Neither meat nor fish

More than thirty years have passed since Kate and I decided we would eat nothing more that came from the bodies of slaughtered animals. We became, at a stroke therefore, vegetarians.

Since taking this step, one that we felt to be neither difficult nor particularly radical, our eating habits have served us up some surprises along with many disappointments along the way. By doing so we instantly placed ourselves amongst a misunderstood minority in a world of carnivorous humankind and a consequence of choosing to live our lives this way has been to place us apart, to put us in that slightly oddball category where one might find religious fanatics or politicians, something we hadn’t anticipated at all. Perhaps it was the fact that we already felt ourselves to be in this category, before foregoing meat, that made the transition so easy for us. At the time I would spend my weekends windsurfing from the beach at Felixstowe, hardly a sport that conjures up mass support, and we had a young family growing up fast and taking up every waking moment of our day. We had also moved into this area of the country very recently, we were incomers with only new found friends to call on, and as with outsiders everywhere, trust comes only slowly.

When asked, we like to say we eat neither meat nor fish, rather than use the term ‘vegetarian’, not least because this is one of the least understood words in the English language. If I had a penny for every time I have been asked the question “So do you eat fish then?” I would be quite wealthy by now. Or else “What about chicken?”, as if somehow birds are excluded from the animal kingdom because they are descended from dinosaurs and only have two legs. It turns out that there is a whole library of words out there which can be used to describe different diets and a ‘pollo-pescetarian’ would happily eat both fish and poultry although nothing else from the meat counter. Then again, never shy of inventing new words when they seem to be needed, the Americans have come up with ‘flexitarian’ to describe someone who has ‘occasional indulgences’ of meat eating, which I suppose must be a bit like eating the odd chocolate bar whilst trying to lose weight.

We have ceased to puzzle over what part of the word ‘vegetable’ is so difficult to understand and by now have come to terms with our place in the culinary world. Not for us is the pleasure of struggling to choose from a long menu at the restaurant table. The ‘vegetarian option’ (what a ghastly expression!) usually sits on its own bearing a tiny ‘V’ symbol and when it is something other than vegetable lasagne, the lazy chef’s choice, it will be accompanied by a side salad or occasionally, if we are very lucky, some risotto rice. If we do ever fancy a little mashed potato or, heaven forbid, a crisp Yorkshire pudding with gravy (something I often have a craving for), a vegetable filled pie or, strangely, even vegetables such as peas or carrots, then we must eat at home, cooking these things for ourselves, as we know from long experience now that these will not be on offer in most restaurants. None of these items need contain any animal products, and indeed nobody could possibly argue that peas, carrots or potatoes are anything less than vegetables, yet a lack of imagination or understanding on the part of the chef invariably leads to our kind being treated as an afterthought on the menu. Hardly surprisingly therefore, we do not eat out very often.

By contrast there is a world out there where we are made to feel more than welcome, where our eyes boggle at the choices before us, like children in a sweet shop. I refer, of course, to the vegetarian restaurant, that rarity which caters solely for our habit, with no apologies. The fact that their tables will often be full of non vegetarians (carnivores) who will also enjoy the good food being served serves only to emphasise the strangeness of the modern world, for if these people are there by choice then when faced with a menu in a ‘normal’ restaurant, presumably they would like to have the same food items on offer. So why aren’t they.

To find a vegetarian restaurant one must take to the internet. No amount of wandering the streets or asking taxi drivers will do it for they are invariably tucked away down some backstreet or hidden in a basement somewhere. It would be a mistake to wait until you are hungry to try to find one. Even using Google they can be difficult to pin down. In an old part of the city of Hull we once discovered Hitchcock’s, an unusual but perhaps not untypical specimen. The restaurant is housed on the first floor above what used to be a forge, and the front door could be the entrance to a private house, you would walk past without realising it was there. The single sitting for food begins at eight in the evening (pre-booking is essential) and the menu is determined by the ‘theme’ for the day, which might be Spanish, Italian or something else, the food being served buffet style, all you can eat and more spread out on large tables. Our own visit was on Cajun night so many of the dishes were a mystery to us, anything coloured red being far too hot for our palates. But at least we could eat anything on offer, no picking our way around dishes that might have meat in them. As a dining experience it is unique. That it happens to serve purely vegetarian food was a delight to us.

If Britain is a place where we are misunderstood, then further abroad there are places where we are shunned. France comes to mind as one of the most meat-loving countries in Europe. We once so baffled the checkout person in a motorway restaurant (considerably more upmarket than anything found on this side of the Channel) when we chose only the salad from the buffet, without a meat selection, that he had no idea what to charge us for our food. On another occasion the restaurant manager was so clearly offended when we refused any of his deliciously cooked meat dishes that he could barely speak to us. Survival itself must necessarily involve eating meat in one form or another, he believed, so our bodies must be craving for it. How could we deny such a basic urge. Well, strange as it may seem our thirty year diet seems to have done us no great harm. My hair and teeth are showing signs of ageing but no more than my contemporaries and I can still find enough energy to walk up the odd hill when I feel the need to. I don’t cower away from the sunrise and my reflection still smiles back at me from the mirror so I presume I have not passed over into realm of the undead. What I can do, however, is gloat all I want when horsemeat is found in beefburgers or chicken is tainted with salmonella. These things really don’t concern us any more although I might offer up a small prayer for the animals concerned. I am very happy sticking to my veg and two veg and letting the rest of the world fuss over the meat content of the average sausage.fruit stall

Island over the sea

deer at lochranzaCan there be a better advertisement for a natural, nature-friendly campsite than this, red deer grazing outside your door, guaranteed, any time of the day or night? However these creatures are not put there just to add interest for the campers. Indeed they may be regarded as something of a nuisance for they are somewhat casual about where they leave their droppings and they can hop over onto the golf course next door as easily as wander into the road. They know the area so well and seem to assume the grass is put their entirely for their benefit. After all this is their home, and has been so for longer than anyone can remember. From the first steps ashore from the ferry at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran we notice how garden fences and gates are built shoulder high rather than at waist level, as if to ensure the inhabitants don’t escape onto the road. Only later do we twig that we’ve seen this height of fence before on Forestry land. It is the height that a deer cannot jump. So on Lochranza deer are being kept out of gardens, full as they are with such a delicious variety of food items, and the fences are not (just) to keep dangerous locals under control. light through treesThey certainly have remarkable freedom (the deer, that is) and their behaviour is tolerated far beyond what might be expected. The rut, for instance, when the stags bellow endlessly and joust amongst themselves for the ladies, must be a particularly trying time for those living here yet they seem to have adapted to this, stepping around the odd gaggle of hinds when they have to just as we do on the campsite.

We consider ourselves blessed as the sun comes out in some force after only one day of torrential rain at the start of our five day visit, a day that gave the legs a chance to recover from our eight mile coastal afternoon hike around the Cock of Arran on our first day. The worst part was when we were already tired and at our furthest point from ‘home’ when our path forced its way tortuously through a boulder field, studded with ankle wrecking dangers as well as being well supplied with midges and other biting insects. Given enough wind, midges generally find flying too difficult so the presence of a fresh breeze when out walking is normally welcome. tickLess easy to avoid however, especially when passing through waist-high bracken, are the ticks, tiny black creatures who scuttle down beneath the clothing then latch on using a barbed probe, penetrating the skin to, well, suck up their host’s juices. The itching generally does not start until later and then goes on well after the creature’s now swollen body is extracted, a process that involves a specially shaped device and exceptionally good eyesight. Given that these beasts can carry Lyme disease a full body inspection is recommended after walking through any long vegetation, a minor price to pay really for the pleasure of so much fabulous scenery.

From Machrie Moor we look across Kilbrannan Sound to our home on Kintyre, where less than three miles away, our village nestles at the foot of its valley. Machrie standing stones3Although nobody can ever be certain about the precise date, I can say that some time after the last ice retreated 12,000 years ago and before about 750 BC, some large stones were dragged across Arran and firmly stood on end in such a way that they still remain standing today. As to how this remarkable feat was achieved or why it was done nobody alive today really knows, which seems quite sad considering the effort that must have been involved. Today we might use a large crane to lift something this heavy into place but archaeologists doubt that such things had been invented back then so the whole place is surrounded in mystery. We can speculate that their commanding presence, and there are lots of them here placed in circles or arranged in alignments that today we can only guess at, must have been quite stunning to those passing by when they were first erected… and they have lost little of that today.Machrie standing stones5

Before coming to live in Scotland we had never heard of this magical place. So it seems strange that we should discover something like this so close to our home. In some ways it’s rather like finding Stonehenge is just down the road although the hoards of tourists are missing here. Remoteness does have its advantages.

To complete our slow circumnavigation of the isle of Arran we steer Ducky over the String Road back to Brodick, a long climb over the central mountainous backbone with a fast descent on the other side. Ducky on Cloanaig ferryI regret to say that Arran has benefited little financially from our visit; only two nights were spent on formal campsites and most of our food was brought with us from home. There are plenty of places where we can pull off the road, get tucked in behind a few trees and find isolation and a quiet place to sleep, so apart from the cost of the ferry (twenty minutes spent sitting in a gently swaying van or waving farewell from the upper deck) this has been a cheap holiday. Our walking boots return a little muddier and our faces a little ruddier from exposure to the sun but we feel richer and wiser knowing what lies across the sea from our home.

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 gets a home

Scarcely have I left home for my sailing exploits amongst the Western Isles when Kate gets stuck into building a home for Ducky, our much loved campervan, at the bottom of our garden. She did have a little help it has to be said, with larger pieces of timber and digging the massive postholes, fitting the wooden cladding and climbing up to fix the roof but she tells me that nothing would have happened, nothing at all built, without her being there to make the tea.

I had seen the plans, of course, but seeing the structure in the flesh on my return home was something of a shock because this thing is big. Very big. The roof clears Ducky’s highest point by a clear margin and we have space under the cover all around which will be handy when the rain is pouring down.

Naturally word gets around the village very quickly that something new has sprung up. Suddenly we notice dog walkers detouring down our way, dogs we have not seen before stagger past, no doubt asking themselves why their owners have come this way, have broken their usual routine. The dogs can’t make sense of it but we know what is going on. We no longer have difficulty explaining where we live to those we meet. All we have to say is “The house with the monstrous carport” and understanding dawns. “Oh yes I’ve seen that. Now I know where you are”, usually followed by a strange look, the “That great thing” look. Visitors too, holidaymakers, have suddenly begun using the end of our road to turn in, pretending they are lost, something that has never happened before. We are beginning to think that our carport may be the most exciting thing to have happened in the village since the Vikings left and it amuses us that we might have created something of a talking point.

Our latest foray away in Ducky takes us to Barnluasgan over in Knapdale to see the beavers. Just a short drive north of us, a trialled reintroduction of beavers has been going on since 2009, exploring (at some considerable financial cost I might add) what might happen if we replace what was once a native species all over Scotland. We have it on good authority that there are currently at least ten of the beasts living here although despite setting off at dusk and tiptoeing as quietly as possible for a mile or so along a gravel path (not the best surface for stealth) beside the freshly created loch to the site of the beaver dam, we see nothing but a few ducks. We feel certain that the beavers are there, close by, perhaps chuckling to themselves about our clumsiness, but no way are they going to show themselves. Perhaps this is because they have discovered the strangest thing about this much-publicised species introduction which is that they are not the only beaver population currently living in Scotland. Little talked about is the fact that over on Tayside some one hundred and fifty wild beavers have set up home. Nobody seems clear about how they got there (they may have been released deliberately or else they are escaped pets – but who keeps beavers as pets?) and because they are not part of the trial and are not being so carefully studied we hear little about them. Indeed one senses that their very existence must be something of an embarrassment to those involved in the Knapdale trial. We are intrigued to see what will happen once the trial is over and a decision is made on whether they can stay, a decision apparently already overtaken by events.

Adder3Our beaver spotting being thwarted, we retire gracefully to spend the night camping ‘wild’ nearby and wake to a surprisingly hot summer’s day that tempts us to explore the area some more. Beavers might be shy but apparently adders are less so. The young lady we come across sunbathing close to her home, an iron drainage cover which crosses the forest track, is a little coy at first. She is quite well known to those walkers who come this way often (and that’s not many) but we feel a certain pride in being able to point her out to one passer-by who has never seen an adder before and had just walked by this one. The adder cautiously sniffs the air by flicking her tongue and will disappear very quickly into cover if she senses danger but this morning her need for warmth from the sun clearly outweighs caution and she slides slowly and gracefully away. If only beavers could behave like this.

Time on the water

Arms straining, I pull myself up the sloping foredeck for the nth time and wriggle into position on the windward rail where my meagre seventy eight kilos helps to balance the boat as she accelerates upwind again, crashing and bashing through the waves. The next piece of sea thumps into the bow, jumping up and dousing me with salt water but my body protects the rest of our crew from a soaking, not that their gratitude is particularly overwhelming, I have to say. This wave is one of many I take full on for them, but I’m not complaining. I signed up for a week of racing on Owen’s 10 metre X-yacht, Jochr, and know full well that this is what goes with the territory, it is just part of the experience.

We have a mixed bag of weather thrown at us, fairly typical for any summer in the West Highlands I guess, heavy rain and winds one day and light airs the next, but despite this our fortune in the rankings for our class remains good. For the final passage race, a long southerly beat down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Oban, my role is to ensure that the genoa passes smoothly around the front of the mast on each tack without the sheets catching on the front of the mast or the sail getting hooked on the guard rail. Aside from this I am ballast, the weight of me and the other crew making a minor but significant difference to the performance of the boat. Our skipper drives us across the Sound then back again, against twenty five then up to thirty three knots of headwind, as we fight to keep our place in the fleet of yachts that surround us. For hour after hour we battle on, hardly pausing for breath, until after four hours we find ourselves jostling for position on a finish line beside Lismore Light. The current is running fast here calling for fine judgement in close proximity to other boats but the gun fires at last signalling a good finish to the final race of the week, the end of six tough days.

West Highland Yachting Week                           West Highland Yachting Week

Jochr is on the far left of the picture, sail No. 9726

Our boat and crew have sailed through rain and shine, wind and calm, rough and smooth seas, enduring some excellent and challenging racing from which it takes my body some days to recover. At some point I will admit that I am too old for this sort of thing… but not yet.

As things turn out this year all this strenuous stuff follows soon after a family trip south into Yorkshire for a week long holiday on a narrowboat, motoring slowly along the Leeds to Liverpool canal, where the only real exercise is cranking the key to open the sluices on the many locks we pass on Megans Drum With us here are Mike, Eleanor and of course, wee James, for whom this is a first boating experience.

The term narrowboat means literally that and for good reason; these boats are built to fit the canals (or is it the canals that were built to fit the boats). The locks on our canal are just big enough for two boats, each a maximum of seven feet wide, to fit side by side with only inches to spare. The canals were built for working boats which often towed a ‘butty’, an engine-less load carrier, and it was essential that both boat and butty could fit in the same lock side by side. If the lock is any wider then all that happens is that you waste water. The overall boat length is an issue too as any more than fifty feet long and we’d be bumping up against the lock gates on the Leeds Liverpool. But given these restraints, it is quite surprising how much can be fitted in on board. On Megan’s Drum we have separate bedrooms, toilets and a shower, a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, storage for all our stuff plus the convenience of mains electricity for the microwave oven and the TV.

Our days on board consist of chugging slowly westwards through the Yorkshire Dales at no more than four miles an hour, the canal speed limit, so our pace of life slows to accommodate this. Being in charge of steering I get to watch my crew opening bridges and lock gates ahead of me then once through, I manoeuvre the heavy boat to the bank to pick them up again. It becomes routine, eventually, with each member of the team knowing what to do. Steering the long vessel around a tight bend requires forward planning, anticipation of the way the stern will swing, as the boat pivots about its centre rather than its rudder, but generally we manage to avoid bumping the canal sides too often or entangling ourselves with the trees that frequently overhang the water on one side. One can certainly imagine that life has always gone on at the same slow pace on the canals but (not surprisingly perhaps) young James finds it hard coping with the speed the world drifts by. He is often happier sitting below playing games on his ipad and we worry that he misses the herons standing knee deep in the shallows or the amusingly named and brightly coloured narrowboats that are floating homes to a sizeable population on England’s waterways.

At dusk all traffic stops and we too pull over and moor to the bank. The water becomes still, only disturbed by the movements of the odd duck, the occasional swan and fish rising to take flies from the surface. Now the tree-clad banks and the painted boats are reflected almost perfectly by the water creating a surreal inverted image.

Megans Drum on the LeedsLiverpool canal

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