Thursday, 27 June 2013

Seen it all

This past weekend saw Pauline and I perform our adventure talk twice in a row in the Borders region of Scotland.  Our first night was in the very pretty town of Hawick, famous for it's woollen mills dating back to the height of the industrial revolution. The theatre is very modern, housed inside an old water mill, with a fun glass veranda hanging over the river next to the building where you can sit and have coffee with a view.

Further to the west the following night we were in Dumfries for our performance at the Theatre Royal.  This was a great little theatre, run by a voluntary organisation called the Guild of Players who have owned the theatre since 1959. Inside it was showing its age but was due for a £2m makeover in the coming year. However, on reflection I'm not surprised it was showing its age. I later discovered that it was Scotland's oldest working theatre, built in 1792.
Let's just put that into historical perspective for a moment.  1792 was the year the French Revolution began and the very first President of the United States, George Washington, laid the corner stone to start the construction of the now world famous White House.  Imagine that. We were performing in a theatre the same age as the White House. When the theatre finally receives it's makeover I'm sure it will thrive for another 200 years and beyond.

Experiencing very old structures didn't end with the there. We decided to stay in the Dumfries and Galloway region for the remainder of the weekend, and on the Sunday, on a bright but windy day, we set off on our Brompton bicycles on a circuit to the coast. Leaving Dumfries we crossed the River Nith on the Devorgilla bridge. 
This is the oldest surviving multi-arched bridge in Scotland and was constructed in the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus was born, who would go on to reach landfall in America in 1492.  And here was this little bridge, still being used over 600 years later.

From the discovery of America to the building of the White House, Dumfries has seen it all.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Never been north

What seems like yesterday, though in reality now two years ago, I met a couple driving an RV on holiday in the USA in the state of New York.  I was astonished to hear that they had driven just 36 miles from their home.  This, apparently, was typical.  Most people do not travel outside of their own state. I once heard that some never leave the city they are born and brought up in.

I kept thinking how incredible this was, given the amazing diversity of the natural landscapes and its people in North America.  This would never happen back in Scotland.  Right?

Just now I am working on a short film for a local charity.  The overall theme of this film concerns the referendum in 2014 on whether Scotland should go independent or not.  My own personal view is it is a ridiculous notion with little or no benefit.  But the film is not about my views, it is about the views of those in their more senior years, upwards of 80 years old.

It is fascinating listening to them, hearing of the simple ways they would entertain themselves when they were kids, getting great joy out of berry picking in the summer holidays, or chasing a hoop down the street for hours on end.  I also ask them in the interviews what they have done as far as work is concerned throughout their lives, and today one lady took me by surprise.  Usually they tell me it's either office work, tradesman, miner or something similar. Today this lady told me she had been a magician during a large part of her working life.

However, the biggest surprise of all, is, having interviewed seven people so far, not a single one of them have travelled in Scotland.  One of my questions asks them to name their favourite place in Scotland, and the majority reply they have never left Edinburgh!  One gentleman said to me that he'd been to Perth once, but that was a long time ago! I'm even more astonished at hearing this than I was with the RV drivers in the USA.  Scotland is hardly big, but it has incredible beauty and diversity not to be missed.

I am also sad for these people to have never seen the beauty of a Scottish loch nestled in a forested glen, or a temperate inversion from atop a rugged mountain peak, or the snow capped mountains of Glencoe on a crisp winters day.

I've been very lucky over the past few decades to experience this and more, and if ever anyone interviews me in my twilight years at least I will not reply, I've never been north.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Edge to edge

On the seaside edge of the city I live in, Edinburgh, is the Pentland Hills Regional Park, what you might call a State Park in America. Designated in 1984 it covers an area of roughly 90 square kilometres.
On a glorious blue sky day, with hardly a breath of wind, I set off from my home on this seaside edge of the city, toward the hills. The first 13 miles I had to share the road with busy traffic, up and down many hills as I picked my way out of the city to the turn off into the hills at the Flotterstone Inn. An old staging post, there has been an Inn on this spot since the seventeenth century, it is now a popular spot with walkers and cyclists. This was the point where finally I could leave the traffic behind.

The road continues as tarmac for a further three miles into the hills, past two reservoirs, Glencorse and Loganlea. Fishermen were out on their little wooden boats drifting across the mirror-like surface as they hoped to lure a catch. All around lambs, now a few months old, were bouncing about chasing each other. As I cycled along my nostrils were filled with the strong coconut smell of the gorse, bright yellow and lining the sides of the road. Crows seemed to be everywhere, cawing and scrapping with each other. From the start of the first reservoir I could see the route up ahead through the valley, lined with trees in ten shades of green.

After the road ended I was on to narrow dirt path that led up and through a small narrow gorge and I stopped at this, the highest point, for an early lunch.

Just four miles further on, cycling out of the hills, I was awe struck at the beauty of vast meadows of bog cotton and buttercups as I flew downhill to the western edge of the city to an area called Balerno. At this point I joined the Water of Leith path. This is a river that starts in the hills I had just left and flows for a total of 24 miles right through the heart of the city all the way to the Firth of Forth and emerges not far from where I live.

All along the path the air was sweet with the smell of wild garlic. Surprisingly the path was quiet despite the glorious weather, but I put this down to people having gone away for the day because of the glorious weather. This part of the city is made up of what were once isolated villages, but as the city grew they were absorbed, but each still retains it's own character and community. As the track wound it's way along it passed many little houses nestled among the trees on the edge of the river.
As I rounded one bend I spotted a heron, completely motionless in the river as it stared into one spot waiting for a fish. It seemed to be having as much luck as the fishermen on the reservoirs. A little further on another heron was guarding a nest.
Approaching the centre of the city I had to divert briefly and join a portion of the Union Canal, busy with families in Canadian canoes and more serious paddlers in sleek skiffs. On the other side of a viaduct a set of stairs took me back to the Water of Leith. Due to the never-ending tram works in Edinburgh there is a short diversion near the Scottish Rugby's national stadium called Murrayfield.
On the well-manicured grassy field beside the stadium two teams were playing cricket, and the thwack of leather against willow was unmistakable as a summer sound. From here I was on the final few miles out of the city, passing under the Dean Bridge and back to the coast.
Just over three miles from where the Water of Leith flowed into the Forth I was back at my front door. The mile-long beach was covered in sun worshipers, most having turned the colour of a well-cooked lobster since I had left in the morning.

A great run, 35 miles miles from city edge to city edge and back again.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Brompton action

My friend Pauline commutes to work on a great little bicycle called a Brompton. It has to be the worlds best folding bicycle. The engineering and design are second to none and of all the folding bicycles I've ever seen it folds up to the smallest size.

It's bright yellow in colour and she looks very dynamic when riding it, and you can tell she's having a lot of fun. She's often suggested I get one, but I've always maintained that I would look ridiculous on it due to my height. Pauline is just a little over five feet tall whereas I reach six foot one.

We journeyed north this past weekend to give one of our talks at the Findhorn Foundation, just outside of Forres, which is a short distance from Inverness. Once the talk was over at around 9.30pm we drove an hour south toward Aviemore, with the intention of finding a camping spot for the night. By 11pm we were parked up in Boat of Garten and unpacking the bikes that would take us along a track out of the village.

You guessed it, two Brompton bikes. In the pitch dark, with just weak head torches to show the way, we pedalled along for half an hour on a little dirt track. Both of us found it funny that despite all my protests over the years, here I now was experiencing a Brompton for the first time . . . in the pitch dark . . . off road!

I can report that the experience was . . . great fun!  My first impression was, because of the unusual handlebar shape, that it reminded me of my days as a kid when I owned a Raleigh Chopper. The following day we happily cycled around little back roads in the area enjoying the sunshine and beautiful Speyside countryside.  You have to be careful to some degree when riding a Brompton. It has tiny thin wheels which don't like rough roads, potholes or bumps and because of the nature of the folding mechanism you can't jump off the edge of a pavement for example. It has many other advantages though over a regular bike, one of which is that you can take it with you easily on a train without having to book the rarely available bike spaces.  I can also see a use for getting along dirt tracks to reach the base of a mountain quicker and cut out the boring long walks in.

I'm sold on this little miracle machine, and I don't care what I look like.