Chasing Pasties and Pubs in Looe

During an Easter break in 2015, we arrived at a Victorian cottage called Sunnybank, positioned high above the village of Looe, upon a hilly road. It was in the late hours of  night when we reached it and yet we were stumped by the quaint prettiness of the village strung together by festive fairy lights, the sound of the sea in the backdrop crashing against the rocks and emphasising upon the solitude of our cottage. In the morning, we found the windows of the living room opening out to views of the sea one side, and on the other, rows of cottages clinging to the sides of cliffs in a higgledy-piggledy manner. The river Looe split the town into East Looe and West Looe, and while it remained dry for the best part of the day, tidal waters would stream in through an inlet and the boats would start bobbing prettily. On the harbour stood the bronze sculpture of a one-eyed seal called Nelson who had adopted it as home for about 25 years. Here Nelson had lived a full life, entertaining locals with his antics and sunning himself upon the rocks, till he died in 2003.

In the village of Nelson the seal, we were in the more bustling quarter of East Looe. Everyday we would trudge up a steep road to our cottage from the network of streets below  — where pubs such as Smugglers Cote and Ye Olde Jolly Sailor livened up things with stories of smuggling and privateering. While sitting at the Smugglers’ Cote one morning, we heard about an old tunnel that was discovered there, which lead all the way to the fishing quay.

A story goes that the landlady of Ye Olde Jolly Sailor hid a contraband keg beneath her petticoats during a sudden raid and knitted away with poise as her quarters were searched. Almost 20 per cent of the government’s excise duty was lost through smuggling and yet the Cornish smuggled away with impunity for the simple reason that they knew that the excise men from London were five days away by stagecoach from Cornwall.

There are no smugglers today though – just shark anglers, who operate on a policy of catching and releasing the shark, and avid crabbers. We did not catch shark angling, but we did notice little girls and their fathers crabbing away at the river while we hunted for ice creams and cakes.

To make the stomach rumble, because that is what holidays are meant for, we had a host of pasty shops to choose from. Bacon, cheese and leek; potato and leek; onion and pickle; steak and stilton… Life is pasty-some in Looe. You could lunch like a miner and feel rum about it. There are a smattering of creperies, Thai restaurants, cafés and bakeries too if you overdo the pasty aspect of the holiday. The idea for us was to eat our way through town and if we felt the need for more (which I always do), there was a bookshop up a hill where the books were beautiful, their pages yellowed by time, and the wonderful welcome smell of nostalgia hitting the right notes as you entered the shop. It was a treasure house of tomes — that old shop. The lady who sat at the till always had time for a natter, sharing notes on out-of-the-way authors like Anne Radcliffe who could infuse her tales with the supernatural effortlessly…why Radcliffe you might ask, because she is not quite popular, is she? Jane Austen poked fun at the tenor of Radcliffe’s Gothic novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’, if you remember. But the lady of the shop had written books on Radcliffe, as it turned out, and I was not about to pull an Austen on her. Plus I had found myself engaged by Radcliffe’s brand of electrifying novels which are difficult to lay aside even for a second.

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River Looe
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East and West Looe on either side of the river
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The cottage that was ours that Easter

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Crabbing
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Nelson, the one-eyed seal

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Pub fish pie 

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For you, Jen

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Pasty tasting
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The only one who had a good swim in the icy waters of the sea

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After days of mooching around the narrow alleys of Looe, exploring the other nearby villages of Polperro, Mevagissey and Fowey, solving puzzles lying around at Sunnybank, on our last night in Looe, we spent time on the sandy stretch of beach beneath a sky riddled with stars. Here smugglers would have unloaded their contraband goods decades ago. Off its coast stood the dark outline of Looe Island where goods used to be discreetly dumped too. I could picture it. The silhouette of a ship as it pulled in with 400-500 men on board – but mooring a little away from the shore. Then smaller boats would have been sent out to the beach with booties of brandy, rum and gin, men scurrying nimbly to get their goods under the cover of the night. And to the fervent mind came Rudyard Kipling’s ‘A Smuggler’s Song’

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,

Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,

Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.

Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

To Daphne’s Fowey

The Cornish landscape in my mind is branded with swashbuckling smugglers, hidden coves, stormy seas and vast swathes of moors, ever since I got sucked into the vortex of Daphne du Maurier’s world. How tales of smuggling fill the imagination with romantic connotations.

Time has a habit of standing still in England’s south western county of Cornwall. The towns and villages retain a vibe of simplicity. This is how it must have been in the old days, you think, as you hear stories of fishing and smuggling that go hand in hand with the narrow, cobbled lanes of these hilly outposts of the Cornish southeast quarter.

Yet the picture was bleak during the 18th century when an economic crisis had Britain in its grips because it was fighting the American War of Independence, and in the scheme of things, taxes were at an all-time high in the country. Quality salt, key to preserving pilchards in the fishing communities of Cornwall, and which was imported from Brittany and Spain was taxed heavily. Three hundred miles from Westminster, the scene was ripe for smuggling. It turned into a way of life for an entire community — vicars and teachers included.

A sparkling summer’s day of ice cream, coffee and a soul-satisfying breakfast in a café in Fowey was the perfect foil to my daydreams on a bank holiday weekend in 2015. Adi and I were on a four-day break with friends in the traditional fishing town of Looe near Fowey, putting up in a Victorian cottage, which is matter for another post.

Fowey itself is a picture painted with coves, old-fashioned country cottages trailing up and down steep roads, country churches and smart boutiques where prices make the eyebrows touch the scalp. We trawled the length and breadth of it, mooching around bookshops, (me) sighing over pretty ornaments in shops and Adi conveniently turning a deaf ear to those sighs. Nearby is the picturesque Readymoney Cove above which sits a former coach house. Daphne had sought refuge there during WWII to sort out her messed up life. You see, her husband was away at war setting up the country’s first airborne division, while she was taken in by a couple in Hertfordshire. But the fly in the ointment was Daphne herself. She was caught in an embrace with the husband of her hostess. Stories of unbearable loneliness, turbulent emotions, heartache…

Later after we had explored its nook and corners, we sat by the harbour. The waters hypnotised us under the mellow rays of the afternoon sun. Dangling my legs from the brick walls of the old harbour, I watched the machinations of ancient Fowey – bold gulls swooping across the estuary while wailing above our heads – as pretty coloured boats chugged in. And I thought of the young Daphne whose whitewashed cottage stood across the river. The 19-year-old who had noted fervently in her diary: ‘All I want is to be at Fowey. Nothing and no one else.’

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The pretty turquoise roofs and spires of Truro on the way to Fowey
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Curious residents of villages around Truro
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Fowey Parish Church
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To Readymoney Cove 
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The harbour

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Daphne’s cottage across the estuary. The one with the bright blue door.

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Northampton in Fragments

The lingering smell of must has to be one of the most ghastly smells out there. I could make a list of the ones that get my goat but here’s one that aces the list. Since morning I have been trying to rid my hands of the must from a malodorous dish scrubber – with generous dabs of lavender soap and cream – yet the whiff of it. As Italians sum up such emotional situations in two voluble words, mamma mia… enough of my diatribes, I should get on with collecting my thoughts and putting them down here before the must of time takes over them.

Like that cold and grey day in early 2013 when we stepped into the fresh market square of Northampton. The prelude to it was a warning from Adi: ‘Northampton does not have much going for it’. Now the joy of my life has a tendency to undersell places. When I went to Lincoln with him, he had warned me similarly. That there was nothing much to it till I chanced upon the cathedral city that can live only in a quaint English dream. The crux of it is that busy as he gets with work, he leaves it to me to be his eyes and ears until he finds time to double up as my fellow explorer.

The wind was whistling in our ears when we saw the rows of stalls in the ancient market square of Northampton with their stripy red and white awnings selling fresh vegetables, aromatic coffee beans, books, antique somethings, sizzling reindeer meat, hot dogs and burgers all coming together to add the perfect sensory touch to that day when we were shivering under the onslaught of an icy wind, the lingering aromas of meat frying luring us for a bite. The butcher on his podium hawked slabs of meat over the microphone.

The beauty of the old square lay in the traditional way of tending to business. The grocers engaging you in banter, my favourite of the lot being the bespectacled grocer with his shock of white hair and hair sprouting out of his ears, going about his job with plain ol’ vocal cords at his disposal, no microphone needed there. ‘Strawberries for 2 pounds, come ladies and gents, come one, come all’… stuff like that. The boom of it reached your ears across the far end of the square. During the course of our many conversations in the future it would turn out that he was a travelling hawker who put up in Travelodge hotels around the various counties. I had never met a travelling grocer before.

Then there was the woman rustling up spicy noodles in a food truck by the square – who eventually became a friend, announcing with pride to her customers – that why ‘here is my writer friend’; the white-haired man with the stoop, one of the noodle guzzlers, executing the funkiest jigs you have seen and appropriately dubbed ‘Dancing Joe’; clumps of teenage boys and girls dressed in Goth make-up, funky hair dos in place and wearing ominously long leather coats, kings and queens of darkness perchance in their own heads; the 18th century Shipman’s Pub in The Drapery famed for its in-house poltergeist; bunches of men holding their pints, spilling out of The Auctioneer pub in the market square. And capping the bustle of it, the small turquoise dome of All Saints’ Church at one end of town.

Northampton on that day was engaging.

I remember turning to Adi and exclaiming, ‘Whatever did you mean?!’ Anyway, we scouted a few beautiful houses and started putting together home in a condominium about five minutes’ walk away from the town centre – the central delight of it was that we could see the spires of four churches from our cosy living room. The one right in front was the spire of the round church, one of the few left in England and a legacy of the first earl of Northampton after he had returned from his crusades in the 1100s. Where I wandered around in the cemetery one evening, a disgruntled Adi in tow because he does not get my fascination for reading epitaphs and found a particular commemoration that made me go misty-eyed.

‘..et a little while and all shall be fu…

And then we shall meet our beloved who is gone before.’

There I became a recluse, learnt to find bliss in my own company and my lover’s, and yet made some unlikely friends. The concierge who sat at the entrance to our building who prompted me to take Adi for a run too because he liked pumping iron himself, the guys at Costa Coffee who along with coffee handed out words of kindness for my changing hair styles (in those days I was experimenting with a pixie look with gusto), the golf shop owner near the park where I jogged and who executed a little salute as I ran past his shop, the joggers with whom I shared the perimeter of the park’s soothing green stretch, irrespective of the season. Soon we had a group of friends with whom we partied in Wetherspoon every weekend almost for a year till we were wrung out of energy and the band gradually dispersed. But oh what stories came out of those nights – the kinds that would make my mother do double flips. If one can execute those out of alarm.

So many memories couched in the town of cobblers. Where I came upon the famed shoe makers and their old factories quite late into our stay. In fact, the first time we set eyes upon the fine leather shoes of Northampton was in the Swedish city of Malmö where we both fell in hopeless love with their expert craftsmanship. It was hopeless because we did not buy them. The price had to match the skill that reflected off the leather pairs – they started somewhere above £800. Yet there it was. A piece of home in Sweden.

And here we are miles and miles across the Atlantic, trying not to be overwhelmed by the preoccupation of fitting in. Not letting the memories of Northampton go because how can you and why should you let go of home, your first home together, quite so easily. It is a cacophony of emotions, you realise, that descend upon you when you travel. As one of the best writer-bloggers I know, Osyth puts it, ‘the world is a double-edged sword for those of us that travel it a little or a lottle’.

As I carry on with the business of life, moulding myself to this environment that slowly grows upon me, I leave you with a few (sometimes grainy) images of Northampton which holds my heart in its clutches.

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In silhouette: The cupola of All Saints’
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The haunted pub which has shut down now. It used to be a place of frantic poultergeist activity. One of its owners/managers, Harry Franklin, about a hundred years ago had slit his own throat and bled to death. Poor Harry was discovered after a week. His spirit was said to have chucked pints off the counter. We did not meet Harry. Adi did a Scooby Doo on me.

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The Racecourse
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Nights out with the crazy gang in Wetherspoon 
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Primping up for New Year’s Eve
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The Victorian poorhouse that stood encased in an ivied, abandoned quietness across us.
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Catching clouds from our window
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The round church from our window
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The round church of Simon de Senlis
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The market square
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Sights from the Northampton Music Festival
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Reflections of the Guildhall
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All Saints’ Church on an evening when hot air balloons speckled the sky
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Intricately carved cupola and All Saints’ 
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The Wig & Pen, the other haunted pub in town
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When fairs came to town and left us giddy
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Halloween parties
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…and birthdays
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The Brutalist piece of architecture that was eventually demolished with great fanfare: you can see just the blue roof of it, the old Greyfriars Station. There cannot have been a more depressing bus station as this.
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The day it was brought down billowing clouds of dust hung heavy above town.
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Chinese New Year

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The old man with the flowery hat roamed around with his shopping trolley, quoting Hamlet.
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Spring days looked thus
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Pimms and English summers
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Abington Park
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Coveted buys at old book shops 
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Conversations with shaggy residents of pastures by the Nene
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By the River Nene
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When the world turned white outside
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I found bliss in baking chocolate walnut cakes…
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…rosemary foccaccia
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pecan pies
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…and boozy Christmas cakes

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I have missed out many memories and places and people, and yet there it is, years of our life fitted into a long drawn-out post, as if tucked into one scrapbook for life.

These Autumnal Days of Sudden Beauty

It has been a warm September. Every time that I walked to the nearest stores, which are admittedly 10 blocks away, I felt my pores opening up to the heat, trickles of perspiration coursing down the back. But yesterday, unexpectedly, there was a nip in the air. A beautiful evening had finally arrived. All I could do was bask in its breezy charm, let the breeze ruffle my hair and alongside rush through the rows of trees towering over me as it spoke to my senses in some strange tongue. Psithurism. Sonic and haunting. If there is heaven, it is to be found in the music of nature. In the gushing of that brook, in the breeze that ripples through canopies, in the ebb and tide of the waves…

Houses flanking the blocks with tamed and untamed patches of gardens, the ones matted with tangled ivy catching the eye because there is a certain something about wild overgrown beauty. The occupants of many house fronts: pointy-hatted witches, ghouls and skeletal figures swaying behind fences, a few macabre grins, autumnal wreaths in hues of gold, orange and russet upon doors, porches with autumnal leaves twirled around the balustrades. My kind of porch, I thought.

And then just like that, as I was strolling past an old rundown bakery, peering into windows scrawled with ‘try our cheese and nutella twists’, the feeling clamped down upon me. An intense wave of longing for the autumnal embrace of Northampton. The Racecourse, that sprawling park (you see it in all the shots) where I gathered leaves by the dozen every autumn, watched the seasons change in slow motion, where the trees were my beloved friends, where around this time the fallen leaves gather on the jogging path and trip merrily in the wind like children gone wild on a picnic, where the blustery wind threatens to rip the ponytail off your head as you run the length of its winding paths.

Below are the changes of season in The Racecourse which sprawls sublimely over 118 acres. How the scenes of life play out differently now from what it did centuries ago when cattle grazed upon its green vastness — a bucolic thought given that during the mid-1700s and 1800s it was the chosen spot for public executions. Convicts were brought over to the heath – that is now the park – in carts after they were allowed a last drink at the Bantam Cock pub a few miles off in Abington. In time, the gallows made way for recreational race meets before they were brought to a halt in 1904 after a fatal accident. Its final avataar was that of an army base and barracks during the two world wars before it was transformed into a refuge for pleasure seekers.

You would think that were might be dark memories clinging to the leaves. Yet it does not feel like the kind of place that holds onto disturbing memories. It is the stomping grounds of little girls and boys training in football, families armed with blankets and picnic baskets during summer, teenagers roller skating with abandon, school boys and girls romancing each other under the boughs of those trees, big and small dogs sizing each other up as they patter around with great solemnity, and the ubiquitous cyclists and runners. On the 5th of November, every year, when the Yeomen of the Guard search the Houses of Parliament in London ceremonially for whiffs of gunpowder-laden plots, in Northampton Guy Fawkes night is the occasion for a great bonfire on the green, hot drinks for shivering enthusiastic residents and fireworks beneath a star-laden sky.

There is a dragon too who lies half asleep at one end of the park as if in wait that someone should say those magic words, ‘Dra…’. Shush. Meanwhile if you keep running down the straight path, at the other edge of the park is a disused tram shelter and The White Elephant. From across the road, this pub taunts the hapless jogger with the wondrously warm smell of pizzas baking away in its wood-fired ovens. Now seasons may come and seasons may go, my friend, but that remains a given on Friday nights throughout the year.

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The Sleat

Skuyö. A word that the Vikings bequeathed upon Skye as the ‘isle of clouds’. Wreathed in mist. Mystical. The Vikings must have been enchanted by it, you would think, when they invaded it towards the end of the 8th century.

On that isle of black and red Munros, jagged and gentle in parts, rising out of the land itself, an ancient land mired in bog and peat where purple heather thrives and turquoise fairy pools abound, the mist moves in fast. Even as you are exposed to the relentlessness of nature, under leaden skies when mist wraps itself around the peaks and hovers above the lochs, it is easy to be whisked into the kind of land that rests between the foxed pages of dusty tomes.

But the day on which we set off for the peninsula of Sleat (pronounced Slate), the sun was the willing fifth to our party of four. Serpentine A-roads skirted around lochs, the Munros dipped their feet into the waters, salmon farms with circular pens showed up alongside, then suddenly a grinding halt. A two-hour traffic jam, sandwiched between rows of cars, caravans and motorhomes.

Time for some banter with strangers. Nothing alleviates a dull situation better than a smidgen of humour. One of the friends demanded a wee, desperately. Desperate measures in this case meant rolling down into the loch, climbing the grassy slope by the road, or asking the owner of a motorhome to allow a stranger into his loo. There was really but one option if you think of it.

Eventually we were diverted. There had been a fatal accident earlier that morning. A motorcyclist had died. Reminders issued by life, of our mortality, from time to time.

‘His loss is our gain,’ observed one of our group. A chance remark referring to the longer and more scenic drive which we had embarked upon as a result of the diversion. Yet there it was. A remark that did weigh me down. Blinders in place, this is how we humans make our way towards happiness with single-minded determination – so focused that we cannot take a moment to feel the loss of a life.

By the time we reached the Sound of Sleat that flows between the isle and the mainland of Scotland, all Adi wanted was some shut-eye. It can get intensely tiring to chart those narrow roads when you are assisted by three ebullient co-passengers. He took us to the Armadale Castle, the erstwhile country home of the MacDonald clan, where he decided to sleep and get rid of us at the same time (calling it a bonus of sorts). We pottered around the castle.

I walked through a small portion of the 20,000-acre estate, exploring trails which lead into sun-dappled woods that are home to deer and skylarks and gannets and sea eagles. It was silent. Occasionally the chittering of birds yet the kind of silence where you can hear yourself think.

Sleat is the metaphorical lower claw of the isle radiating into the Sea of Hebrides and across the Sound you can see the peninsula of Knoydart on the mainland. There I stood outside the crumbling mock-style castle facade gazing upon the blue waters of the Sound, the hills rambling off unevenly across the horizon. The castle traces its history back to the 1790s when it was built yet it was abandoned by the clan later on. I wonder why. Makes the mind go places. I spent that early evening mooching around the estate on my own letting the mind travel as I came upon a part in its lush garden that made the heart thrill. A belt of daffodils. Sunny, yellow heads nodding away in the breeze that at once made me less forlorn.

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Salmon farms 
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Where travellers take time off to stare at the waters and reflect upon the vagaries of life.
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Crofts
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Lochs and the Cuillin

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The poetry of the Red Cuillin
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Dear Met Office, take that.

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Explorers
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Wild straggly beauty
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The crofting life
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The Sleat
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The Sound of Sleat
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Armadale Castle
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View from the castle of the Sound and Knoydart on the mainland
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The woods behind the castle

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Birches and more birches tower above you

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Trotting Around Trotternish

In Kilmuir, a tranquil village on the Trotternish peninsula where they speak the Scottish Gaelic tongue of their ancestors, we came across a strange sight. A prodigious Highland cow on a pasture staring at the sea. Add a single horn to that profile and we were in the exalted company of a one-horned meditating creature. I walked closer, yet keeping her at arm’s length, since startling cows and earning sharp pokes in the ribs was not on my list of things to do on Skye. The good news is that the Highland cattle do prefer to save their horns for more useful things like foraging during harsh winters than goring meddling humans.

As she turned her head towards me and watched me with bovine curiosity through a sheath of feminine fringe , I realised that I had besmirched her beauty. There was a second horn. It shot straight down, past her ears, hugging those bonny cheeks. Of course there was a customary one-sided conversation (what am I without those?) after which she decided she had had enough of this odd human. Swaying her sizable hips in slow motion, she turned her back to me and plodded through the long grass in the direction of the sea. There are a couple of shots below of this picture of highland gentility, but if you could pardon their poor quality. In those days I was afflicted by the overt use of effects, and for the life of me, I could not fish out the original frames.

It is a given that you will meet more cows and sheep on the Isle of Skye than your own fellow creatures. And you know what, I was content with that. No intelligent questions to deal with, no curiosities to fend off, nil judgement…it is easy to bask in the company of the four-legged beauties of this world. In the backdrop, the blue stretch of the Sea of the Hebrides, in the foreground a whitewashed cottage or two and a couple more stone cottages with thatched roofs on open grasslands.

There’s a cluster of stone cottages on Kilmuir for the history buff. The Museum of Island Life. An old croft, barn, smithy and weaver’s cottage. Inside they have recreated the picture of how a highlander and his family would have lived in the old days. When there was no electricity – even now on one of those islands on the Outer Hebrides they do not have electricity, if you will believe that – when life was hedged in by the simple chores of existence.

In his typically single-room home, after a long day of eking out a hard living, the highlander would have sat around a cosy peat fire with his family, reading well-thumbed copies of Gaelic bible, possibly instructing the children in the art of playing the bagpipe or the harp, the women busy sewing bed linen, cooking and performing other such household chores. Entertainment would have been cèilidh –  gatherings in Gaelic culture where storytelling, dancing and singing form an intrinsic part of merry evenings. Tankards of home-brewed ale or drams of whisky would have made the rounds. It spoke of a hardy life, one of self-sustenance, and as a traveller you might view it with dewy eyes, but how lonely life must have been and still is for the islander… the kind of loneliness that is bound to get to you unless you are born into this way of life, in which case any other way of living would surely be unbearable.

There is also buried nearby that great icon of Skye, Flora Macdonald. The rescuer of Prince Bonnie Charlie. A woman whose story inspires this woman sitting in the middle of the 21st century.

We pottered through Portree (the Pride of Portree, if you get the quidditch ref., played for this very village), which happens to be the single biggest settlement on the isle and its capital. Then onto the pride of Trotternish, a landslip. Pinnacles, cliffs, buttresses, gullies, waterfalls. An antiquated landscape that reinforces that it has been shaped by the elements for more years than the mind can grasp.

Meet Bodach an Stòrr. Scottish Gaelic for Old Man of Storr. A giant who was buried on the peninsula and his thumb stuck out. An ancient landslide that left jagged ridges sticking out like digits. Moody and mysterious even on a sunny day, stoking the imagination with possibilities. And that wonderful escarpment, the Quiraing, which looks like someone decided to unfurl a length of cloth and it froze with the folds in place. Folds that helped in the concealment of cattle from Viking raiders once. More Highland cattle nestling at the foot of the round-topped slopes of the Red Cuillin.

Beaches with prehistoric footprints of dinosaurs and towering above them vertical columns of basalt that look like they have been pleated together like a tucked kilt. So the name Kilt Rock. And streaming down it, waterfalls that free fall into the turquoise waters of the Sound of Raasay below. To add to the overall effect, a bagpiper braving the cold wind to pipe out tunes that tear through the isolation with a haunting certainty.

A rugged land of crofts, waterfalls, sleeping giants, princes, shaggy cows and whisky. Is it any wonder that fairies people this remote land where you are stuck in time?

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Kilmuir
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The Museum of Island Life
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On Kilmuir he sways to the tune of the wind in the grass
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Sepia tones
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The Outer Isles across Kilmuir
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Beinn Edra, the highest point on the Trotternish Ridge.
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Red Cuillin
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Gorse

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Dreamy noons
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The Cuillin
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Portree
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Scottish Gaelic bands in the house
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Mealt Waterfall with Kilt Rock in the backdrop.
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Erstwhile stomping grounds of dinosaurs and now that of the bagpiper and the traveller
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Curious inhabitants of the Cuillin

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Heavens, I Was Wallowing in Whisky

My former editor insisted one day that I write a story on single malt whisky. Now I have never been one for whisky, let alone pretensions of knowing one single malt from another. Plus I was young and callow. You know how youth will have its way and make you feel like you are all-knowing. I was always ready to take on any subject, learn a bit along the way, dream of new professions as a result, but this was a task I was not equal to. I did not Like whisky. There I have said it. Have my head, you there nursing the tan liquid in your glass. But an editor shall not be denied his idea and so I trudged to a few whisky bars in Delhi, letting many a dram of single malt dribble down the throat, leaving in their wake a warm burn.

I toodled back to office after the legwork and wrote a piece. Even as I drummed the words out, I knew I was delivering drivel. My editor changed every word in the copy – he knew his whisky – and I could not fathom why he could not have undertaken it in the first place. Naturally, I did not want the byline. But as a junior correspondent there is only that much you can do.

When the story saw the light of day, the CEO and owner of the newspaper – your atypical cigar-smoking, whisky-swigging media baron – called up my editor. He was aghast. Bad story about whisky! Unpardonable stuff. But here was the silver lining. My editor called me into his cabin to let me know about the gravity of the call. Involuntarily the words left my mouth, ‘But it is your story P. The idea And the words.’

Years later I was in the land of that earthy brand of single malt, Talisker, that Robert Louis Stevenson had declared ‘the king o’ drinks’.

In the boggy landscape of Carbost where myrtle grows thick and furious, the smell of peat palpable in the air, we made our way to an almost two-century-old distillery. Adi loves his single malt and would not be denied a visit to the Talisker Distillery.  So there I was, the same person who a few years ago had blanched at the taste of whisky, tasting an aged single malt and actually appreciating it. The classic 10-year-old Talisker.

If you tell me now that I was hallucinating, I might just believe you. But it tasted robust. Peppery and spicy. A few sips and I could think of it being paired with a strong meat. Not for the weak-hearted.

Maybe it was the atmosphere – the land itself had got to me. For Talisker is indelibly linked with the landscape of Skye and I was experiencing a way of life. That good ol’ London lover, who had decided for all of us that if we are tired of London we must be tired of life – yes indeed, Dr Samuel Johnson (Cuptain Cupcake shall have a cupcake ready for clever you) – had travelled to the western islands in 1773. He had made notes about the morning habit of a Scot. “A man of the Hebrides, for of the women’s diet I can give no account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whisky.” And how Johnson himself loved his dram of Talisker.

At the distillery, an islander told us stories. Of the distillery, of liquor brewed the traditional way, the peaty nature of the brew. That the dark notes of Talisker are derived from the water that flows over peat and down the summit of Cnoc nan Speireag (translated means ‘Sparrowhawk Hill’).

The warm sensation of Talisker making my toes curl, I could well believe in fairies, I will have you know. We devoured salmon baps at a nearby oyster farm, regardless of the ammoniac vapour of seafood, and sped off to chase fairies in the Waternish peninsula.

Fairies are a part of the peninsular charm of the area. There is a fairy bridge, some fairy pools and then Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the MacLeods, where a fairy queen is supposed to have left behind her flag as token of her presence in the world. Fight that. She is said to have married one of the MacLeod chiefs and one day walked out on him. I wonder, could it have been the haggis that did it?

On a more upsetting note, the otters eluded us at the coral beach near Dunvegan. A woman at the tea shop nearby had told us gleefully about them, the whiskered boys who like to float on their back in the waters there. But not a single one showed up even though we stayed hours on the beach catching the glow of the setting sun upon the long grass that climbs over the hill leading to the white crescent of the beach, the ebb and flow of crystal clear water that glinted a heartwarming shade of turquoise and the strange bleached bones of Maërl, a red coralline seaweed that gets bleached by the sun and collects on the shore.

But I will not be denied an otter. So when I met Oscar at a small farm shop in a crofting village that sits in the shadow of the mighty Cuillins, he came home with me. Now he just makes the occasional trip to Skye when he needs his diet of wild fish.

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Carbost

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The only distillery on the Isle of Skye
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Whiskered fella of Talisker
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Non-whiskered fella at Talisker, oddly exultant about something
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The Red Cuillin

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Claigan 
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That tiny structure sticking out right at the end is Dunvegan Castle
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The coral beach at Claigan
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The walk to the beach through little piles of cow dung and kissing gates
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Dessicated bits of Maërl and a bit of cheesiness

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Meet Oscar. Here he is shamelessly flaunting his catch of the day. Then he shall slip it quietly into his satchel. 
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Oscar’s Skye home