Saturday, 13 October 2018

PINK FOOTED GEESE AT ABERLADY BAY

I have walked Aberlady Bay, the UKs first Local Nature Reserve, designated in 1952, a number of times with Pauline, but always from the same start point, on the outskirts of the coastal village of Aberlady.

On this particular day we opted to complete a circular route, and as such we headed out along the John Muir Way to the neighbouring town of Gullane, famous for its golf connections.

This meant a tedious first mile along a very busy road, but soon after we were on the John Muir Way footpath, cutting across fields and skirting the golf course, with views to Berwick Law to the east, to eventually pop out on the outskirts of Gullane.


But the real treat on this short section was the start of the main reason we had ventured out; skeins of geese in formation flying overhead, some as many as 100 in number, gliding in to the Bay for the night, calling out their presence as they approached.



It always pleasantly surprises me how often I can walk an area and yet repeatedly find new routes, and today was no exception. The path rose steeply beside expensive detached mansions, then followed a boundary wall, curving round to the north to rise to a vantage point with views in all directions. To the west was the skyline of Edinburgh, whilst to the east was Bass Rock, home during breeding season to millions of Gannets, and still bright white with the icing of guano deposited by the nesting birds, now all departed.


We dropped down to the shoreline and wandered the beach as it curved slowly back round to Aberlady. The sun was starting to dip, and in the far distance the three bridges spanning the Firth of Forth were silhouetted against the glow of an early evening setting sun.


Another first this day was a field test for my new compact camera, and I was not disappointed by the first images, capturing the distant bridges perfectly with its powerful zoom.

We hopped across the sea-beaten rocks, with Eider Ducks resting on their edges and Red Shanks wading in the shallows, as the sun dipped lower and lower, casting its golden-hour light across the sands.

Beneath our feet were trillions of shell remains, all at different stages of being ground down for a future beach by the unstoppable tides.


Soon we were skirting below the high dunes on the longest stretch of beach, and in the last of the light Pauline scanned the horizon with binoculars toward the distant calls of Curlews.



There was one more treat in store as we followed the path away from the beach back toward our start point. Just to our right, perched on a large piece of drift wood, sat a Short-Eared Owl, something I had never seen before. It sat patiently looking out toward the last of the setting sun, soon to start the hunt for food.


Further on a young Roe Deer stood motionless and watched our progress along the path. The last of the geese approached overhead, collapsing their wings and tumbling down to rapidly lose altitude as they found their preferred landing site, then splayed their wings like an aircraft's aerofoils, to brake and land gently on the mud flats left by the receded tide. In the distance, lost in the failing light, hundreds of geese were greeting each other noisily as we wandered back to the village of Aberlady, reflecting on what had been a spectacular day.



Thursday, 4 October 2018

THE 45

In a couple of weeks time I will be taking on a 130 mile cycle round trip, and for the past few months I have been trying to find the time to improve my fitness. It's unlikely that any one day will be that long, but, according to Pauline, it has challenging stages.

For Pauline to use the word challenging has me concerned. My exercise program has had too many days between each stint, and so I've been looking for opportunities to enhance that training.

Last week Pauline proposed a round trip coastal cycle, starting from the ancient town of Dunfermline, once a thriving linen town, and with Royal connections in the past to James VI of Scotland.

Our route followed old railway lines most of the way out west, which was very easy cycling, and took us all of the way to our turnaround point of Devilla Forest. The forest was planted after the second world war, in an area that provided the headquarters for the Polish army. But it has also played host to more ancient battles in centuries past.

Now it is home to a wealth of flora and fauna, among which is Scotland's cutest animal, the Red Squirrel. We ventured off on Red Squirrel Trail at one point, but sadly the only sightings were man-made steel cutouts, pegged into the side of the many Scots Pine trees on Bordie Moor.


At the point were the trail turns to head back out, we stopped for a quick bite to eat. Views stretched out across the forth to the north, and in the foreground the Longannet power station. beyond on the opposite shore was Grangemouth oil refinery. But just a few metres away from where we sat, hidden in the autumnal bracken, was what is known as The Standard Stone. It is part of the natural bedrock, with two oblong holes cut into its surface, both roughly the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and has laid here watching the comings and goings for the past 800 years, long before any power stations, oil refineries or bridges spanning the river.


No one is quite sure what it was for, but folklore has it, that it marks the site of the battle between the Scots and the Danes in 1038, and the holes are alleged to have been supports for the standards during battle. Some say it could also be a boundary marker. But as a fan of Shakespeare's play Macbeth, I prefer the idea that it was at this spot where King Duncan and his generals Macbeth and Banquo fought, and were ultimately defeated by, the Vikings.

Our lunch over, and entertained by ancient history, we headed back out of the forest on the trail. Pauline then told me there was another piece of history hidden away in the woods, that she wanted me to see. We took a turn along what could only just be described as a path, with the sun twinkling through the dense trees. Just 100 metres on we stopped and chained up the bikes, climbed over a fence, and headed into the woods.


In  a small clearing, dating back to 1645, the time of the Jacobite uprisings, was a small grave. Not just any grave though, for here was what is known as The Plague Grave, where the three children of James Bald were buried, having all died on this very day, the 24th September, 1645, of the plague. To this day people leave small toys and trinkets at the graveside.

Our route now headed back toward Edinburgh, dropping down to the coastline of the Forth. Within a short distance we were entering the Royal Burgh of Culross (pronounced coo-ross), acknowledged as one of the most picturesque villages in Scotland, and the most complete example of a 16th century burgh. And I have to admit it lives up to its reputation. Little wonder it is used as a shooting location for film and television.


In the centre stands a 16th century merchant's house called Culross Palace. For us though, the most alluring place was a small courtyard next door, home of Bessie's Cafe, and more importantly, coffee and cake.


Suitably refreshed we joined the cycle path again, and were soon upon the new road system that feeds the recently opened Queensferry Crossing bridge.


Beautiful as it is, the Forth Rail Bridge still wins, which I was to get a view of as I did something for the very first time. With the opening of the new bridge the original suspension bridge is now closed to traffic, except buses.

The Forth Road bridge was opened in 1964, and at the time it was the largest suspension bridge in the world outside of the United States, and at its peak carried 65,000 vehicles per day. Though it has always been possible for cyclists to use the bridge on an adjoining cycle and footpath, I had never ridden a bicycle across it.

Down the other side we turned into North Queensferry village, and sat eating our lunch admiring the beauty of the Rail Bridge, opened in 1890.


With a gentle tail wind, we set off on the 10-mile journey back to Portobello, via the Dalmeny Estate and Crammond, a total journey of 45 miles.


Friday, 21 September 2018

THE BINN

When Pauline suggested we have a trip to The Binn, I thought she meant clearing out my apartment and taking unwanted items to the trash. Not a great suggestion for a day off.

The Binn in question was, in actual fact, a small 193m hill across the Firth of Forth in Fife. I can actually see it from my apartment front window.


I have only known its name for the past few months, when Pauline first mentioned it, but I have looked at it often over the passing few decades since I moved to Edinburgh. In fact, anyone who has installed a TV aerial will know which hill I am talking about, as on its summit sits Craigkelly transmitting station mast, some 125m high, beaming out TV signals to a vast area since 1968.


We stepped off the train at the picturesque Fife coastal village of Aberdour, at its well kept little station, which has been in operation since 1890. Our first destination was the former shipbuilding port of Burntisland, just three miles away, along a foot and cycle path. I have cycled this way a number of times, but never walked the route, so it was a pleasant change. A ferry used to cross between Burntisland and Granton in Edinburgh until 1890, when the Forth Rail Bridge opened.


It hugs the shoreline, as does the railway line running parallel, and when I've passed this way on board a train I would regularly spot seals basking on exposed rocks. But on this day the tide was in, and there were no seals to be seen.


Rock carvings dating back 4,000 years have been found in the area, and there has been a settlement at Burntisland for 2,000 years, when the Roman commander Agricola set up a camp at nearby Dunearn Hill, using the natural harbour as his access point. In the 12th century a town had started to grow, known then as Wester Kinghorn, when the monks of Dunfermline Abbey owned the harbour. In 1601 James VI chose the town as an alternative site for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and it was at this time when the King James Bible came into being.


Our destination was the top of a craggy escarpment, rising steeply to the north behind the town. The Binn is the remains of a volcanic plug, formed some 300 million years ago, and serves to shelter the town of Burntisland form the worst of the northerly winds.


Very quickly we were on the slopes of the hill, and though the forecast was mixed, we enjoyed bright weather all the way. The path hugs the top edge of the crag as it curves across, and in under an hour we were passing the giant transmitter mast that I had seen from a distance for so many years.

In the distance dark clouds were gathering, which gave a sharp contrast to the sunlit field of corn beside the path. We sat a while on the top, taking in the uninterrupted view across the Firth of Forth expanse to Edinburgh in the distance.


As we neared the base of the walk a sharp shower came across, and as we sheltered under the trees Pauline pointed out that there was once a small settlement where these woods now stood. I had seen evidence of a building as we had entered but all other signs had long since vanished.

Finishing our little jaunt at the old Port building in the town centre, we headed for the railway station of Burntisland for our short journey home.

When I take the trash out in the future, and glance across to the TV mast atop The Binn, I will think of it in a different way.


Thursday, 6 September 2018

PORTOBELLO

I am very fortunate to live just metres from the beach front of the capital city of Scotland. I have lived in the area for 40 years altogether, and it has never lost any of its appeal.

Though I am on the outskirts, our transport links are excellent should I have the need to venture in to the city itself. And there are many reasons to do so throughout the year.

It has the worlds largest arts festival for one thing, during the month of August, which doubles the population of the city. At the same time it plays host to a book festival, preceded by a jazz festival. My main interest of course is the internationally renowned Edinburgh International Film Festival in June.

Then there's Hogmanay, again bringing tens of thousands of people here.

It is the seat of the Scottish Government, and a centuries old castle dominates the city horizon, and the remains of a millennia old extinct volcano sits between the castle and its coastline where I live.

But for all of this, I prefer to spend the majority of my time in Portobello.


During this past couple of weekends we have had our very own, busy, festival-feel time of it. The previous weekend saw the mile-long promenade play host to a variety of musicians, all busking their hearts out in the late summer sunshine.

Then just last weekend we had two events; the "Porty Art Walk", and the Village Show. The latter brings everyone in the community together, and always seems to have good, sunny weather.


Locals can have a stall table to sell their crafts and homebaking, while other tents sell beer, hotdogs, coffee and cake, and right in the centre there is a gazebo which is the stage area for local bands to perform.


Around mid way through a dog show was held, with local teenagers acting as judges, followed just a few minutes later with a traditional duck race.



My favourite thing though was an old, traditional model railway. It was mesmerising just watching two trains going round and round the large oval track.


Portobello is known as a place of many creative people, and for a number of days spanning the weekend the Porty Art Walk takes place. This comprises outdoor installations of art, like the bicycle on the prom wall pictured above; displays in several shop windows; and a few local artists open their homes up for people to wander in and enjoy their work.

Even when the sun doesn't shine, and the beach is empty, there is a welcoming warmth, and I can't imagine calling anywhere else home.

As I made my way home after the Village Show, with a smile on my face, I stopped for a moment to enjoy a little corner of wild flowers, which just added to the colour that is Portobello.

 


Friday, 17 August 2018

THE SEQUEL

Having run a brand new film academy for kids from age 9 to 18 in July, I decided to reprise the event in August.

Film Academy summer school, the sequel.



There were a number of parts of the July summer school that didn't work as well as they could have for the students, and during the week that followed I went back to the drawing board, or maybe more appropriately, the storyboard.

One thing that occurred to me was we needed to get the students working on cameras more quickly, so we upped the ante, and threw them in at the deep end, shooting their main film after just two days.



We had received various bits of feedback, all very positive, but a few were surprised the students were filming a pre-written script. They had assumed they would film their own. We had decided this for very good reasons.

A five minute short film script takes around a month of full time work to write and perfect, ready for shooting. Part of that is getting everyone to agree on story, parts and roles. To have been able to do this well in just two days was going to be impossible, hence the pre-written script.

But it gave me an idea for the second week, to satisfy both.

First of all, we altered the website, listing a basic schedule for the week, so everyone knew in advance they would be filming a pre-written script.

During the actual week we trained them up, and shot the film, a day early. By the Thursday lunch time they were wrapped. Then we presented them with a challenge; they had now been shown how to do it all, so we gave them one hour on Thursday afternoon to write a one-page script, with full reign on what they could do. On Friday morning we handed them a camera and a microphone, and gave them just 30 minutes to shoot five short scenes to tell their story, in sequence, no editing allowed. Whatever came out of the camera was the finished film.



And they pulled it off amazingly well. These six shorts were both the most popular with the parents at the end-of-week screening, and it was the most popular activity with the students. An idea I am taking forward to the weekly academy.



So by taking the plunge into the first week, listening to the feedback, we were able to deliver more of what they wanted. Everyone left happy. Click on this link to see just how much fun we all had:
https://vimeo.com/284521768

Some students said that having to wait around for their turn to be in front of the camera during any of the shoots, wasn't their favourite thing, but that is part and parcel of filmmaking, and if that was the only moan, then we were doing well.

The closing event, once again, though not quite as problematic as week one, was plagued with last minute technical issues. We found a workaround but we were 30 minutes late. This is real life. Tech issues happen all the time, but for me this felt like a failure, and I left feeling less than happy, thinking, well, I tried it, but it looks like it's not going to work long term. I knew I had five young people overall that wanted to do a weekly, after-school version, but five was not viable.

Six days later and we have 21 signed up, and as I write, only two places remain in the teenagers group. Our capacity is 30, mainly to ensure tutors have a manageable class.

At my current place of work on a Saturday, I have to deal with up to 30 students per class, and it just doesn't work very successfully. It has been invaluable experience over the past four years, but I need to make this better. Having a maximum of 15 is at the top end of numbers in my opinion, with 12 being ideal, but we have to balance the books.

For the future, and I never thought I'd be considering this, we are looking at opening a second academy on a Wednesday. And just this morning I have had inquiries from the Borders and Fife from fellow filmmakers to open something similar there.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

AND . . . CUT!

Run a brand new summer film school.


Tick. Done that!



I've been hiding away this week, sleeping mostly, as the previous week saw the launch of my new venture, The Film Academy Edinburgh.


Back in April no one had ever heard of it. By the end of June we were on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Adwords, had our own website, and had even been mentioned in notices in the Scottish Parliament.

By mid July 62 kids were signed up.



Day one was tough, but then, it was just day one. They say you learn something new every day, but boy, is that an understatement!


 
But we made it through to day two, changed a few things as we went, and started to make headway.



As previous experience has shown me, the 9 to 12 year olds would be full of energy and up for anything we threw at them. The teenagers on the other hand, well, they were teenagers. They still showed keen interest, but in the way that teenagers do.



Wednesday was when we realised as a team that we could have had them shooting. We had them in more workshops and prepped them for the shoot, but we took note to make this the first shoot day in future camps.

By the Thursday cameras were finally rolling and they were all shooting their first films. It was manic, and footage was flying back to the edit suite as we went.



Come Friday lunchtime both films were wrapped and the students spent the afternoon in masterclasses, covering special effects makeup and sound effects. 
 
Over in the edit suite fingers were a blur on the computers. I was pulling together a fun, behind-the-scenes film, whilst Chuck the editor was trying his best to finish the kids films. By 3.30pm, half an hour before parents arrived to view the kids work, we were still editing.



At 4pm I came on stage, and announced we were a little behind, though not revealing just how far. Our acting consultant, and Scottish film star, Shauna Macdonald, improvised with a Q & A with the kids, then presented each with a certificate for the week. She was brilliant, but we were still editing.

If you've ever seen the episode Gourmet Night in Faulty Towers, were Basil's wife, Manual and Polly play for time while Basil flies around trying to bring a new roast duck to the event, then you'll have a rough idea how I was beginning to feel.

Hopefully I wasn't going to end up with trifle instead of duck.

By 4.30 the transfers were transferred over to the laptop, and I walked back to the projection room with the laptop open in my hand, still rendering! The progress bar was at half way as I stepped back onto stage and delivered the thank you's. We were now 45 minutes late, but we had made it.



The films played, not at their best as we hadn't had time to check them, but everyone was happy and left smiling, and not a trifle in sight.

And relax.



Well, not quite, as I'm about to do it all again next week! This time with a different model, and we will be filming on Wednesday.



The editing suite should be a little less pressured and I'm confident it's going to be a great success.