the room began to fill with gas. Eyes streaming, noses burning, everyone ran outside and tried to climb on to things to get higher than the low lying gas. Candles were lit, newspapers were set alight to try to burn the gas off. We'd been tear-gassed. The security police had been noticed sitting in a vehicle a few doors down watching the comings and goings. When the canisters of tear gas had been thrown in through the front door they had disappeared. The girl whose birthday it was and her friends were completely unsurprised by this. Apparently they'd been active supporters of the ANC, hence the black guests at the party, for a long time and were well known to the security police. They were used to harassment of this sort. That it was still going on showed the last desperate measures of a doomed regime to still exert their power. As it happened their show of power that night amounted to nothing because once we'd got rid of the gas, the party continued as if nothing had happened.

Not long after I left South Africa the first elections were held in which everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, could vote. The ANC got in with a landslide victory and Nelson Mandela, former high-security prisoner, became the country's first black president. The hurt and remembrance of atrocities which had happened over the years and decades in South Africa wasn't going to just go away because there was a new government however. If the country was going to descend into anarchy and civil war this is the time it would have happened. It could well have happened too, if the new government decided to exert their newfound power and do unto others as had been done unto them. The more extreme and militant whites would have had no hesitation when it came to fighting back and would have had the perfect excuse to try to take the country back to the bad old days.

What actually happened instead though was a policy of reconciliation. People, black or white, told their stories, met and questioned their attackers, atoned and asked for forgiveness from their victims. When crimes so bad have been committed it must be the hardest thing in the world to turn the other cheek and not seek revenge. It's far easier to burn up with hatred than it is to quash that hatred down and rebuild your life. But under the leadership of Mandela the South Africans managed it. I look at other conflicted countries, countries that have tried to find peace for years but been unable to do so, even with the aid of the world's best peace negotiators on hand. The only way there will ever be peace if everyone can follow the example of South Africa and accept reconciliation no matter how gutting it may be to see someone 'get away with it'.

How has all this had an effect on me? I have learnt that no matter how repugnant the other side might seem it's important to make the effort to understand it if you want to have any chance of ever changing it. I've also learnt not to put my euro-centric slant on everything, but rather to stand back and examine each situation from the point of view of the 'other'. I don't have to like it, but at least I can look beyond my prejudices and respect that others may have a different worldview to me and that this alternative worldview can be as equally valid as my own and may even make more sense. And of course, I know that there's no point dwelling on what has been done as that doesn't change, or help, anything. It's far better to focus on the future and use what has gone before as part of a learning curve to ensure that that future is a better future.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Firearms and Fingertips

Corpses, video games, shoot-outs, manic harbingers of death, desperate surgery and blood and gore galore are the mainstay of the action-packed 70 minutes that is Firearms and Fingertips.

FIREARMS AND FINGERTIPSA DJ plays in the corner, a corpse with a bloodied torso lies still on a hospital bed. After several minutes we realise that the corpse isn't quite dead yet and frantic doctors and nurses try to revive him. He's in pain, screaming, gurgling, swearing and asking for his mum. She's outside. He's been shot and she found him by the bins when she arrived home with their takeaway. He's a good boy; no reason for anyone to shoot him. 

Cue the harbingers of death, they love a good death but it really isn't the same these days. They lament for the good old days of plague with all the puss, and the times when people died of syphilis. The '80s were good too; that was the time of AIDS you know.

They are presenting a show: 'This is Your Death'. They wake almost dead Spencer up to tell him the good news. He doesn't take it too well. With plenty of macabre pomp and fanfare they introduce a series of guests: Spencer's mum, his girlfriend, shooter Jordan, and Jordan's mum. As they are hot-seated in turn we learn more about the background of the incident as well as being introduced to the five stages of grief.

A mock-up of 'The X-Factor' ('The Death Factor'), a killing spree computer game and a re-enactment of a war-zone in which the actors race around the place shooting each other and using members of the audience for cover. Bit by bit the reasons for the shooting are uncovered. Was it bad parenting? Was it a disloyal girlfriend? Or was Spencer not the good boy his mother believed him to be?

The dark themes of teenagers and guns, death and bereavement are dealt with in a way that is chilling and humorous. And loud. And freaky.

In the end Spencer dies. It couldn't end any other way. We return to the hospital scene with the doctors and nurses realising they can't save him and his mum coming to his bedside and hugging his bloodied body as she says her final goodbye.

Here's a link to a youtube clip

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Planning for New Year

As I don't have any family planning to stay with me over Christmas this year, this means that right after Christmas Day I can get away. I've thought about heading overseas for a week but as I'm spending rather a lot on my van conversion at the moment and as I only came back from Oman a couple of weeks ago, I've decided to spend the time catching up with friends in the UK and trying to walk a bit more of the Thames Path.

Last time I walked the Thames Path (which was also at New Year) I finished in Staines. Not the most salubrious of places. I've been told by a local that they're thinking of re-naming it Staines upon Thames to make it sound a bit more upmarket. I think St. Aines would sound even posher, but I'm not sure who to forward my suggestion to officially. And whatever it's called it's going to take a bit more than a name change to improve its image.

But I digress. Last year I finished in Staines and so that is where I need to start from this year. If I can get three days' walking in, I should be able to make it to Marlow. On day 1 I should get as far as Windsor; day 2 should get me to Maidenhead; and then if I have chance to do a day 3 I'll make it to Marlow. As usual at this time of year daylight hours will seriously impact on how far I can walk. Even with a headtorch I wouldn't want to be walking along lonely riverside paths in the dark.

I spent a couple hours in the week researching parking and trains and it all seems very easy. I've found relatively cheap parking in Windsor, Maidenhead and Marlow and good train connections back to my starting point each day. Hopefully the traffic won't be too heavy as it's just after New Year and schools won't be back in. Big time-eating traffic delays at the start of each day would mean me having to re-assess my plans for that day.  

So, all I need to know now is what's the weather going to be like?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Bike Expert

... ok, so maybe I'm not a bike expert yet, but after spending the full day at the Cycle Hub in Manchester learning all about cycle maintenance I know a lot more than I did when I woke up this morning. 

As I have a old and ramshackle bike that I bought for a tenner in a charity shop, I thought it prudent to do a cycle maintenance course so I can at least have half a go at doing it up. I booked an all-day intensive cycle maintenance course with Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative for £44. Yeah, I know, the maintenance course has cost me nearly five times what the bike cost me, but the idea is that it'll save me money in the long run because I won't have to keep paying someone else when it needs fixing.

The course was held in the Cycle Hub which I hadn't even known existed. It's situated in the basement of Piccadilly Plaza right in the city centre and is a place that provides secure parking for bikes and has showers, toilets and lockers for cyclists to use. Entry is by swipe card and there's CCTV coverage. Prices range from £10 for either 10 individual visits or a one month pass up to £200 for an annual premium membership which includes use of the showers and a personal locker. The downside to it seemed to be the early closing times - 8pm on weekdays and 5pm on the weekend. This wouldn't be much good for anyone wanting to go out after work or working a late shift. Apart from this it did seem impressive and maybe the times will change if there's the demand for it. 

As I wasn't sure how safe my bike was and certainly didn't trust it to be reliable, I chucked it into the back of the van and drove into Manchester. As well as the Cycle Hub there's also a car park underneath Piccadilly Plaza which has cheap(ish) all day parking on the weekend. 

I was first to arrive, but soon after I was buzzed in the other four students arrived. Their bikes all seemed a lot newer and in much better condition than mine. We hoisted our bikes onto tall stands which meant we could work on them without too much bending and contorting. (Note to self: must get one of these stands if I decide I'm going to get seriously into this bicycle maintenance malarkey.) 

We started at 10am and the course ran through till 5.30pm with about 45 minutes break for lunch. We removed tyres, wheels, brakes, gears, pedals, the chain, and a few other bits as well. We then put them all back on again. Successfully. We found out what tools we needed and, as we all had slightly different styles of bikes, we also found out different ways of doing things. At the end of the day we were each given a booklet showing step-by-step instructions for everything we'd covered. 

I'm sure I won't remember any of it by the time I come to actually do the work on my bike, but at least I know that it's actually quite simple and I feel confident that I will soon figure it out. The tutor also told me that I had a pretty good bike and was quite impressed when I told him I'd got it for ten quid. It just needs a bit of TLC and it'll be as good as any posh bike out there!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Bike Maintenance Course

Before we get on with the post here's a musical interlude to get you in the mood:

On my list of things to do before I'm 60 I have the challenge of completing a long-distance bike ride. I have a bike - it cost me £10 from a charity shop. I even have a couple of panniers - they cost a couple of quid each from Lidl in Germany. So I'm all set to go, right? Well, not quite. I know nothing about bike maintenance and as my bike is old and cheap this could be a problem. I've read blogs by long distance cyclists who have experienced all kinds of problems with their top of the range bikes, so I'm sure to experience a few jitters from my super cheap bike.

With this in mind I went in search of a cycle maintenance course that would at least teach me the basics. I found this course run by Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative. They hold various courses in various places, including an all-day intensive cycle maintenance course in Manchester for £49.

The course promises to teach:
  • Puncture repair: wheel removal, locating punctures, fixing punctures, wheel refitting.
  • Wheel truing – essential for better braking.
  • Brake adjustment for powerful, silent stopping.
  • Adjusting hub bearings for maximum life and smooth running.
  • Gear adjustment: including fitting new cables and fine tuning front and rear mechanisms.
  • Bottom bracket and headset adjustment.

I don't even know what most of these things are, but I've booked and so hopefully I'll soon not only know what they are, but will be able to transform my dilapidated ride into a spic and span, smooth-running dream machine.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wicked - the musical

Last night I accompanied a group of students to the theatre to see Wicked. I didn't know anything about it beforehand, but hey, it's a free theatre ticket, I'm not going to say no. I knew it was a musical and so expected singing, dancing and superficialness. Yes, there was the singing and dancing but I was surprised by some of the challenging themes it addressed. 

The show is basically the backstory to The Wizard of Oz and begins with the Good Witch Glinda announcing the death of Wicked Witch of the West to the people of Oz. They are hesitant to believe the good news at first but once convinced celebrate gladly. One asks Glinda 'But weren't you friends with her once?' Shocked silence. Glinda at first deflects the question, then decides to answer honestly. The show switches to flashback mode and we get the story of the Wicked Witch's life from her birth to her death.

Born green, her father, the governor, had no time for her and more or less abandoned her. When her wheelchair-bound sister was born she was given the role of looking after her. As teenagers they went off to boarding school together, though Alphaba had been allowed to go only because her sister needed her. She is shunned because of the colour of her skin. Her sister isn't treated much better due to her disability despite them both being in a supposed position of influence being that they are the governor's daughters after all. The theme of racism and prejudice continues and develops into a paradigm of how a society, particularly one in hard times, creates its own scapegoats and how easily people buy into the idea. 

The scapegoats in Oz are the animals. All animals can talk and hold down regular jobs such as teaching. One by one, species by species, the animals are silenced and in some cases caged. They are dismissed from their jobs and lose all 'human' rights. As people's minds are poisoned against them, there are few to stand up for them and those that do are seen as subversive. That the scapegoats of choice are so readily turned from upstanding citizens into public enemy number one is reminiscent of 17th century witch hunts, 1930's and 40's Nazi Germany, the US's Reds under the Beds anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s and the present day scaremongering and paranoia about 'illegal immigrants' and 'bogus asylum seekers' as propagated by the likes of the Daily Mail.

Despite the ill-treatment and disdain, Alphaba is good. Good and righteous she is one of the few to stand up for the animals. When she first arrives at the school she looses her cool and demonstrates her ability at magic. The headmistress, impressed by this ability, takes her under her wing and gives her special lessons in sorcery. Alphaba works hard at these lessons as she wants to attain a standard high enough to warrant an invitation to meet with the Wizard himself. Finally she is able to realise her dream of meeting the Wizard and we find out that her reason for wanting this so badly is because she wants to ask him to do something for the animals. To her dismay, she discovers that the Wizard is not all he seems and his power is due more to clever PR than any real talent for magic. To consolidate his position it is he who is behind the scapegoating of the animals.

Alphaba ends up on the run with her name blackened. She continues to fight for justice in Oz, but the Wizard's media savvy PR is far more powerful and effective than her magic. 

Other characters from The Wizard of Oz, such as the Tin Man and the Scarecrow are woven into the story and we find out their backstories too. Glinda, the Good Witch, starts out as a spoilt and self-centred airhead whose only interests in life are her looks and getting her own way. For her and Alphaba it is a case of loathe at first sight. Thrown together as roommates they come first to tolerate each other and then to become friends. Through her friendship with Alphaba, Glinda becomes the good person she later becomes renowned for being. 

I really enjoyed the exploration of so many different issues reflective of contemporary life (there are more than I've touched on here), and also enjoyed the way the story was so cleverly linked to the original to become a 'believable' prequel. I can now understand why it is so popular and why so many people rave about it.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Introduction to BELA

Up early this morning to drive to a primary school in St Helens for the first day of my BELA course. I got there early and sat sipping a coffee as the other delegates arrived. There are 21 of us in all. Most of the trainers we'll be meeting over the next few months were there too to introduce themselves. 

BELA stands for Basic Expedition Leaders' Award and will qualify me to lead bronze and silver expeditions for Duke of Edinburgh Award students. It's only one step down from the walking group leaders' qualification and so should stand me in good stead to achieve that whenever I get round to going for it.

It's quite a time commitment as between now and November I have to attend three residential weekends. They start on the Friday evening and finish on the Sunday. I have to do another one in March for my assessment. In between finishing the third residential weekend and the assessment I have to fit in 30 hours of leading kids on walks. This concerns me a bit as it'll be in the winter when daylight is short and the weather may be bad. Although this wouldn't stop me from going out on a walk myself I won't be able to take students out in the dark or in torrential storms and heavy snow drifts. I thought I'd be able to backdate these 30 hours to the spring and early summer when I spent, what seemed like, most of my weekends out with kids on practice and assessed bronze and silver expedition weekends. 

What I can backdate is my own walking experience. I have to fill in a log of walks I've done myself. Easy-peasy - I've got lots of them logged on here so I just have to flip back through my blog and copy the details over. 

Throughout the day we went over the expectations of the course and got a lot of the admin and form-filling done. Then we looked at equipment and did quite an interesting exercise in which we were given an equipment list, a total cost spent and lot of pictures of equipment from which we had to choose items to fit the cost we'd been given. It really showed how little you can spend to get the basics on a low budget and how much you can spend if you want to splash out on the best of everything and/or go for named brands. 

We looked at some actual equipment and were advised on how to tell if something is good or not and which items it's worth spending a bit more on to get something decent (basically the things that can hurt you - boots and rucksack and also jacket because being soaking wet and cold is the equivalent of being 'hurt'). 

All in all it was a good day and I'm feeling excited about my first residential the weekend after next. 

Friday, 6 September 2013

What's the best way to learn drumming?

What's the best way to learn drumming? Well, according to research the best way to learn anything is to teach it.

I got my new timetable just before we broke up for summer and SHOCK! HORROR! I'm going to be teaching two year 7 classes music. As I am the least musical person I know this is going to be quite a challenge. I'm convinced I'm tone deaf, I have no sense of rhythm, I can't hold a tune, when I sing even cats cover their ears. 

Luckily I have a very understanding Head of Music. Before we broke up she asked me what I would like to teach and as I would like to learn drums myself of course this is what I said. I put it on my list of challenges as I think learning a musical instrument will help make me become a more rounded person (at the moment I'm relying on cake to do this) and drums are my instrument of choice because hitting something seems a really good way of dealing with stress at the end of a bad day and this would be a legitimate way of doing this.

The Head of Music spent some time teaching me the basics before we broke up for summer. I got excited, she despaired. We're going to do some work on beats and rhythm and then, a few weeks in, we'll get the samba drums out and start proper drumming. I have a lot to learn before then as at the moment I can't even say the names of the various drums let alone play them. 

Just to help me along (and because I'm enthusiastic) I ordered myself some drums over the summer. I've got a set of bongos and a bodhran. I've got these because they were the cheapest out of all the different types of drums and at the moment I just need to something to practice my rhythm and beats on. 

As I don't know anything about levels or stages of drumming I don't know what to aim for to be able to say I've completed this challenge. At the moment I'll just say it's in progress and decide later what my actual goal is. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

North Ronaldsay Day 1

My first morning on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Isles. It was touch and go whether I'd get here at all; trying to match up flights and ferries was a major pain in the proverbial and it was only after numerous phone calls, copious amounts of head-scratching and much staring at timetables, turning them upside-down to see if they'd make more sense that way, that I finally got everything to work out. 

I flew up in a tiny plane yesterday evening. Everyone and their dog (well, one dog) was squished together with enough leg room for, ooh, maybe one leg. It was only a 15 minute flight so the squish wasn't a problem. I took some photos of the islands from above, enjoying recognising the ones I've been too.

Arriving at the airport terminal / airfield / toilet with a runway attached, I hoisted my collection of bags as they were passed out of the plane, National Express style, and wandered over to the people waiting to collect passengers. Quickly finding Simon, who it turns out was based at the Fair Isle observatory when I was there in 2010, I piled everything into the Landrover and we drove the few minutes to the bird observatory where I'm camping for the next 3 nights. I had wanted to stay in the hostel so I wouldn't need to worry about carrying camping gear on the tiny plane, but it was fully booked with people who are in North Ronaldsay filming a children's programme for CBeebies. Although I'm camping (£5 a night) I can still use the hostel facilities - fortunate as otherwise I wouldn't be able to cook as I don't think I'd have been allowed to carry fuel on the flight (though liquids and sharp objects were no problem).

I got my tent up and retired to the hostel kitchen, which I had to myself, to cook up enough food to last several days and using all the fresh vegetables I'd bought I'd bought in Kirkwall.

... back to this morning ...

I was up, showered and leisurely breakfasted and ready to head out for just after 10am. Just as the electricity went off. It doesn't usually go off; they've had mains electricity here since the 1983, but today, and possibly tomorrow, there are workmen here doing something to the powerlines meaning the electicity is off for the whole island until 5pm this evening.

I explored the area around the hostel, spotting a couple of heliogoland traps (used to trap birds for ringing) and trying to get to a gorgeous white beach. But there was no way my brain was ever going to be capable of figuring out the knots tying the gate firmly into position and I couldn't be bothered climbing over as I wanted to focus on the north part of the island anyway.

I veered off track to check out a standing stone - the only one known to have a hole in it, and then stuck pretty much to the main road which took me from the bottom to the top of the island. I wanted to get to the north so I could visit the old and new lighthouses.

The old lighthouse was built in 1789 by Thomas Smith and is one of Scotland's oldest lighthouses. The 70ft stone tower which was topped with oil burning lamps and copper reflectors cost £199 to build. In 1806 the building of Start Point lighthouse on Sanday made the North Ronaldsay beacon redundant and it was decommissioned in 1809, its lantern being replaced with a giant stone ball. It was soon realised that North Ronaldsay did need its own lighthouse and a new, much higher one was built close to the original beacon. At 139ft it was, and still is, the highest land based lighthouse in the British Isles. Originally its red brick exterior was left au naturel, but in 1889 it was painted with a couple of white horizontal bands to aid visibility.

I was going to have a look at the old lighthouse first but as it began to rain heavily I made for the new lighthouse which I knew had a cafe and visitor centre I could shelter in. I paused inside the open door at the bottom of the lighthouse itself and then, as the rain paused slightly, went for a wander round the buildings. The former lighthouse keepers' cottages are now rented out as holiday lets by the National Trust for Scotland (and very nice they looked too, from the tiny peek I had through the windows).

The cafe was full of lunching BBC film crew and so I had a look round the exhibition rooms. One room had photos and exhibits concerning North Ronaldsay in general and the other was more specifically on the lighthouse and the lives of the keepers. There are a few short films but due to the power cut I wasn't able to watch them. A smartly uniformed lighthouse keeper popped his head in the door and asked if I was the lady looking for a tour of the lighthouse. I wasn't the lady he was looking for but I was a lady looking for a tour. Billy had been keeper of the light for over 40 years and is a native of North Ronaldsay. He lost his full-time job when the light was automated in 1998 but still looks after it when need be and also acts as tour guide. Today he was in the role of TV star as he was the lighthouse keeper the BBC were here to film. The short 15 minute programme involves Billy showing his (real) grandson around the island and telling him about his life as a lighthouse keeper. He told me he would be with the film crew till about 2.30pm and then he'd be able to do my tour. As the crew had finished their lunch and were getting back to their filming, I went into the cafe to have my lunch.

The menu was somewhat limited due to the power cut but I was still able to have a steaming bowl of home-made carrot and coriander soup with home-made wheaten bread followed by home-made tangy lemon drizzle cake and cream and a cafetierre.

The man running the cafe had time to talk to me as I was now the only person there. He's originally from Essex and has been on the island for two and a bit years. His wife is a nurse practitioner and got fed up working in a busy surgery with 18,000+ patients on the list. She said she wished she worked on a small island with few people and lo and behold there happened to appear an advert for exactly her job on a small island with few people. Although there aren't many people on the island, as it is an aging population she is still kept quite busy. As for the man (let's call him Mark, as I can't remember what he was called but think it may have been Mark), he's got himself settled with his role running the cafe, everything home-made, and giving tours of the adjacent wool mill.

Whilst I waited for Billy to finish up with the film crew Mark offered me a tour of the wool mill. None of the machinery was running of course, due to the lack of power, but he was still able to show me around and explain how everything worked. The mill began when it became unprofitable to send fleeces south to be processed. A chance comment at a science fair in Kirkwall led to a North Ronaldsay couple going on a fact-finding mission to Canada to research small-scale wool mill equipment. It all looked good and the investment was made. Now the islanders can wash, de-hair (North Ronaldsay sheep, like Cumbrian Herdwich sheep, but unlike any others, have wool next to their skin and hair on the outside), card, spin and wind their own wool. The hair, by the way, shows as black threads in the wool and is the part of a jumper that gives it an itch factor. As well as hair being removed, lanolin and large amounts of sand are washed out of the fleeces. This leads to a big reduction in the actual weight of the end product when compared to  the fleece at the start of the process.

As my tour finished, Billy appeared and I was straight off on my tour of the new lighthouse. A quick climb up 176 steps (despite being 64 Billy practically skipped up them; I had to stop for a breather) and we were out on the veranda that runs around the top of the lighthouse just below the light.

We stood on the sheltered side, out of the wind whilst he told me the history of the lighthouse. The views looked pretty good today but on a really clear day it's possible to see Fair Isle, Sumburgh Head and Foula.

Ducking back inside we went up into the light itself. The Fresnel lens is made up of many curved and flat layers. Although these days the light runs off electricity with its own generator in case of power cuts, the old parafin lamp is still there. Looking through the lenses everything shimmered, rainbows flickered and images doubled, tripled and flipped upside-down psychedelically.

Billy covered the light-sensors with cardboard to fool them into thinking it was dark. Over a few minutes the bulb came on and started at first to glow blue, but then to get brighter and brighter. Although the bulb itself has a steady glow and does not flash, the revolving lenses make it appear to flash every 10 seconds. Each lighthouse has its own sequence of flashes meaning they are easily identifiable. The beam can be seen for 24 nautical miles. Once the light-sensors were exposed to the light again the bulb switched off immediately.

Back downstairs, Billy walked me over to the fog horn, no longer used as ships can pick up the lighthouse by radar now when it is foggy. A cone shaped piece of machinery fastened just outside the light recognises when a radar is searching and appears as a dot with initials NR on the ship's radar monitor. Billy had intended to put the fog horn on so I could hear it, but then realised it would't work with the power off.

Leaving the new lighthouse I walked over to the old lighthouse which is covered in scaffolding. Funding has been secured via a TV programme to renovate it and the hope is to eventually have a staircase inside so people can also go up inside this one.

I started what I felt would be long walk back to the bird observatory at the other end of the island, but was picked up by Charlie, an aging local with not too many teeth. He drove me all the way back and seemed like a real character. He had a few funny stories to tell on the short journey. He's been up the lighthouse many a time himselft as he was involved in painting it and told me he'd painted the 176 stairs I'd walked up.

Back at the bird observatory I sat in the lounge, with windows on three sides and enjoyed some evening sun.  

Thursday, 15 August 2013

A walk to Start Point Lighthouse

I called in the community shop in the village of Lady (great name for a village) to stock up on muesli and ask if anyone knew where I could find tidal times for Start Point as I wanted to walk across to the island and lighthouse. No-one knew but a customer googled on her phone and was able to tell me the times for Kettletoft pier which is fairly close and so probably similar. 

The low tide was happening right now so I jumped in the van and headed north. I squeezed between 2 cars and set off down the track just as it started raining. At the end of track I met an older couple and presumably their son on the beach making their way back to the track. They'd tried to get out to the lighthouse but given up because of how slippery it was.

I picked my way over the beach and soon reached the slippery rocks. Several times I thought I was going to have to give up and turn back but perserverance paid off and I managed to find a way through the rocks, seaweed, slime to get to a stretch of water that I waded through getting my sandals and the bottoms of my trousers completely soaked.

Reaching the island, I headed to the right round some derelict buildings and almost made it to the lighthouse. Unfortunately I was stopped by a wall and an electric fence. I was dubious over whether the fence was electric or not, as there were no warning notices and no sign of anything to power the fence. I gingerly touched it and it was fine. Great, I thought and touched it again to make sure. Ouch! The shock went right to my upper arm. I've never felt an electric fence shock so strongly and I wondered if it had anything to do with my rubber soled shoes being so completely water-logged.

I back-tracked and then tried to walk round the other side of the island. This seemed more do-able but I came to a gate that was seriously tied up and would have needed climbing over. I was about to do this, but couldn't really see if the way was passable up ahead and I was concerned about the tide and how long it might take me to pick my way back through the slime.

I decided I was happy with what I'd done - I'd made it across to a tidal island and had a good wander round, and I could see the lighthouse, looking like a gigantic Everton mint, from where I was anyway.

I turned round and slipped and slid my way back to the beach and the track leading back to my car.

A few facts

Start Point was built in 1806 by engineer Robert Stevenson, grandfather of writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It was the first Scottish lighthouse to have revolving light. At the time this meant it was easily distinguishable from other lighthouses. It's still just as distinguishable today due to it having been painted with vertical black and white stripes in 1915, thus giving it its current elongated Everton mint appearance.


I rinsed my walking sandals out thoroughly with fresh water to get rid of the salt. As they dried they began to really stink. The smell got so bad I had to seal them in a plastic bag. I've since put them through the washing machine and they smell slightly better, but not much. They've been wet before and it hasn't been a problem so I think it must be from whatever was in that water I waded through. So if you are intending to do this walk, wear either wellies or shoes you don't care about!


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Should I move to Saudi Arabia?

A rainy Sunday morning on Stronsay. About 350 people supposedly live on this straggly Northern Isle of Orkney, but I rarely saw them. The 'all arms and legs' shape of the island does mean that there are lots of lovely coves and sandy beaches, and it was above one of these (St Catherine's Bay) that I parked up outside the community centre and waited for the patch of blue sky I could see in the distance to reach me. I sat with a mug of steaming coffee intending to read, but stared out of the windscreen instead at the mesmerising seascape of blues, greens, greys and frothy whites. As always, when I get the time to stare at the sea, or mountains, or any other nice, natural view, my mind started to wander and ideas began to form.

Two nights previously I'd pulled up at public toilets at the end of a track, by a beach, just outside the small village of Evie on the Orkney mainland's northern coast. I planned to sleep there. Not long after I'd arrived a car pulled up. The lone woman looked at her maps, got out and checked out the beach, wandered round, basically doing all the things I was doing. After a short while of this, I decided to go for a walk along another track that seemed to follow the bay round. At the same time, the other woman also decided to go for a walk along the track, so we joined up.

Turned out Caitlin was also on holiday, travelling round in her car and sleeping in the back of it. Like me, when looking for somewhere to sleep, she hunted out quiet spots with a nice view and convenient loos.

We walked for further than we intended, getting excited when we unexpectedly came across a geological phenomenon of basically what are reformed rocks. Sand is made from either rocks or shells that have been ground down. Here the process has gone step further and shell sand has reformed itself back into rocks. Or not really 'back' into rocks as it was never rocks in the first place, but shells, as though it was jealous of the sand that had once been rocks and had wanted its own turn at being a rock. We clambered over the formation which still looked like sand, expecting the grains to move underfoot, but they didn't; they were all stuck together, solid as a rock. Very weird.

We continued along the track until we reached the far side of the bay and the Broch of Gurness. The broch stands in the middle of th site and has the ruins of a neolithic village around it. The village is made up of a series of one-roomed houses interlinked by corridors which would have been originally been roofed over for protection against the weather. The houses still have the remains of beds and dressers inside them, all made out of stone, Flintstones style. The most well-known example of this type of village is, of course, Skara Brae on the west coast, but this is pretty impressive too and the I think I preferred this one.

The gate had a notice on it giving official opening hours but nothing was closed off so we wandered round having a good nosey and enjoying having the place to ourselves. Well, apart from two very friendly cats and an observant seal that is. I didn't have my camera with me so went back the following morning to take photos, and although there were several tour groups looking round, there was still no warden.

During our walk we'd chatted about where we're from, what we do, and so on. Turns out Caitlin, who's from Angus, lives in Saudi Arabia. She's just finished a year teaching English as a foreign language at the university in Riyadh and is waiting on her visa being renewed so she can go back for a second year.

My intentions when I became a teacher, were never to do it as a lifelong career choice. Life is far too short to spend it all doing the same thing. I always thought I'd be a teacher for five years - two in the UK getting experience and then three years in the Middle East, earning good money and getting to experience life and culture in a part of the world that really fascinates and interests me. But, the best laid plans and all that ...

I'm about to go into my eighth year of teaching and I'm still in Manchester. I have thought about moving elsewhere - I got very tempted by a job in Skerries (in Shetland) a couple of years ago - but the thing that's held me back has been my parents who are getting older, with all the issues that can entail, and since I moved back to Manchester eleven years ago, they've got so used to me being here, it would be quite a wrench for them to have me move away again.

I decided against the Skerries job because it was just too far and time-consuming to get 'home' easily and quickly. It would be impossible to pop home for a weekend and I really didn't fancy spending all my school holidays in Manchester.

Sitting above the beach in Stronsay, thinking in the rain, my thoughts turned to Saudi Arabia and how feasible it would be for me to work there. Many Middle East countries are quite open to tourism and so it's possible to visit and get an idea of the place. But Saudi Arabia doesn't really do tourism. Apparently they're tentatively exploring the idea but it's really in its embryonic stages and will be a long time, if ever, before it really opens up. So the only way to really get to know and explore this birthplace of Islam and politically important country is to work there.

Caitlin told me that by the time her visa was sorted out last year it was October, and the academic year finishes in June, so that's really only eight months I'd be away. And if anything serious did happen at home, it would be quicker to fly home from Saudi Arabia than it would be to get home from somewhere like Skerries which involves two ferries (including an overnight one) and a lot of driving. The more I thought about it the more things seemed to slip into place.

I'd like to develop my writing but living in a busy heavily populated UK city limits opportunities - far too many people all doing - or wanting to do- the same thing. Also I really struggle to find the time to keep up my blog, let alone anything else. Saudi, however, could be a completely different kettle of fish. Friends who have lived in expat communities and wanted to write, have tended to find more opportunities than there are here. Also, there isn't that much written about Saudi Arabia compared to many other places. And if Saudi Arabia is really trying to develop its fledgling tourist industry, now could be the time to become a travel-writer based there. A good chance of write place, write time maybe?

I could also use Riyadh (or Jeddah) as a base to explore other parts of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Caitlin said it's quite feasible to pop over to Dubai for a weekend. I could have the chance to get to know the various Emirates quite well and squeeze in a couple of visits to my teacher friend, Dawn, in Oman.

I've also been thinking a lot about Antarctica and how I really need to do something about getting myself there. I don't really want to go on a cruise - as well as being expensive I'd feel too much on the outside looking in. What I really want to do is go to live there for a while - at least six months and ideally for a full year. As I'm not a scientist that means applying for support type jobs, for instance, as a cook. But I know my chances would be really limited and as I get older, my age is going to go against me as well (maybe I'm already too old?).

Ideally I'd go as a writer/researcher, writing from an anthropological perspective. I always thought if I did a PhD it would be Middle East based research, but over the past few years I've been thinking more about how fascinating it would be to carry out research on an Antarctic base.  I've even researched universities that are involved in Antarctic research but I've not been able to get any leads for anthropological research.

If I started to establish myself as a writer and researcher in Saudi Arabia this may give me a way in to Antarctica. Long shot I know, but stranger things have been known to happen.

I'm feeling that coming across that talk on Antarctica in Lerwick and then running into Caitlin (outside a toilet at the end of a lonely track - really, what are the chances of that?) is all part of a universal nudge to try and get me back on track with my life plans and working towards achieving some of my goals. I could even give learning Arabic a pretty good shot whilst living in Saudi Arabia.

All this from sitting looking at a beach in the rain. I really should do it more often!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A talk on the Arctic and Antarctica

Last night I went along to Lerwick library to listen to Gavin Francis talk about his two books. I can't believe I'd not heard of him before as I consider myself to be quite aware of all the travel writing books on the Arctic and Antarctica. I only knew about last night's talk because of an article in the Shetland Times promoting the event. The article mentioned he'd started his Arctic journey in Unst which is another reason I'm surprised not to have come across him before as I'd thought I'd read all the travel writing books which mention my favourite island in my favourite archipelago.

Gavin Francis is a medical doctor who had spent some time working in East Africa and at the end of his stint he felt the need to go somewhere completely different to the heat and crowds of Africa. The Arctic is a bit different to Africa so this was where he headed using the Great Bear as a defining boundary (he visited places the constellation can be seen from) and concentrating on the European Arctic rather than the American.

He followed a route that led him from Shetland to the Faroes and into Iceland and Greenland, before exploring Spitzbergen and Scandinavian Lapland. To add extra interest to his journey (as though these places aren't already interesting enough!) he followed routes documented by early writers. Shetland, for example, was written about over 2000 years ago by an early Greek traveller, Pytheas, who visited around the time the brochs were being built. As his journey went on he followed the writings of far more up-to-date and modern explorers e.g. the Vikings. 

Obviously he didn't get cold enough in the Arctic because not long after he headed off to Antarctica to spend a year working as the resident doctor on British Antarctic Survey's Halley Base. It took a while to get there on a boat that went via the Falklands, South Georgia and Bird Island. Once there it was all hands to the deck unloading two thousand drums of kerosene. A couple of weeks later, when the unloading was done, the ship left and it was time to settle in to life with just 13 other people.

About half the people on the base are scientists of various disciplines and the rest are support staff, such as the doctor, a chef, mechanics and engineers. He says he hasn't gone into much detail about his role as doctor due to there being so few people it would be too easy for people to know who he was talking about and this would of course break medical confidentiality issues. Instead he talks about his time spent partaking in non-medical activities, such as trips out to visit the neighbours; a colony of Emporer penguins. With the onset of 24 hour darkness there was plenty of time to observe the night skies and become familiar with constellations and blase with auroras. He also found time to write 'True North', his book based on his Arctic travels. Since returning home to Scotland he has written his second book; 'Empire Antarctica'.

His talk last night, was divided into two half hour sessions, one for each book, with a 15 minute break between and a Q&A session at the end. The talk was engaging and interspersed with a few short readings from his own books and those of relevant others. He also passed around a few artefacts, such as his boots and gloves (big, bulky, heavy) and an Emperor penguin egg (pointy, bumpy, slightly larger than a duck egg). The library was full, with people even sitting upstairs in what would have originally been the choir (it's in an old church). Many of them were older and although there were a lot of locals present, there were tourists other than myself. I sat next to a Dutch lady who was in Lerwick with her husband on their yacht. They have sailed all over the world, including all the places Gavin spoke about. They funded their nomadic, floatational lifestyle by running a yacht business and the lady also wrote books and magazine articles on sailing and their travels.

Now I have even more ideas buzzing around inside my head. I love all the inspiration I get up here from all the amazing people I'm constantly meeting. I hope I continue to get ideas and inspiration from Orkney, though I'm sure I will. I leave on the ferry tonight.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Already thinking about next year ...

I might have only just started out on this year's summer holiday but I'm already getting ideas for next year.

I've been following Helen Lloyd's blog on her travels to Central Asia which have included getting the Trans-Siberian Express and going to Mongolia, and this has got me wondering if, in six weeks, I would have time to get the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing and the Trans-Mongolian Express for the return journey, whilst still having time to actually see things. If it's possible I would get to tick two challenges off my list in one go.

Yesterday morning I was chatting to an Austrian women at the campsite in Yell. She has travelled all over Europe in her van and this includes Norway. She told me I shouldn't be worried about Norway being expensive as the UK is the most expensive place she has travelled in. She said fuel is more like regular European prices than UK prices (we seem to pay in pounds what others pay in euros) and it's easy to wild camp and many towns have council provided showers. Taking my van I'd be able to take a lot of my own food and so wouldn't have to worry too much about food prices. So now I'm also thinking about Norway for next summer. Of course if I go to Norway I have to go to Hell and so that would also be a challenge ticked off my list.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Getting some inspiration

When I'm at school, I get so overwhelmed with the amount of things I need to do and the amount of my time that is taken up, and I'm so 'in the moment', life outside of school seemingly ceases to exist and all the plans, ideas and hopes I have come to a standstill. As soon as I take time off, get away, give myself chance to meet interesting people (actually, ordinary people like myself except they have done something with their dreams, instead of just filing them away) and before I know it, I'm filled with inspiration and ideas are buzzing inside my head and what's even better, they all seem feasible.

Today I've had two inspiration boosts. Firstly, I visited Foord's Chocolate Factory on Unst. This in itself is inspiring - an English couple started a connoiseur chocolate factory in buildings which are part of the old Saxa Vord complex. (Saxa Vord was built as an RAF base in the days of the cold war.) Not content with merely making delicious chocolates, they have made the most of both their product and their location by making themselves very attractive to tourists. It's possible to wander down the corridor in the factory observing the chocolate making as it happens. There is a room with a display on the history and geography of chocolate and the chocolate making process. Another room taps into the historic associations of their location and has a big display on the RAF connections including uniforms and lots of photographs. At the front of the factory is a cafe selling not only chocolate experiences, but also a range of savoury food. On an island with not many places to grab lunch (the hotel has a restaurant and two of the shops have cafe areas where you can get a cup of instant coffee, a bowl of soup or heat up a pie from the pie counter), and since the Northern Lights Cafe and Bistro closed down (please, somebody buy it and re-open it in exactly the way it was before), having a cafe here is a good way of attracting extra business.

But this wasn't the main source of my first bout of inspiration today. No. At the back of the factory is a room where they sell locally made crafts. Two years ago, on the day I was leaving Unst, I was at the Skibhoul shop and bakery stocking up on their wonderful, thick, chilli-flavoured oatcakes (special ingredient: sea water) and I spotted an old, but very well kept Morris Minor in the car park. I have a thing for Morris Minors having grown up with one. If I was in the position of being able to own a fleet of cars, and if I had the knowledge, time and ability to 'do up' and maintain old cars, I would definitely have one. Along with an old Landrover Defender and an ancient VW combi. But I'm not and I don't. But that just means I'm even more fascinated when I see other people with them. As I left the shop a lady was unpacking her shopping into the Morris Minor. Of course I went over to admire her car and, as happens in places like Unst, we ended up chatting for quite a while.

Heather had recently moved to Unst from Nottingham having taken early retirement from her teaching job. She seemed disillusioned with the way teaching and schools in general were going, and so with redundancies and early retirements on offer, she jumped. Along with her husband, she'd bought a house in Westing on the west side of the island called 'Da Peerie Haa' - Shetlandic for 'the small manor house'. When I met her she was about to leave on a long drive in her Morris Minor to the Isle of Wight. She was doing it for charity and referred to it as 'Westing to Wight' - sounds much better than John O'Groats to Land's End. Being unsure as to whether or not the Morris Minor would make actually make it, her husband was driving a campervan as a back up vehicle. Although I read something about the trip in the Shetland Times that week, I never found out the end of the story. I don't know if the Morris Minor made it or how the journey was.

Heather had told me to pop in next time I was in Unst, so I decided to take her at her word as I really wanted to know how the story ended. I drove out to her house yesterday but no-one seemed to be about and there was no sign of the Morris Minor. Was this a bad sign? Did it mean that the Morris Minor hadn't made it and was now relegated to life on a scrap heap? Or did it mean that the dream retirement on Unst wasn't so dreamy after all and they'd returned to the mainland (as in mainland UK and not mainland Shetland)? The lady in Skibhoul told me she was still living on the island though she didn't know if she was at this moment in time. She also didn't remember if the Morris Minor had made it to the Isle of Wight.

Today, in the craft room at the Foord's Chocolate Factory, I looked round the handmade scarves, hats, gloves and so on, and was just about to leave when I spotted an interesting stand half hidden behind the door. The stand was displaying an array of colourful knitted bags, each one individual. The sign at the top said 'Bags by Heather' and there was a woodcut of her house which was labelled 'Da Peeried Haa'. It had to be the same Heather, it had to be. I bought a very unusual bag for £10 and asked the man (Mr Foord?) if she was on the island at the moment. She's not because she's back in Nottingham for a wedding in which the Morris Minor is being used as a wedding car. So I know she's still living here and I know the Morris Minor is still living here. I also know it made it to the Isle of Wight because Mr Foord told me so. What I don't know is how the journey went. As she's not due back until early August I'll probably miss her (unless it's very early August, as in tomorrow, aka August 1st).

So this was my first bout of inspiration today. She's been living here for over two years, has started a little business and has completed her dream 'expedition'.

Leaving the chocolate factory, I headed for the brewery (is this a dream island or what? Lightly inhabited, stunning views, amazing wildlife, fascinating history and geology, pretty much as isolated as you can get in the UK (apart from Foula and Fair Isle) and yet it has its own chocolate factory and its own brewery. And there's talk of a distillery setting up too. Should it be renamed Paradise Island?).

The Valhalla Brewery, Shetland's one and only, has moved since I was last here. Owner, Sonny Priest, has expanded from a barn outside his house into much bigger premises at Saxa Vord. He makes six beers and I always buy a selection to take home. I called in on the off-chance that he would now take card payments (he never did before) and I could stock up now to save coming back later. He doesn't. But I was just in time to go on a tour (£4.50 including a bottle of beer of your choice at the end). It was interesting to see the workings and hear how the six beers are made with different combinations of the various grains. But his own story of how he came to own a brewery is what provided me with my second bout of inspiration for the day.

He left school at 15 with no qualifications and trained as a joiner. After several years of joinery he went to sea for three years on a North Sea trawler. This was followed by a job at Baltasound Airport (a tiny strip of runway with a few sheep grazing on it and not much else) and in the attached firehouse. Redundancy led him to to wondering what to do next with his life. He toyed briefly with the idea of opening a launderette, but following a drinking session with some of his soon to be ex-workmates, he found himself promising to start a brewery in order to keep them drinking. This may have been a drunken comment but the seed (of barley presumably?) had been sown and it germinated and lo and behold, he found himself in 1997 setting up a brewery and hiring a master brewer as he had no idea about brewing himself.

I'm planning my hostel and planning a sandwich bar / coffee shop, and all these other things and I keep on planning and not doing, as I feel I'm not ready; I don't know enough; I don't have the right skills; I need more money; and excuse after excuse. Here's a guy who didn't have a clue about the business he was starting, but jumped in, did what he needed to do to get it up and running, and learnt what he needed to know as he went along. I am most definitely inspired by this. Now, I only have to keep hold of all this inspiration once I'm back at school and getting bogged down in marking, planning and beaurocracy.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Jammin', jammin' (hope you like jammin' too)

I should be on the boat to Shetland now. Instead I'm making jam in Manchester.

I want to avoid driving in the heat so had intended driving up to Aberdeen yesterday evening and then catching tonight's overnight ferry to Lerwick, but, the best laid plans and all that ... I keep finding things to do here and although I'm aware that my time for travelling in Shetland and Orkney is ticking away, I'm feeling good about getting so many things sorted out at home. My life is usually completely chaotic with far too many things going at once, and so I end up with piles of papers, books, camping gear, etc, all over my house and feel completely disorganised. For once, I'm working through those piles and getting everything sorted out. I've even been picking all the fruit from my tiny garden (white currants, blackcurrants and gooseberries) and had a go at making jam. For the last few years I've tried this without success, as I always misjudge the setting point and it turns to toffee. This year I've bought a jam thermometer and it seems to work. Finally I have my own home-made jam.

I've had chance to catch up with a few friends as well. Yesterday a friend called round with a bag of goodies for lunch and we were able to sit out in the yard and enjoy a relaxing few hours round a table of salads, garlic bread and home-made lemonade (yep, even had time to make my own lemonade!). And then this morning I was able to have a nice chat on the phone with my friend who lives in Oman. She's just arrived in the UK to spend a few weeks with her parents and if I had left on time, I wouldn't have been able to chat with her. Unfortunately we won't get to meet up, but I'll be seeing her soon enough when I go to Oman in October. I'm already getting excited about that holiday and I've not even got started on this one yet!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Duke of Edinburgh Weekends

Last weekend was the last of my four Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition weekends. I've been wanting to get involved with this for years and it has been every bit as good as I was hoping it would be. Of course losing four weekends in close succession means I'm knackered and behind with everything else, but I think it was worth it. Even when it's been chucking it down and nearly blowing me off the tops I've still enjoyed it. I've worked with a good team of people and the kids have all been great. We've dealt with issues and problems as they've arisen and I think we've dealt with them well. I'm so glad I've had the opportunity to do this before starting my BELA (Basic Expedition Leader's Award) course in September as I feel really confident about it now. I think I really could enjoy doing this kind of thing full-time - I just have to think of a way of actually making a decent living out of it!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Bude to Crackington Haven

Sunday 26th May, 2013

I'd slept in a layby just outside of Crackington Haven. Yesterday evening I'd driven down into the little village to scout out parking and had hoped to spend the night in a car park with a view and where I could leave my van the next day. It wasn't to be as both car parks had 'no overnight parking' signs. The main car park was £5 for all day and was a pay and display with a coins only machine. As I didn't haven't £5 in change this would be no good to me. Slightly up the hill I'd just come down I'd noticed a sign pointing down a rough track saying parking £2 all day. I checked it out and it was basically a field with a couple of picnic tables and an honesty box. It was run by a local charity. I'd much rather give £2 to a local charity than £5 to a commercial enterprise. And I did have £2 in change. And it was an honesty box, not a pay and display, so even if I didn't have £2 in change I could have changed a note during the day and paid before I left.

Crackington Haven is a tiny place nestled in a hollow between hills and cliffs and with a tiny beach, a big pub and a shop. The light as the sun went down was wonderful so I took a couple of photos before heading out to the layby I'd spotted earlier.

I slept really well and this morning was back down in Crackington Haven, parked up, breakfasted and kitted up ready to catch the 9.07 bus to Bude.

Arriving 20 minutes later I wasn't sure what to make of Bude. On the one hand, it was quite pretty with a canal running down to the sea, complete with its own lock. On the other hand, it looked like a tacky tourist trap, with a big fairground covering rather a large proportion of the car park.

I didn't need to linger, so after noting that parking was £5.50 for the day and using the free toilets near the sand dunes leading down to the beach, I headed out. I didn't see any signs for the SW Coast Path but it's not too difficult to follow the sea. I crossed the canal over a little footbridge, took a few photos and walked towards the sea, soon spotting a coastal path signpost.


The path went uphill to a tower viewpoint, then followed the top of the cliffs all the way to Widemouth Bay. This was a busy place, with cafes, a big car park, a surf school, ice cream van and toilets. As it was such a glorious day there were plenty of people about, many of them in wetsuits in the water with surfboards, though there didn't seem to be much surf. 

I crossed the beach and the path headed back up again. I followed the grassy cliff tops for a while before having to detour to the road about 1km before  Wanson Mouth. The cliffs have really crumbled away here, necessitating the detour. At times the road seems to be almost on the cliff edge and I wondered how long until it slips too. The sides of the road were lined with hedgerows in a way typical to this part of the country. Although it was lovely walking between them and seeing so  many wildflowers in bloom, it was a bit frustrating not to be able to see more than the odd glimpse of the sea that I knew was so close. And it was very frustrating to have to walk on a tarmac road. Fortunately there weren't many cars. 

 Finally, after a couple of kms the road turned inland and I was back on a footpath following the cliff top.

 Arriving above Millook, I looked in wonder at the lovely, little bay down below; and I looked in shock at the almost vertical drop to get down to it. My knees hurt just at the thought of it. Fortunately there was a conveniently placed bench, so I sat and ate lunch and gave my knees a pep talk. 

Once I'd made it to the bottom it really was a gorgeous little place, with a few houses including a beach house I wanted to move straight into. It was right on the beach with big windows and a wide, canopied veranda down one side. I wandered round, pondered for a while, and decided against knocking on the door and asking if it was for sale because a) I probably couldn't afford it (make that, I'm SURE I couldn't afford it), and b) it was probably a holiday let and so it wouldn't be the owners at home anyway.

The path zig-zagged up the road from Millook, though it wasn't long before it left the road. I now walked through some lovely woodland, with bluebells and wild garlic and stunted oak trees. This was Dizzard Wood and apparently the many lichens covering the trunks are of national importance. 

The path dipped down several times to cross babbling streams before climbing back up again. One descent was even worse than the one into Millook. Rough steps had been cut into the side, shored up by deeply embedded planks of wood. Some of them were so steep I had to go round them. The ground was shingly and moved underfoot. I spent a long time descending. At the bottom it was over a footbridge and then a stile. All day I've had kissing gates. But after a descent like that, when my knees don't want to work anymore, can they put a kissing gate? No. They put a stile.

I wasn't the only one who'd taken the descent so slowly. A couple were behind me and we stopped to chat at the bottom. They live in Dorset and have walked the final 100 miles of the path. Now they're starting at the beginning and, bit by bit, trying to so the rest.

They were followed down by a woman a bit older than myself, but twice as sprightly. She'd walked the whole path years ago, with her mum driving a back-up vehicle. Now she comes back for odd weekends and just does her favourite bits. And over 630 miles there are a lot of favourite bits. We walked back to Crackington Haven together. There were a few more ups and downs, but none as bad as the one where we'd met, or as bad as the one into Millook.

Once back in Crackington Haven, it was back to my van and a drive to the campsite in Stoke in the Hartland area where I planned to base myself for most of the week.