Tuesday 31 December 2013

A bit of geographical and cultural perspective

Isn't life strange? Perhaps not quite 'a turn of the page' as the Moody Blues sang, but certainly capable of throwing you a curveball.

In the space of a week, earlier this month, I went from being a northerner in the south, to being a southerner in the north. No longer a token Geordie in the English south Midlands, but a recently-fledged ferry louper on Orkney. 

'Ferry louper', literally 'ferry jumper', is a sometimes derogatory but usually light-hearted name used by Orcadians to described non-Orcadians, presumably irrespective of whether they disembarked jauntily from one of the ferries or arrived by air at Kirkwall Airport.

Born and raised in south west County Durham, in the north east of England, I grew up surrounded by 2000 years of history, which I pretty much ignored until much later in my life. The daily walk to school took in a length of Roman road, 100m of Dere Street, still complete with (if I'd bothered to look over the hedgerow into the adjoining field) evidence of the agger. This road was part of the route from York (Eboracum) to the Antonine Wall and took in the nearby fort of Vinovia at Binchester by the River Wear.

As I recall, the only pre-Roman site I visited back then was the Stanwick Iron Age Fortifications, or Stanwick Camp, whose name is actually thought to come from the Old Norse 'steinvegges' or stone walls. And there we have it, the dragon-headed elephant in the room, the Vikings, who left more of a mark on the north east of England in its language and dialects than the all-conquering Romans could've dreamed of. I'll draw a discreet veil over the Norman period and the ethnic-cleansing-esque Harrying of the North, and leave County Durham basking in the glow of its later moniker, the Land of the Prince Bishops.

By the early 1990s and much further south, Our Lass and I were bringing up our family in Milton Keynes, again not too far from a Roman road, this time Watling Street, which was to become a significant part of my daily commute during this past fourteen years. This journey also took in Towcester, the Romans' Lactadorum, a reference to the milky waters of the River Tove, I believe. But in the post Roman period, the area was Saxon territory, and quite genteel in comparison to the rugged topography of the land of my birth.

Fast forward to 2013 (and almost 2014!) and here we are in Orkney, a place which celebrates its Norse heritage above its more recent Scottish history. Certainly, plenty of the Orcadian dialect words have parallels easily recognisable to a Durham lad, thanks to those much-travelled Vikings. Yet here is also a rich Neolithic story, which although it does not really feature in the language, is amply represented in stone. And not a Roman in sight.

Monday 30 December 2013


One of the changes that I've had to come to terms with in moving to a new area, is the local council's recycling policy and particularly the receptacles for the doorstep collections.

Back in MK, we had weekly collections and four containers to play with:
  • household rubbish, in a black sack;
  • paper/tin/plastic, in a pink sack;
  • glass, in a blue box;
  • garden/kitchen waste, in a green wheelie bin.
So in a normal week, we would easily recycle more than we were creating for landfill.

The green wheelie bin was especially useful, as it could take just about any garden waste we created, certainly more than we could've composted. Plus, all our kitchen waste went in there as well. All of this green waste went off to be composted down into soil conditioner at a regional facility, and I believe our local authority used this product in its landscaping department.

Orkney, with a much smaller catchment area, obviously can't compete directly with that, but I now have five containers to play with, none of which is for green waste. And the collections are fortnightly (household waste alternating with recyclables on a weekly basis):
  • household rubbish, in a black wheelie bin;
  • 2 green wheelie bins, each with a smaller black container that slots inside, for glass, paper, plastic and tins, in whatever order I choose!
The paper, plastic and tin restrictions are much tighter. No thick cardboard, no food trays (eg margarine tubs), no tetrapaks (eg fruit juice cartons) and no tin foil (all those mince pies!).

In addition, we're back to composting for ourselves, though I have heard that there is a scheme whereby green garden waste can be taken to a recycling site and the resulting compost is available for sale.

But perhaps the biggest difference about recycling in Orkney is that the wheelie bins have to be tied down so that they don't blow over or away!

During our first week in residence at the cottage, we were sat in the kitchen one evening when there was a dull thud from one end of the building. This was followed by a long, drawn-out, scraping sound, as something large dragged itself across the roof, before silence descended once more. We sat and looked at each other in surprise, followed by consternation when we realised that neither of us fancied going out into the howling gale and the dark to see what it was.

Daybreak revealed that one of the plastic inserts from the green wheelie bins had escaped in the strong winds and was now nestled in the lee of the cottage. This prompted a trip to a motor factor and the purchase of a number of bungee straps. These have now been beta-tested by a further three storms, so far without mishap.

Once the festive holiday period is over, we intend to visit Orkney ZeroWaste, a charity set up to promote those good habits 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle'. Is it wrong to feel so excited by the prospect?

Friday 27 December 2013

A peachy beach and a walk with a cat

Today, the weather has taken another turn for the worse. Gale force winds and driving rain battered the cottage during the night, but at least we have fared better than those poor unfortunate souls further south, who have had to contend with flooding, travel disruption and lack of electricity. The only evidence of an ingress of moisture here being a damp curtain resulting from the rain wicking through the hole where the phone cable enters the building. Possibly not what BT had in mind when they quoted the data rate for broadband?

Yesterday, however, was a peach of a day. Sunny, dry and with the wind reduced to below gale force. To make the most of this, Our Lass and I ventured out mid-morning, to explore a part of South Ronaldsay that we had not visited previously.

By the time we parked at the Sand of Wright, overlooking Widewall Bay, the tide was just on the turn and beginning to flow once more. We walked across the narrow isthmus towards the Dam of Hoxa, marvelling at the lichen growing on a sheltered stone wall beside the path.

Photo courtesy of Our Lass
Lichen in the sun, a species of Ramalina
Which reminds me, I must have a shave
Returning to the southern shore, we wandered along the beach to the rockpools of Roeberry Taing, intrigued by the beachcombers who appeared to be gathering driftwood for fuel. Well, there's precious few trees on Orkney, so I guess it makes sense to use whatever combustible material is available.

Sand of Wright and She-who-is-always-right
We then drove up onto Hoxa Head, parking by the tea room (Disaster! Not open until mid February) and circumnavigated the peninsula, exploring some of the many structures dating from the two World Wars. These consisted of gun emplacements and their associated infrastructure, which formed part of the defences at the southern entrance to Scapa Flow, the safe anchorage for the British fleet during the first half of the 20th Century.

Observation towers of the Balfour Battery. Photo courtesy of Our Lass
At Scarf Skerry, as we passed the navigation beacon of Hoxa Head Lighthouse, the MV Pentalina sailed out of St Margaret's Hope, on her way to Gills Bay on the Scottish mainland. This catamaran vehicle ferry only takes an hour to cross the fast flowing waters of the Pentland Firth and, as we're not great sailors, is our preferred option for such voyages.

MV Pentalina. Photo courtesy of Our Lass
Hoxa Head Lighthouse
Once the Pentalina was clear of the Flow, a small tanker made its way into the anchorage through the Sound of Hoxa, presumably prior to visiting the facilities of the oil terminal on the island of Flotta. There is currently much controversy as regards the environmental impact of ships de-ballasting in these waters. A balance is still being sought between creating revenue for the local economy and protecting the native marine habitat.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

More sand than Santa

Merry Christmas, folks!

Following an overnight storm, Christmas morning was greeted with a wind that had lessened to a mere and more normal 35mph (31 knots). After a leisurely breakfast, Our Lass and I decided to hit the beach, though in all fairness, it was more a case of the beach hitting us!

We drove the short distance to Glimps Holm, a small, uninhabited island connected to its neighbours by Churchill Barriers 2 and 3. Parking by Barrier 2, we watched the waves driven in by the North Sea, breaking on the block ships that were some of the Scapa Flow defences before the building of the barriers.

Mast of block ship just visible left of centre
At this point, we set off along the eastern shore of the island, into the wind which now contained a goodly helping of rain and hail. Our Lass thought it would be a good idea to indulge in a Christmas selfie.

Mr and Mrs Selfie
Undeterred, we pressed on and were rewarded with a brief dry spell, where we were able to enjoy the views across to Barrier 3.

In the absence of any precipitation, the strong wind whipped up sand particles instead, so that the beach ahead of us took on a fuzzy, blurred appearance. Where small stones were laid on the beach, strange mini-dune sand sculptures appeared downwind - not easy to capture on a phone and definitely not a place for sensitive optics.

When we felt that we had experienced sufficient face lashing for a Christmas morning, we headed back to the cottage, just in time to capture some more scenic weather.

Rainbow in Scapa Flow, sun on Glimps Holm

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Christmas Eve lunacy

Yesterday, a dear cousin asked me what sort of camera I used for my blog photos.

It brought me up sharply, as with the exception of last week's shot of the Ivory Gull at Evie, since our holiday in Somerset way back in early September, I have only been using the camera on my phone.

Len and Very Wrong Len have been conspicuous by their absence, which I will put down to me being too wrapped up in the whole downsizing and lifestyle-changing malarkey to worry about searching out and composing photographs.

To be honest, even when I am in the mood, 'composing' isn't exactly the description of my modus operandi!

This morning, however, as I sat at breakfast, the view to the west caught my attention. It was just before sunrise, a waning gibbous moon hung in the sky like a festive bauble and a garland of pink cloud swathed the horizon (hey, there's few trees up here, where else would you put your Christmas decorations?).

So, for the first time in ages, it felt appropriate to use a proper camera. After an amount of frantic scrabbling about under the stairs, I located my optics bag and hastily attached Len, the better to capture the wider scene.

It then occurred to me that, despite the gale howling around the courtyard, it might be possible to use Very Wrong Len to take a photograph of the moon. I have tried this before, at night, and just not got the hang of it, so I hoped that with more background light, it would improve my chances of success.

As the storms that have affected parts of the southern UK head towards northern Scotland, I wish you a Merry and, above all, Safe Christmas!

Monday 23 December 2013

Garden list

For the previous eight years, Our Lass and I have religiously completed a survey over the Winter months (November - March), detailing the birds that fed in our garden at Tense Towers. This is organised by the North Bucks branch of the RSPB, which covers the Milton Keynes area, and produces data that, year on year, illuminates statistical trends of the avian visitors to the gardens of its members. Citizen science at its most grass roots level - well, as we didn't have to leave the house, perhaps that should be 'carpet pile' level.

Here's a few examples of the I&T posts that have been generated from the project:

For 2013-14, for us, it was pointless beginning the survey, as Our Lass headed northwards almost as soon as the survey period commenced. I was too wrapped up in the house move to pay much attention to it and, besides, we had reduced feeding since the Spring to slowly wean our feathered friends off their reliance on free handouts.

Obviously, the move 600 miles north has brought one or two changes.

For these first two weeks, at the cottage we're renting on Burray, there have been very few actual garden visitors. All we have seen so far are a couple of Blackbirds, a small flock of Starlings, a Robin, a Wren and two House Sparrows. No other thrushes or finches, no tits, no woodpeckers, and definitely no pigeons.

I am wondering if it is possible to leave food out for these hardy souls, but I suspect that I would have to nail down each morsel, lest the fierce winds remove them to all points of the compass.

However, the birds seen from the garden... well, that is a very different story. The freshwater lochan and the closest bay of Scapa Flow hold plenty of wildfowl. The fields between the cottage and the shore also attract plenty of bird life.

After living in an inland city for 23 years, this has caused much excitement and a fair amount of loitering near the kitchen window, often from a little after daybreak...

Our Lass, on duty since breakfast...
The roll call includes Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Eider, Great Northern Diver, Little Grebe, Wigeon, Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank, Greylag Goose, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Hooded Crow, Raven, Common Gull, Black-headed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull and Hen Harrier.

At some point, I will try to deploy Very Wrong Len.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Saturday 21 December 2013


The county of Orkney, in which Our Lass and I now find ourselves, contains much archaeology, a significant proportion of it being from Neolithic times.

One of the more famous sites is Maeshowe, a chambered tomb and part of Orkney's UNESCO World Heritage landscape.

At this time of year, on the shortest day, like various neolithic structures, Maeshowe exhibits an alignment with the setting sun. As well as marvelling at the 5000 year old ingenuity of our ancestors, we can also share their joy in our present, in that we, too, can welcome the lengthening days on the journey to Summer.

In the annual cycle of the year, within this wheel of life, death and rebirth, the Winter solstice is known by many names. In this part of the world, with its Norse heritage, it is Yule.

Wherever you are, whatever your solsticial festival, have a happy day.

Thursday 19 December 2013

A tide in the affairs of me...

There I was, stood at the kitchen sink this morning, washing the breakfast things and absent-mindedly gazing at the loch and the bay, when a thought struck me.

"The tide's in."

Now we've been living in this cottage for over a week, so it's fair to assume that the tide has been in and out quite a few times during that period, in its cyclical Hokey Kokey way. But today was the first occasion when I actively registered the fact.

Picking up my bins, I scanned as much of the bay shore as was visible from my vantage point, to confirm that the view went directly from waves to grass. No rocks, no seaweed, no flotsam, no doubt that this was a very high tide.

Sorry, but I don't think I will become bored with this view...
Waders were visible in the field below the cottage, quite a large mixed flock of Curlew and Lapwing, plus the odd Redshank appearing now and again out over the bay. In a sheltered corner of the loch, out of the strong wind, a couple of Little Grebe were busy feeding. Suddenly, lots of gulls flew up from the the bit of shore hidden from view by the ayre. Scanning through this flock, one bird seemed much greyer than the others. In fact, it wasn't a gull, but it was probably the reason that all the gulls were in the air. It was a male Hen Harrier. As sea birds flew right, left and centre, it gracefully glided towards the cottage, impervious to the calls of the gulls and the fierce Orkney blast. I watched, mesmerised, as it drifted passed the window and out of sight.

Once I had emerged from the reverie, another thought struck me. Hmmm, I need to be in Kirkwall soon, to post the last of the Christmas parcels before it's too late. And if it's a very high tide, that might be interesting.

Fortunately, the Churchill Barriers between Burray, Glimps Holm, Lamb Holm and Mainland were open to traffic and not too wave-lashed. So I relaxed a bit when I reached Mainland, and was promptly deluged by spray as I drove into St Marys. Half the main road was under water, as was the pier, a salient reminder that wind direction also has a part to play in tidal forces.

Fortuitously, there wasn't a queue in the post office, so Operation Santa went very smoothly and quickly into Operation Tea-and-cake at the internet cafe. That's my kind of mission. I texted Our Lass to see if she wanted to meet up for lunch, but she was otherwise engaged in some Christmas festivities with her work colleagues. So I decided to lapse into tourist mode and drove over to Stenness to visit the Ring of Brodgar.

Part of me thinks that it looks better at midwinter than it does at midsummer, though it was bloomin' freezing trying to hold my phone still in the howling gale, whilst I took the shot. Though it's not as if I'm exactly having to suffer for my art.

Playing away from home

It's not what you think.

No, really, it's not.

At the moment, I'm sat in the computer room of Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall. That's the Orkney Library and Archive which is big on Twitter, Facebook and Blogger.

They've won awards and everything, y'know.

Presumably for stuff like this.

And they're possibly the coolest repository of books and humour in the known universe.

Anyways, here I am, waiting for my car to undergo its MOT, so why not saunter over to the library to wile away the time? And bang out a quick one in the computer room? Well why not, eh? From the feverish sounds of keyboards being thumped all around me, I may well have the lightest touch in here at the moment.

Whilst packing up all our goods and chattels in MK (well, I assume they were chattels, I wasn't even sure which way up they should go), it struck me that we have way too many books (yeah, right, like that's possible!), but you know what I mean.

So it's been something of a revelation, since journeying to Orkney, to re-discover the concept of a public library. Liken it to the conversion of St Tense on the road to Deerness. The library takes on the onerous burden of storing all the books and I am allowed (well, not just me, obviously) to borrow them from time to time. Amazing plan! How could I forget such a whizzo scheme?


So this particular post is my homage to Orkney Library and Archive, for all the happy memories it has created over the years, when I wasn't living on Orkney, but wished I was.

And I'm not even going to mention how awestruck I was to actually visit the place for the first time last week (this is the trouble with holidaying on peedie, remote islands - Kirkwall just didn't appear on the itinerary).

So now you have to promise me that you won't mention any of this to my laptop. Playing away from home? There's just some lines you don't cross.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Settling in

Settling in... to some spectacular wildlife.

Yesterday morning, after a tip off on Radio Orkney's Facebook page, we travelled across to Mainland and up the coast to Evie. Sadly, a dead Sperm Whale had been washed up on the shore. But the carcase had attracted a very special visitor.

A dead Sperm Whale, washed up on the coast at Evie
This was an Ivory Gull. A species which, we were informed, has not been seen in Orkney since 1949. Unfortunately, though we managed to find it roosting in the littoral zone, we did not see it feeding on the whale.

Ivory Gull
Settling in... to the local area around the cottage.

This morning, Our Lass and I had a pleasant wander around the western part of Burray. The low Winter sun was shining, and the wind was blowing a gale, but at least it wasn't raining.

View across Hunda and Scapa Flow towards Orphir (R) and Hoy (L)

Burray village and harbour, with Churchill Barrier number 4 in the background

Settling in... to Christmas at the cottage.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Journey to a land beyond the north wind

Hello from Orkney! 

The last few weeks have been a bit of a blur to be honest, but let's have a recap.

Our Lass headed northwards in early November to take up her new post on Mainland, the largest of the Orcadian archipelago. Yours Truly remained behind in Milton Keynes to look after the arrangements for the house sale and move.

After a few last minute hiccups and traumas, a little over a week and half ago, I said my final goodbye to Tense Towers, a fond farewell to a building that has provided some magical natural history moments over the eleven years we have lived there. Having locked the front door for the last time and driven to the end of the street, I found that I had to retrace my steps for one more photo.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...

the first...

the original...

the classic incarnation of...

Tense Towers!

See? No turrets

Earlier in the day

With the weather set to deteriorate all across my planned route from MK to Orkney (about 600 miles as the crow flies), I set off with a little trepidation and plenty of last minute packing crammed into our car.

My first pit stop was an overnight in Manchester, courtesy of First Born and her beau. With some business to attend to in the city the next morning, I was able to sit out the worst of the storm force winds, before heading northwards once more, to spend the night with family near Dunfermline in Scotland.

The following morning, I set off early on the full day's drive to the ferry port at Gill's Bay, on the north coast of Caithness.

Dawn over Fife
En route through the Cairngorms
As the sun set, and darkness fell, I finally reached the port and nervously waited for the ferry. I shouldn't have worried, the hour's crossing of the Pentland Firth was as smooth as smooth could be. So my huge thanks to the Pentalina and her crew.

Arriving at St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay, I experienced Orkney as I had never seen it before. In total darkness. All our holidays have been in late Spring and early Summer, when darkness is a very rare commodity. After crossing the Churchill Barriers, the causeways that link South Ron with Mainland, I eventually crested the rise that revealed a street lit vista of Kirkwall, city and Royal Burgh, capital of Orkney.

It was fantastic to be reunited with Our Lass, for these four weeks had been the longest we had been apart in more than 24 years.

And now a different life beckoned. A fresh start. A new day.

Kirkwall dawn
Whilst we are house hunting for a new home, Our Lass has found us temporary lodgings in a small stone cottage. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in location.

View from the cottage garden
By the shore of Scapa Flow, alongside a fresh water lochan and nestled above an ayre.

A new chapter of our lives begins here...

Monday 9 December 2013


Dear Reader and/or Faithful Follower,

This is just a quick update to let you know that I did indeed arrive on Orkney as planned, despite the atrocious weather encountered en route.

It's a long story and even longer in the telling, as they say.

As you can imagine, things are a bit hectic at the moment, as we endeavour to adjust our life style to sync seamlessly with the Orcadian modus operandi.

It's safe to say that Orkney is living up to expectations (must be all those episodes of Northern Exposure on dvd), as yesterday we ventured to a hardware shop to browse the shelves and, having selected a suitable purchase, I was served by a nun.

It should've been obvious from the Julie Andrews numbers belting out of the speakers that they were holding a promotional event for The Sound of Music and the staff were in costume.

It made I chuckle and no mistake.

There will likely be a significant gap until my next post, but in the meantime, please peruse this other update and comment as you see fit.


Wednesday 4 December 2013

Channelling 101 Dalmations and Scooby Doo.

And there was me thinking I could steal away quietly...

... nope.

I would've gotten away with it too, if it hadn't have been for those pesky... jolly nice folk at FoHESC. 

Monday 2 December 2013

A weekend of packing and an odd last day at work

For the last weekend of habitation in Tense Towers and MK, it was all hands to the pumps boxes, as First and Second Born helped their dear old dad to shoehorn too much life into too small a space.

The girls were terrific, little whirlwinds of energy, scattering cardboard, bubble wrap, tissue paper and packing tape to all points of the compass, as the kitchen and lounge disappeared into their temporary cubes of accommodation.

All cartons were labelled with an initial letter for the room, followed by a number for the cumulative total of boxes for that room. So when we arrived at Box 9 for the kitchen...

Well, it had to be done.

Today (Monday) was my last day at work in England. 

I arrived at the office to find my desk emblazoned with Good Luck banners and balloons, plus a seriously chocolatey chocolate cake. Many Thanks to Gem and Sam! The pentangles were a nice touch, I thought. 

A morning spent tying up loose ends and handing over tasks morphed into a meeting for the whole firm in the boardroom. After 14 years with the same company, there's always going to be plenty of ammunition for the farewell slideshow, with the added bonus of knowing that I had provided most of it anyway, during various daft stunts and morale-boosting schemes..

I wasn't disappointed!

Much research had uncovered several photos taken during a Red Nose Day with my previous employer, pre-2000. We take our ritual humiliation seriously, y'know! So my colleagues were treated to the sight of me wearing Our Lass's midwifery dress, red stockings and suspenders, plus army boots. Classy.

 Actually, quite classy compared to the next slide, which showed me in 2006, stripped down to only a climbing harness in a fetching yellow and blue, plus the obligatory boots, with a carefully-positioned mountaineering helmet to protect what little was left of my dignity.

One day, perhaps, these will see the light of day on Imperfect and Tense. For a large contribution to a charity of my choice!

My next blogpost is likely to be from Orkney, should I survive the snowstorm forecast for the day of my arrival.

Er... I'm going out now, I may be some time.