Category: weather

Home life

I sit around at home trying to commit to memory the words for my part in the Christmas pantomime, learning my prompts and wondering how much of it will be acting and how much just me. The humour in the part I play requires me to act a little stupid, so nothing difficult there then. (More than this I cannot disclose at this stage for fear of revealing the plot prematurely and spoiling the show for the paying audience.) Having little or no acting experience counted for nothing in getting me into what is, as it happens, my first starring role. There was no audition, no submission of a ‘cv’, instead it was merely a matter of knowing the right people and being around just at the moment the panto rehearsals were about to start. That, and upon being asked neglecting to say the word ‘No’. But I have lungs strong enough to make myself heard from the stage and I have little fear of embarrassment. Acting the part is really no more than not taking myself too seriously, something I don’t find difficult.

Kate is seated in another armchair with her computer perched on her lap. She has recently abandoned her ‘laptop’ computer, which had become so hideously slow that writing on papyrus would have been faster, and upgraded to a significantly faster tablet PC. This makes her smile as she types up a set of minutes taken at a meeting of the local Harbour Group or maybe it is the Village Hall committee or the management committee of the local Abbeyfields care home. By virtue of being rather good at documenting on paper proceedings at these events she has progressed to the role of Champion Secretariat in the village, a secretarial superwoman if you like.

Early one morning a lorry manoeuvres down to the end of our road to deliver some more timber joists and a handful of planks for the decking I am constructing around the concrete hard standing beneath the car port we know as the ‘Bus Shelter’. The rain is lashing down and the southerly gale is blowing the water beneath the canopy so it is rather wet out there. Ducky is away being serviced so I help Steve, the lorry driver, unload my planks and lay them flat on the ground before rushing back indoors to avoid the rain. We live in a wet climate, with local vegetation sometimes being described as ‘temperate rainforest’, and have experienced days of continuous precipitation on numerous occasions since we moved here. So today is not unusual. The landscape here is mountainous. The rivers have only a short distance to flow before reaching the sea, so water does not generally stay long on the land. The rivers swell, turn brown and churning, but water usually stays between the banks as it rushes towards the sea. On this occasion it has been raining heavily all night, the land is already saturated from last week’s rain and the rate at which the stuff is now falling suggests that this just might be something a little out of the ordinary.

I have a dental appointment in Tarbert, 25 miles away to the north and in these conditions this is a major expedition. So I dress up in waterproof clothing, check the mobile phone is charged (not that a signal can ever be guaranteed around here), and set off to drive up the single track road that winds along the Kintyre coastline. In and out of pine forests, across countless small streams, past farms and remote cottages, rising high one minute and dropping to sea level the next, anything can happen in the next hour, the time the journey usually takes. There could be fallen trees, the road could be undermined by water runoff, lying water could splash into the engine and kill it dead, a skid on mud and leaves on the road could put me in a ditch, or else I could just make the journey safely, in which case I have to endure the dentist’s drill after all. The road is wetter than I have ever seen it. In many places the water pours off the steep hillsides and overwhelms the channels dug to carry the water away. I drive past ditches so full they carry water half a metre above the road surface. It all has to go somewhere and randomly and unexpectedly around a corner there is a flood which flows across the road washing gravel and small rocks down the hill on the other side. Water ejected into the air from under the tyres is blown across the windscreen by the gale but fortunately the engine is well protected and it doesn’t falter. It is important to keep both wheels on the thin band of tarmac as the ground is soft on both sides; to drop a tyre off the road is to risk sinking in and coming to a sudden halt. Care is required, speed is best kept low even if this means I am late for my appointment. But no, I have set off early and I arrive safely for my treatment, unfortunately.

It is raining in Tarbert, maybe not quite as heavily, but the high tide pushed even higher by the southerly wind brings the water in the harbour almost up to road level. I feel strangely uncomfortable walking next to this as it heaves gently and two swans paddle over, stretching their necks hopefully towards me in case I have something for them. The high water level gives them a view across the road into the shops opposite, something they don’t usually get to see. I wonder what they make of us featherless people strutting about in the rain.Carpark in Nov14 flood

Much later I have survived the return journey down the single track road and I splash past the village hall, a place Kate and I now have a stake in. Our newly gravelled car park is awash with runoff from the hill opposite which is normally culverted away beneath the road. Now the foaming flood is pouring across the road taking the easiest route towards Carradale Bay which, were it not for the still torrential rain, I would be able to see in the distance. I fear for the safety of the hall and can imagine the carpark surface being washed away downstream but can do nothing about it. What will happen will happen; it is too late now to intervene.

Local knowledge later tells me that this is nothing exceptional, it is not the biblical flood it might have seemed but is just one of those ‘rather wet periods’ we get from time to time. Although it continues to rain all the next night, the wind slapping the rain against our windows, by late morning the next day the sun is shining and the wind has gone. Likewise most of the water has flowed away too. I can hear the burn in the woods just below our garden but cannot see it, which means it still bubbles along happily within its banks. Carpark after rainThe village hall car park is back  to normal, still with its coating of gravel and the sun warms me as I continue with my decking construction project in the garden. The ground is sodden, as you might expect, but other than this two days and nights of heavy rain has disappeared like magic.

Later in the day we sit in front of our log fire and contemplate how fortunate we are in our choice of house, that it can be so unaffected by weather extremes.

Favourite people and places

If ever I were asked for a list of my favourite places then Newton Bay is one that would be very close to the top. It is part of Northumberland’s North Sea coastline and is a place given natural shelter by a rocky reef, where the sand is soft, the sea is invariably cold and the light has a special quality about it.Dunstanburgh Castle

Some years ago, with our young children on board and just as the daylight was fading (so rather later in the day than we might have liked) we can recall piloting our sailing boat into Newton Bay, following closely behind a friend in his shallow draft cruiser. Although we bumped our keel on the rocks which give the bay such fine protection from the North Sea swell, no harm was done and we were soon anchored safely. In those days there was rarely a sailing trip we made that was without some incident, some excitement, which raised the blood pressure for a short while. This being the early days of our family sailing we were learning steeply, each trip taught us a new lesson, this one being “Never assume it is safe to follow another boat”. Our keel was made of iron and suffered little from its encounter and the wound we made in the weed-covered rock no doubt also healed over quickly. Maybe we inadvertently dislodged a crab or two, for which I belatedly apologise, but the day was one of many memorable ones on board our tiny boat, ‘Noggin the Nog’.

Today the beach at Newton is just as it was then; there are the dunes which hide a small haven for wildlife, there is the same small collection of houses and there is the pub, closed to us then with our small children in tow and closed again as we revisit the place, it being mid morning. The ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle also still stand on their rock overlooking the sea, little changed in the thirty years since our last visit nor indeed since being abandoned back in the 16th Century, by which time the Scottish border was considered to be stable enough, England no longer feeling under threat from those north of the border. Today the position is reversed, of course.

We visit this familiar place not specifically on a jaunt down memory lane, however. It is simply that having travelled so widely around the coast of Britain we inevitably find ourselves revisiting old haunts, our exploring genes ensuring that we rarely pass by without broadening our experience inventory.

Mal&Kate at StAbbsSo it is that we find ourselves taking a selfie on the  very highest point of St Abbs Head, which also juts out into the North Sea and overlooks the mouth of the Forth of Firth a place past which we sailed on more than a few occasions. We have crossed the border into Scotland now but the wind that we lean into blows mild air from the south giving the impression it has crossed a much warmer sea than the one stretched out before us. We are perched up here on the edge of Winter but the season itself has yet to arrive. There is, however, a battle going on in the sky above us, one that followed us south a week ago and which still rages as we make our way homewards. Back then we would be driving through torrential rain with the sun in our eyes then five minutes later on the dry road would be overshadowed by black rainbow-spewing clouds.wild skies

As we head west the rain lashes horizontally across the road, our campervan staggers to the gusts, while I pull at the steering wheel to keep us moving in a straight line. We are en route home now heading for our nearest branch of B&Q where we have a mission to accomplish. It is  a little over one hundred miles by road from where we live to this, our closest DIY superstore, so I have saved up a little list of things I need for my latest project, adding some wooden decking around Ducky’s carport (something we now affectionately call the ‘Bus Shelter’). Our mobile home now becomes a builder’s van as we load up with large pieces of wood, bags of cement and a few other bits that were not on the list. Once loaded, the extra weight on board means the gusty wind can barely affect us but the rain falls in great floods as we negotiate the final turns in the long and winding road back to Carradale.

In a little over a week we have completed a 1700 mile trip around Britain, visiting a sample of our scattered family and friends along the way. In Bristol we bumped into a rare coloured gorilla and met up with our youngest, Ben, just back from an American tour with hgorilla in Bristolis band, Frogbelly and Symphony, and still somewhat jet-lagged. Having recently moved into this city, Ben has set himself the challenge of creating a new music scene there where  none currently exists, so watch out Bristolians! Down in Cornwall we dropped in on my sole surviving aunt, Jessie, who we would love to take back home with us but fear this might not sit well with the rest of her family. Instead, we gave her a gift of some Edinburgh rock and as much of our company as she could stand. In Worthing our eldest, Tony, took us for a walk along the shore to his favourite beach, a place where the flint pebbles look like old dinosaur bones, then in Yeovil, Kate’s brother, Peter, offered us a comfy bed for a few nights while his wife, Liz, fed us in style.

Back home now the season has definitely changed as brown leaves are stripped from the trees by the wind. Our stove is alight, ready for its first full winter trial, and if we run out of logs then we’ll just start on the furniture.

Contrary winds

longships from senitoa

I normally try to avoid including ‘sea and sky’ pictures here but for once I am making an exception since this was taken just last week from the heaving deck of the yacht Senitoa as she turned north towards Scotland. The scene could be almost anywhere in the world but for the presence of the lighthouse, which is known as ‘Longships’, and stands on a rock a mile west of Lands End, the extreme south-west point of the British mainland.

There has been a lighthouse here since 1791 but the first one to be built placed the light only twenty four metres above the sea and (a sobering thought) as a result its beam was often obscured by the waves that crashed over it. So in 1875 the present tower was built, bringing the light up another eleven metres in height. Until 1988 there might have been a lighthouse keeper or two watching us as we bounced over the lumpy seas but today, like all Britain’s lighthouses, things run automatically with only occasional human intervention when maintenance is required so we slip past largely unnoticed but for the occasional gannet.

A month ago a message I received from Spencer, a yachtie friend, to help him collect his recently purchased boat from Gosport in Hampshire and deliver it to Campbeltown Loch, has led to my peering out of the pilothouse window at this far flung corner of Britain. But it has taken more than a week of sailing to get here, far longer than we might have hoped, largely due to the influence of tropical storm Bertha after its remains crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Until its arrival we were all basking under a scorching heat wave, welcoming each wisp of breeze and every puff of cloud. But no sooner have Spencer, his daughter Claire, and I set off on Senitoa than the wind arrives by the bucketful, always blowing from just where we want to go, as if it is trying to prevent us from leaving.claire and spence on senitoa Just once or twice we do manage to raise the sails so that Senitoa can behave like the sailing boat she is but in the main we have to rely upon the seventy-five horsepower diesel engine to push us along, which is disappointing to us sailors.

The most southerly point on the British mainland is known as The Lizard, for reasons associated with the fact that it lies in Cornwall, a place which has its own language. As we motor past on our journey, the boat bumping and thumping into every lumpy piece of water, we have a brief visit from a large black mammal, which dives less than a boat length from our bow, just missing a nasty collision. I like to think that a Minke whale is the master of its environment and knows exactly what it is doing, perhaps is just being curious, but it gives us a treat and a scare both at the same time as its smooth black back rolls away just beneath our boat. And where are the photos I hear you ask? You have to be joking! There is barely time to catch breath, let alone get a camera out.

spinnaker tower with man

Miles further on and much closer to home we meet yet another batch of strong winds and take shelter in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin’s yachting playground. So keen are the locals to race their yachts that they dry-launch them from the quayside by crane with their sails already set so they can get to the start line for an evening club race. Surely this is yachting at its most intense, and is a million miles away from the leisurely pastime Kate and I used to engage in. Two hours later these same sailors are hanging off the bar in the yacht club exchanging yarns, no doubt, of how they missed that crucial tack on the finish line. We are, of course, on the doorstep of the capital city of Ireland so must expect to encounter a different pace of life, the rushing about, the money spent in pursuit of a few hours of pleasure after a day at the office. Perhaps we should be missing this.

Inevitably, I have barely returned home from the passage on Senitoa when a wind arrives from the south east, one that might have blown us home in half the time. Still, at least there was a big engine pushing us along, something the chap caught staring at Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower never had.

Ducky’s meanderings – 1

Garve woods

Late one afternoon we pull off the road at a sign indicating forest walks and a public toilet, both of which seem like a good idea and together, even better. We are confident that a night spent here will be undisturbed since Scotland’s laws respect this behaviour, so long as we are doing no harm, so we follow the path which takes us downstream to another bridge then stroll back up again on the other bank as the evening sunlight slopes through the trees. After cooking up a meal in the car park we draw the curtains and sleep, with not a soul to disturb us.

Several days later and we stop at the Clachtoll campsite which nestles into the machair between a couple of rocky headlands. Jim Galway (not the flautist, the campsite manager) makes us feel welcome then invites us to a ceilidh later in the evening. Clachtoll rocksHe plays the whistle with some skill but we think his namesake might just have the edge on him.

Clachtoll, meaning ‘cleft rock’, is an apt description of the formation visible from our campsite with a backdrop of the Coigach mountains we had explored earlier in the day. The rocks here are mudstone, more resistant to erosion than that name suggests, overlaying a bed of Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rocks found anywhere in the British Isles. Mudstone breaks into regular chunks, which made it a good building material for the ancient broch we set off to explore before cooking our evening meal. Kate with runrigsThe signs of earlier settlements are plain to see on the landscape, raised mounds across the grassy slopes showing clearly where farming once took place on ‘lazy-beds’, and of course there are more recent ruins everywhere, houses abandoned to the Highland clearances.

To get here, earlier in the day we had followed a minor road, the road to end all roads, that hugs the Inverpolly coastline as best it can through some incredible terrain. Shown only as a fine yellow line on our OS map it cuts through amazing scenery and for its entire length the road is barely wide enough to fit a vehicle like ours. In places there were rocks sticking out jaggedly to the right while a stone wall to the left tried to guard us from sliding off into the sea some distance below. Without a doubt Ducky is the largest vehicle one would want to drive along here and the experience was at times a little over-exciting. This thin, tortured, strip of tarmac between the settlement at Badnagyle and the village of Strathan ranks as the most enjoyable piece of road we have ever encountered and driven along. Breath-taking views appear around every turn, once we are skirting the edge of a small loch then next, twisting down a tree-filled river valley (the river being in spate) before turning another corner where tiny inlets cut into the splintered coastline.buttress It is best not to be in a hurry here for who knows whether another like-minded driver will appear around the next corner or when a meandering sheep will materialise in the middle of the road.

And all the while the sun shone for us while the breeze lifted rain clouds over our heads onto the mountains further inland. At Lochinver we took a break to recuperate in the heritage centre, one of the best we have seen, and particularly informative about the geological past of this area, the land having been shaped and re-shaped by ice of immense depth that once covered everything except the biggest summits. The scars left behind are everywhere to see and erratics, boulders transported on the ice and deposited on its melting, lie dotted about like lonely monoliths.

More meandering roads soon bring us to Durness, a place where the road turns east as the land runs out. There are fewer roads to choose from now so we might have seen the last of our tiny yellow twisting lanes for a while but we plan to spend a few days here so this doesn’t matter. Then the campsite manager delivers unsettling news about a spell of bad weather which would prevent us taking the small passenger ferry across the Kyle to visit Cape Wrath. This really does concern us since in this part of the world a local’s definition of  bad weather is inevitably going to be pretty extreme, by the standards of those of us from more southerly climes. What concerns us even more is that the campsite seems to offer no pitches which might offer any shelter from the south-westerly gale that is coming and the position we eventually choose feels exposed already even before the gale gets going. In the night that follows we are shaken from side to side as the wind roars around us while torrential wind-blown rain hammers away on the roof. Sleep comes in small parcels as the storm builds to its peak around three in the morning but bang on cue as forecast at seven the sun comes out in force, just like the night never happened.

Winter is over

I can say with some certainty at this moment that winter is over here in Scotland. The weather will deliver up its usual flavours of wind and rain, no doubt, but I can be confident that it will remain mild, perhaps unseasonably so, right through until summer takes hold. How do I know this? Well because in our living room we have now have a wood-burning stove providing lots of warmth to the house and an embarrassment of hot water too. stove in actionAll winter we waited for the moment when the big white van would stop outside our door and Robert the stove fitter would stagger in the door with the heavy steel beast to begin the installation. All through the coldest months, the gales and storms, the floods, the hail, we sat on the sofa and warmed our hands before an imaginary fire, wishing we could have a real one before winter ended, but our prayers going unanswered. Nothing we could think of doing would bring it to us any quicker, no magic words, no strategy nor financial incentive. We had placed our order and just had to wait our turn, wait for this moment to arrive. All this time we knew we could be certain of just one thing; that it would happen eventually. And so it did, just as the weather warmed. But fortunately we live in a place where the first signs of spring are accompanied by chilly afternoons and nights so our new acquisition does add the sudden benefit to our lives that we’d expected. And thus it is that I find myself slipping into the morning routine of clearing the ash, laying the paper and kindling in joyful expectation of the afternoon or evening to come when I can strike a match and watch the flames spread.

Rather than become too single-minded, however, for some weeks now we have been hatching another plan; to load up Ducky with provisions and head off northwards, in the general direction of the North Pole. A brief glance at a map reveals that there is a sizable chunk of Scotland that sits between us and the Arctic Ocean and it is this that we are keen to explore, right up to the very edge of the last piece of  land. So we abandon Carradale one wet morning, after taking fresh food parcels from house to campervan, stuffing warm clothes into cupboards and filling water containers to the brim, then just turn north along the edge of Kintyre and keep going.

The heavy overnight rain still falls as we charge through deep puddles which drench every inch of the van with mud-stained spray and it still falls heavily as we lurk in the car park outside Oban’s Lidl. But no sooner have we finished our shopping, stocking up on Campo Largo baked beans and Crusti Croc paprika flavoured crisps like we hadn’t seen a Lidl for months (which is true), when suddenly the clouds part and the sun shines down. In the blinking of an eye Scotland performs the magic trick we love, winter becomes spring, rain becomes shine, dark becomes light, wet becomes dry. My dark glasses are resting on my nose once more as I gaze out at Mull’s looming peaks across a sparkling sea. Ah yes, this is why we left our lovely new stove behind.

We do not intend to travel quickly as there is much to see along the way, loads of scenery to take in, so when I write the words “250 miles later” it needs to be said that nearly three days have elapsed since leaving home. We move along at a gentle pace.road to Ullapool

But as it happens just 250 miles distant by road from Carradale (Ducky choosing to use imperial measurements) there is a mountainous chunk of rock going under the name Stac Pollaigh (which is pronounced ‘stack polly’). It stands 613 metres (according to our metrified map) above sea level and 549 metres above the car park that lies just below. More than thirty years ago when I visited this part of Sutherland I charged up Stac Pollaigh, as I was wont to do in those days when a summit looked as though it needed to be conquered, then danced along the summit’s rocky ridge, before galloping all the way down again and driving off somewhere else. I made a promise, as do so many others who climb this iconic hill, that I would one day return. stac-450Which explains why Kate and I find ourselves in assault mode tackling the steep path which winds its way to the top, not alone, but in the company of both old and young, first timers and old hands like me, many of whom are also returning for the first time in thirty years. The summit’s very proximity to a road as well as its isolated position in the landscape make it into a ‘must do’ climb that traps many who come this way. It is just that sort of place.

It turns out to be a windy climb, the air cooling noticeably for each upward step we take, and we are not disposed to hang about on the summit ridge nor indeed dance along it. The strength of the wind makes this unwise. Instead we find a little shelter and wolf down the cream cakes that have made the ascent in my backpack, before pointing ourselves downhill again. With little warning a rain squall chooses this moment to attack and what seemed like an easy path becomes somewhat trickier as the wind tries to pluck us off the hill. Within minutes we are drenched to the skin and thoroughly chilled but away to the west we can see a line of blue sky so this is where we head, knowing we’ll be dry again in minutes once the rain stops. Scottish weather never disappoints.

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