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

Ruined Crofts on Sea Lochs

I was in a faraway land, the rays of the morning sun bathing me oh so softly. I stood by the burn that April day, the sound of the gushing water in my ears, and chirped out ‘howdy munchkins’ to the startled sheep. The whole flock started and stared for a few seconds at the intrusion. If their baa could have been translated into humanspeak, it would surely have run along the lines of, ‘Look ye, a streenger’, the Scottish burr coming through strong. They are Highlanders too, you know. Just a more fleecy variety, but I bet if we had a conversation they would let me know that they are passionate about the land too. They live off it. Literally.

The moorland heather had yet to shake off its brown winter coat, turn that hue of purple which enchants the eye. Dry stone walls ran along the gorge and burn, keeping it all in. The remnants of a simple crofting life. Our cottage was part of a croft sprawled over 17 acres of grassland. The ruins of a crofter’s cottage and some outbuildings sat nearby.

The word ‘croft’ is a part of the landscape of Skye. Simply put, it is land fenced off by regulations – and it is a legacy of the troubled past of the Highlands. A clutch of stories – quilted with heartache, aspiration, pride, defeat, devastation – revolve around it. And they are not myths or products of the imagination, mind you. In the late 17th century, in a standoff between the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths, the latter had a thumping win. The Roman Catholic Stuart king, James VII (of England and Ireland) and II (of Scotland), was deposed by his daughter Mary II and her Protestant Dutch husband, William III.

The Hanoverians sat upon the throne, and with that, the Jacobites came to the fore. The single-minded aim of their rebellions was to restore the Scottish Stuart kings to their ‘divine right’. Who cared about the writ of the Parliament? Not this devout lot who got their names from the Renaissance Latin word Jacobus for James. Thus, the supporters of James.

Now in Scottish Gaelic – which is sprinkled all over the isle – they have a word called cuimhnich. It means ‘remember’. The Skye folk remember. The entrance of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of the exiled James. This young man was deemed The Young Pretender, his father having been titled The Old Pretender to the throne. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in Scotland and rallied an army around him to take on the king’s forces, and a year later, lost all at the historic Battle of Culloden but his life.

On the Waternish peninsula, where we were, the Bonnie Prince had been rowed over the waters, for refuge, by a brave young woman. Flora MacDonald is the famous daughter of the isle. She is straight out of the novels of Walter Scott where the feisty heroine makes you sit up and take notice. Though it must have been the other way around. Scott would have been inspired by her story when he set about writing his historical novels. It is reality, after all, that provides the best fodder for the imagination.

The Bonnie Prince fled to France but in his wake left devastation. His supporters, fierce clansmen, were decimated by the Cumberland Redcoats. Their graves lie in Culloden, marked by grave stones, grouped under the broad umbrella of their clan names.

The disbanded clansmen were hunted out. There was mayhem on the isle. Houses, boats and whole villages burnt. No wonder the Duke of Cumberland, the son of the reigning King George II, was nicknamed The Butcher as he went about systematically after the culture and language of the Highlanders. They were stripped of their tartans, the usage of Scottish Gaelic and their estates were annexed by the Crown.

Outsiders were made landlords of these estates. They rented out the infertile lands as crofts to tenants, formerly clansmen, chucked the rest from the land, driving them into small villages where they had to make their livelihood from fishing. This is also when there were mass immigrations of Scottish farmers to faraway lands – Australia, New Zealand and Nova Scotia.

So you see there is great heartache lodged into that beautiful landscape. You can hear the haunting strain in the ‘Skye Boat Song’, a Scottish folk number which derives the words from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem.

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.”

You must have heard it in Outlander.

We sat in the conservatory in the mornings, before setting out for our drives, and soaked up the view which was one for the books. The eye tumbled over the green squares and strips patchworking the length and breadth of the hills and rolled into the sea loch. Beyond the gentle dip of the slope lay the headland preceded by a  cluster of stone-washed cottages. In the evenings, we would sit outside the cottage with glasses of wine, by the sea, then lay back on the cold grass and stare at the stars as they popped up in the evening sky, one by one.

 

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Waternish Peninsula
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Solemn neighbours
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The conservatory of the cottage
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Views like these made it surreal
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Part of the crofting life
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Trawler on Loch Bay
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Sunsets in Waternish

The Road that Led to Skye

A one-of-a-kind road trip was on the charts that April in 2014. The kinds that throw up views like the one you see above, of the Red Cuillin, streaky cones of lava deposits thrown up by volcanic eruptions roughly 60 millions ago. Easter holidays were around the corner holding the promise of this remote and ancient landscape.

I had just returned home that spring, chuffed by a girly vacation at the time, made up of giggles, gelatos, ‘mamma mias‘ and wine by the sea in Sardinia, to a pouty husband and a trip to the upper reaches of Scotland, the day after. Anticipation is a sweet thing.

In the wee hours of the morning, accompanied by a couple of girl friends, Adi and I started for the Inner Hebridean island of Skye in our rented car. Located off the mainland of Scotland, Skye is shaped like the claws of a lobster. Or an isle with wings. You choose what takes your fancy.

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The distance from Northampton to the cottage that we had rented on the isle measured 570-odd miles. A matter of 11 hours if you travel at a stretch. But that can never be because there are the practical necessities of being human. Halting for loo, coffee and food breaks. So there we were, three exuberant girls and Adi. Incessant jabber and a spot of backseat driving too. You could almost hear the gnashing of my husband’s teeth (good thinking to pack in the tube of Sensodyne).

At Glasgow six hours later, we were delayed by the powers that held sway over us. A malignant anti-lock brake system made it necessary for us to stop at the Glasgow branch of the car rental agency. It was the last big stop because when you make a foray into the Hebridean islands you realise fast that you are alienated from everything except nature.

The veil of tiredness that had smothered the drive was lifted visibly once we entered the Highlands. We were back in that ancient land peppered by crumbling castles; roadside pipers bagpiping plaintive tunes atop hills that roll off into the glens; granny pines framing the roads and snow-capped mountains looming ahead. Such dreams are woven on the roads that take you through the Scottish Highlands.

Then there’s the possibility of encountering kelpies – those shape-shifting water spirits who inhabit the impossibly blue waters of the lochs – and the thrilling prospect of Nessie trundling across your path (yes, yes never give up on that old girl). Or being transported into another world peopled by bonnie princes and fierce clansmen. There is such poetry in the landscape. You see almost immediately why Sir Walter Scott wondered on paper, ‘Where is the coward that would not dare to fight for such a land as Scotland?’

Past the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, hamlets of the likes of Ardlui, the grand Ben Nevis, Fort William and we were finally on the Road to the Isles, the A830, that took us into Dornie to Eilean Donan. The sun had started the process of retiring for the day, in the backdrop of the castle, and with a touch of the alchemist turned the loch into a sheet of rippling gold.

Our brain fluids had meanwhile dribbled out, collecting into little pools at the bottom of our feet, but there it lay in front of us, the Skye Bridge, spanning over Loch Alsh into the Isle of Skye. Something had to be said for travelling in the year 2014 to Skye. A decade ago we would have had to pay a toll fare. There used to be a saying then, according to old-timers who did pay up the fare, per crossing: ‘Skye Bridge – the only place in the world where you get mugged And get a receipt.’

Forty minutes later after the beautiful crossing, driving up and down winding roads, we drew up outside our cottage on the Waternish peninsula to the spellbinding panorama of salmon pink skies tinged with lavender. The relentlessness of the past 14 hours was washed away by that view. Soon my head fell upon the soft pillow and as I slipped into blissful deep slumber to the gurgling sound of a stream gushing by, the sounds magnified by the silence of our surroundings, there was a momentary thrill that we had made it. That we were finally there in the heart of the wilderness.

 

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Ancient woods of pine
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Through the Highlands we pressed on.

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Loch Lomond
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The poetry of the Highlands
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Sunset at Eilean Donan
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Eilean Donan and the Kintail ranges
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The castle in daylight
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The laird pipes away
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Motto above the entrance to the castle in Gaelic. Translated it reads: ‘Whilst there is a MacRae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside.’
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Eilean Donan stands on a tidal island which offered perfect defence against raiding Vikings.
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Inside the castle
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I would suppose he is Saint Donnán of Eigg who brought Christianity to the Picts in medieval times. The castle is named for him because it is said that he had established a church on the island.
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Hearth and home
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The castle kitchen
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Skye Bridge
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Twilight gathers upon the Waternish Peninsula

 

 

 

Barmy Basset Hounds & Martins of Port Isaac

The thing with eating your ice cream on the sly is that you gotta pay for it later when your wife goes into an artisan fudge confectionery and arms herself with a big waffle cone. Topped up by gigantic dollops studded with moreish caramel bits.

We had reached the village of Port Isaac (which is an easy drive from PadstowBoscastle or Tintagel in Cornwall) when I needed to use the loo at the carpark facing the sea, the water guzzling cow that I am. FYI Cows can drink up to and over 90 litres of water on hot days. I came out of the loo and why there stood my husband quietly tucking into a mint chocolate chip ice cream. A sheepish look surfacing when he spotted me. His supplier was the ubiquitous Mr. Whippy.

Then he offered me a lick. A Lick. It was your veritable “Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins!” moment.

Providence is a sweet woman. She took me by the hand and led me to a fudge shop. Behind the till stood Mr Meakins, the owner who had played a part in Doc Martin, the British medical comedy TV series that was shot in Port Isaac. In the show, the village is called Port Wenn.

Martin. There you have the first name in the title of the post come into play. The show is delightful, I promise. You shall not and will not egg me. I would rather you make me an omelette.

At the fudge shop charmingly called Buttermilk – which made me instantly want to tuck into anything I laid eyes on inside its old interiors – I was urged by Mr Meakins to lay my hands on a few fudges but my eyes sparkled at the thought of the half-eaten beauty you see below.

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Ship Shape indeed. Moreish moments. 
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Anchor on the slipway
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Slipway Sights

That rusty old anchor, which could easily challenge a gang of 40 beefy men to lift it, is your introduction to Port Isaac. For this is a fishing village, aye, that traces its fishing roots back to the 13th century. Till the 19th century, men would have also been dragging carts of stone, ores, salt and limestone from the many ships that would have arrived at the small but busy harbour of Port Isaac because it was one of the few sheltered ones along the inhospitable Cornish coastline.

But here I get ahead of myself. Let me pause and retrace my steps to when we entered the village.

From the car park you might just walk take the steps down to the beach below and think this is it, but wait, get out of that carpark onto the main road and then it is crucial that you walk past The Angry Anchovy, make sure not to get ensnared by pizzas and make your way down a steep narrow road. A walk past weathered houses, ivy-caked stone walls and a parish church, and at the bottom of the street, an old school house pops up with its brooding slate exterior. You know you have hit pay dirt.

You are in Port Isaac, dear darling.

The home of British crabs and lobsters.

The main street winding into the town is flanked by 18th and 19th century cottages, some whitewashed with bright blue window panes and doors and others clad in dark slate fronts. A stone owl looked down imperiously at us from its perch upon dry stone walls as we we walked in the footsteps of the grumpy London doctor, Martin Ellingham, who arrives in the village to be greeted by the likes of characters such as Bert Large and two grimy fishermen – who almost drive him off the narrow country lanes after declaring him ‘Bodmin’. You would pounce upon that word if you are a Daphne du Maurier fan. The moors of Bodmin is where Jamaica Inn was (and still is) famously situated. If you were deemed Bodmin by a local it would basically mean you are barmy (also that you could be a repository of murder and madness).

Opes, Cornish for narrow alleys between houses, issued warnings on signposts about big vehicles trying to barge their way in. Seriously, if you even thought of wedging yourself in a big car between those houses, I would say you deserve to sit inside while the rest of the world (like me) passes you by with ice cream cones held aloft as beacons of goodness.

Now if you gave me a house in Port Isaac, I would shut my eyes, and just take it off your hands. It is bustling and chirpy but there is an astonishing level of quiet that comes over the village as soon as you leave behind the harbour and start climbing up the opes where brooks gurgle by stone houses. There is a lifeboat shed in the village and a fisherman merchant’s smelly quarters where seafood is sold during the day but the real deal is as you climb up the hill. The village is spread out below you just beyond the two breakwaters, pale turquoise waters and the coastline.

On our way up, we passed Grumpy Martin’s cottage on the left, a little below which stood Bert Large’s whitewashed restaurant. Too many Doc Martin things in this post, you say? I would agree but that is because I am goading you into watching at least the first episode.

To come to the second part of this post’s title. We heard these baritone barks as we trudged up the hill. These were not your average one or two barks. This was a remarkable volley that refused to stop. We peeked down through the gap between one of the houses and espied a podgy basset hound who was bent on playing Elvis for the day. Now people from Elvis country, hear me out. You had to meet Mr. Personality before you cast disapproving looks at me. After we had spent some time sitting on the hill, and Adi had fooled around on the edges singing away so badly that I had to turn and run, we met this basset hound down at the harbour. He had a brother who was as quiet as he was mouthy. There were a few labradors running around, but your guess is good enough about who stole the show.

To agitate him, his amused master made a few faces and stooped to say a few things. Of course, our basset boy had his say all throughout. Our ears ringing with his deep, deep barks, the sight of his astoundingly droopy face, podgy personality and pendulous ears carved into our minds, we left the village of Port Isaac with deep sighs. But wait, I can still hear his baritone woofs, can you?

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Opes of Port Isaac

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More opes
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You see what I mean when I say that you should arm yourself with an ice cream and then work it off by just walking. These opes demand it.
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Climbing up the hill for a view of the village and the coastline
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The one. Who excels at pestering me.
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Between the breakwaters.
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Taking a moment to savour the beauty of the moment…
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…before breaking off into silly songs.
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Caught in the act.
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It reminded me of a fine painting.
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Port Isaac Harbour
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Bert Large’s restaurant on the left. The whitewashed stone cottage that you see on the left. Above it, the first stone cottage with the orange pipings was Dr. Martin’s cottage in the show.
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Master has a conversation with Mouthy One. 
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That is the image we left Port Isaac with. Master walking away with Mouthy One even as he continued with his hollering.

Before I leave you for the day, here’s Episode 1 of Doc Martin. Humour me. Maybe you will be rewarded with a few laughs.

Elvis Legs: Boscastle to Tintagel

The path of less resistance can lead to Elvis Legs. This is how. My husband was never much of a one for walking and hiking holidays (even though he used to love climbing mountains as a teenager). His idea of holidays were more in the realm of lazing and packing in the good grub. But then I happened to him. The day that took place he had basically signed himself up for legs that would shake like The King’s. A shout-out to Bruce who introduced me to the term.

Getting back to Adi, he is a hiking convert, and boy he gets attached to things in a pretty solid way. For instance, when he had change to classes as a wee boy, he refused it flat. He would have nothing to do with leaving Claudette behind. She was the teacher, and why I believe, tiny Adi had a crush on pretty Claudette. They had to wait three months before he agreed to leave her behind.

From Claudette to Cornwall is a leap alright, but may I ask you to do that? Last time, we had exchanged a few words over Boscastle and swooned over Hardy. Now I am going to swoon over Red Devon and Friesian cows, gorse bushes, meadows of blue bells, saw-wort (you must have seen those pretty purple thistle-like flowers) and daisies. You can stop sniggering. I see you.

Now we had chosen the hottest day of the week to go for our hike, which meant four hours under a sun that threatened to (and did eventually) peel the skin off our napes. There are a few warnings you have to keep in mind when you are passing through the pastures of our bovine friends:

  • Do not show threatening behaviour towards calves (approaching them closely, making loud noises or walking between a calf and its mother) as you may provoke the mother to defend her young. The best plan is to walk along the hedges.
  • If cows approach you, do not run away as this will encourage them to chase you. Stand your ground and stretch out your arms to increase your size.
  • Avoid taking dogs into fields with cows particularly with calves. If you must and cows charge, release the dog from its lead as the dog will outrun the cows and the cows will generally chase the dog rather than you.

With no dog friend to distract the cow, you can imagine how tough it was on the animal talker in me. I did wave at the Red Devon cows lazing on the ridges, who you shall see in a bit, but there were young, cute Friesian calves in a field without their mothers, and That I could not resist. Adi, on the other hand, is a bit wary of cows ever since a whole herd moved towards us with great alacrity once during a stop at a random field on the way to Lake District. The menace writ large on their faces made them look like anything else but gentle cows. Five years have passed but Adi has not been able to shake off the trauma of it.

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Forrabury Stitches behind us. It is like looking back upon a maze of stitched up greenery. Historic concept open field farming that is part and parcel of Cornish country.
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The kind of views that lie along the entire length of the hike.
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Lazy Red Devon cows
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Thankfully a few hand waves did not ensure a charging mum. Adi dragged me away before she came into the picture.
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Islets along Trevalga that are home to seabird colonies.
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Gorse and husband under the midday sun.

If you choose to do this hike, the good news is that for the most part, it is a moderate hike. Expect to climb up and down meadows filled with wild flowers and gorse bushes turn up in all their wild yellow beauty to contrast startlingly with the waters of the Celtic Sea. The changing hues from gentian to aquamarine, sapphire to turquoise blues, is mesmerising. Each stitched-up pasture is crossed via stone steps and a leap across the dry stone walls that network the length and breadth of the trail and then serious climbing in bits and pieces. But all in all, it is the length of the walk and the hot sun that join hands to conspire to make you fantastise about chilled beer aplenty.

When we espied Hotel Camelot in the distance, a few cliffs away, we whooped and the thought of draining vats of beer was a wonderful reprieve. We could have also had vats of mead instead but then we would have to go down to that fantastic Tintagel Castle that is the birthplace of the mythical King Arthur. And our legs, I fear, would not have made the steep climb back to the village from the castle. Instead we tucked into pasties from the pasty shop there that was selling them at half price, since it was closing time. Amusingly enough, they do things the old way still. The woman from the shop hollers out in a hefty voice about the half-price offer a few times till the old men come streaming in.

At the end of our pub stop for ales to wash down the pasties with, lay another 3 hours of walking because we had not taken into account that the bus from Tintagel to Boscastle is not that frequent. Yes the horror of it. We had another walk ahead of us. All in all we had about 10 miles of hiking and walking at hand to reduce our legs to jelly and flop down at The Wellington Arms in Boscastle for another round of ale. Come to think of it, what would we do without beer? As our good man Franklin put it so sensibly. Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

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Midway between Boscastle and Tintagel is the Rocky Valley where the footpath plunges into a gorge-like valley to take you ahead into the open bay of Bossiney.
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Bossiney Bay
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Oh hello, my beauties. We did have a long conversation with no domineering mother nearby to spoil the party.
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Bossiney Bay

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And finally Camelot Castle Hotel. I have never experienced as much happiness before as I did this time when it came upon the horizon. All a matter of perspective.
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Pints of Doom Bar, at The Cornishman Inn, named after the Doom Bar of Padstow
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Camelot Castle Hotel viewed from Tintagel Castle
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The ruins of Tintagel Castle are tricky to climb especially when it has rained because those steps are quite weather-beaten.
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And when you reach the top, you feel like a misstep would mean a dash into the rocks but oh that view. It does make you want to make a home for yourself among the ruins and dream about the handsome Lancelot and naughty Guinevere.
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The walk back to Boscastle and meeting curious ones along the way.
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The old cottages in Bossiney
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Reaching Boscastle after two and a half hours
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And then finally sighting The Wellington and losing ourselves to ale. Highly recommended.

Hardy’s Boscastle

“I found her out there
On a slope few see,
That falls westwardly
To the salt-edged air,
Where the ocean breaks
On the purple strand,
And the hurricane shakes
The solid land.”

Looking at those mesmerising opal-sapphire hued waters, just like the view that glistened in the midday sun below me, Thomas Hardy would have contemplated upon his chance meeting with the love of his life in the village of Boscastle. Dramatic environs such as these must surely serve as an elixir to seal in young love.

Hardy, if you are not acquainted with the man, wrote Tess of the D’urbervilles and challenged the traditional notions of morality in Victorian England. I have always wondered about it: How is it that Hardy could empathise so with his heroine? Here was a writer who was far ahead of the times that he was a product of. I can almost hear Hardy echo Butch Cassidy: “Boy I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

But the post is neither on Hardy (really, you might say with some disbelief, given that the woman has waxed upon his love for two paragraphs at the least and shall devote another to it), the strain of realism that pervades his writing, nor is it about Tess. It is to take you into the quaint fishing village of Boscastle where Hardy arrived as a young architect in 1870 to work on the restoration of the church of St. Juliot. His prize in the North Cornish village would have been to chance upon a pair of blue eyes (you know who that novel was inspired by) and a swathe of blonde hair that would have his heart for a long time, even after the owner of those attributes, Emma Gifford, had died and he had married a second time. Hardy’s heart is buried with Gifford in her grave in a churchyard in Dorset, although his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.

When he arrived in Boscastle, he would have come upon the three pubs in the village, a lime kiln and the stonewashed cottages which are said to have been built from stones culled from the ruins of the Botreaux Castle (the village derives its name from the castle).

A lane past Cobweb Inn winds up the village. Now names in the English countryside are literal. You know when you come upon a Two Turn Lane what lies ahead, so when you come upon a name like Cobweb Inn, you can safely expect cobwebs hanging from the eaves and ceilings. Or so you could till the early 90s when some namby pamby Health and Safety inspectors decided that thick, matted cobwebs hanging to keep flies away from kegs of wine and spirits was not quite hygienic. Here they were questioning years of cobweb-by wisdom of decades of men who had run the pub as a wine cellar and flour store dating back to the 1700s.

The passing years have meant that we, as modern-day travellers, got the extras without the cobwebs, such as clutch of stores, a National Trust tearoom and a museum on witchcraft at the entrance of which is the grave of a ‘witch’ called Joan Wytte. That poor 18th century woman’s skeleton had hung for years at the museum till they decided it was not quite okay.

The river gushes alongside and if you follow its path up the cliffs above the harbour, you can go on long walks (as we did and it turned out to be so long that our legs would not stop trembling, but more about the trembling later in the next post).

After the quintessential tea and cake stop at the pretty tea room, once you are up on the cliffs, you can spot the Elizabethan harbour, a powerful reminder of times when privateers, wreckers and smugglers carried on their thriving business with great alacrity. Then you can sit on the cliffs and cast your mind back in time, that is all. Bung in a gale, a stormy sky and turbulent waters lashing against the cliffs. Maybe even imagine the Devil’s Bellows at half tide spouting out water below from the small hole at the bottom of the cliffs, and yes, you will be in another time and age with the necessary ingredient that is at the essence of every wild imagination, the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.

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Behind Adi is the lime kiln, the third stone structure from the right with the hint of an arched opening (the white cottage next to is the National Trust Tea Room). It points out to Boscastle’s quarrying past. 
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Inside the National Trust tea room. Who would not fall for that?
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Clearly not him! Or I, who followed right after, with a sizeable chunk of carrot cake and then worried about the fact that I had not cut a fat enough piece.
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Luna and Remus. Psst: Potter fans. Transfiguration happened. We got two giant Leonbergers playing in the waters with their mutt mate. However they were kind and they allowed two more strange muggles to shower them with the customary cuddles and coos.
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The bridge in Boscastle
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The harbour, put in place by the English sailor and explorer, Sir Richard Grenville, in the late 1500s, would have been the popular hangout once for smugglers and wreckers.
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Penally Point below which is a blowhole that spouts up water in a gush and with a boom (the Devil’s Bellows) during low tide.
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That spot of white sticking out above the cliffs is Willa Lookout coastwatch
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Looking back at the cliffs of Boscastle from Forrabury Common. The walk is to be continued into the next post. The walk from Boscastle to Tintagel is special.

Clutter Books and Clobber

I acquired that pile of goodness last weekend at a lovely town called Sedburgh which lies within the scenic lushness of Yorkshire Dales National Park. Winding cobbled streets lead you past stalls selling beautiful sheepskin rugs, vicarage lanes and cottages with twee names. Then you trundle down the lane further past book shops called Sleepy Elephant, spectacularly green cricket grounds and shop facades that seem to be peeling away at leisure, till you arrive at the point of why Sedburgh declares itself the book town of the Blighty.

You may ask the question of the cheerful lady at the till of a charity shop and she would smile (because she must have answered this one a few times) and say: “Every cafe, shop and store in this town is stocked with books, and if you go up the street, you will see Westwood Books. It is worth taking a look into because it came from the Welsh town, Hay-on-Wye. They have done a fair bit in promoting Sedburgh as a town of books.”

Now my dear readers, you must have heard of the Hay Festival which for bibliophiles is supposed to induce a Christmas-in-the-mind-at-any-time-of-the-year feeling. It is takes place in the book town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales which boasts of a dozen bookstores. My husband should thank his lucky stars I have not set foot inside that market town yet. But the point of this is that Westwood Books is indeed a jewel of sorts. I entered it, I read inside it (a Gertrude Stein book which was thoroughly mind numbing because boy that woman knew how to pile on the negatives in one sentence – forget double negatives), then I did not know how to leave it behind.

Even Adi, who is not a reader, bought a book and browsed inside the store. Usually he takes a quick look and then hangs around my neck with the look of a bored child who demands to be entertained.That is what a book store worth its salt should be able to do – convert a non-reader/browser into one. Don’t you think?

Sedburgh and Hay-on-Wye are not unique really with their book town status, keeping in mind the fact that there are 40-odd book towns spread out across the world, but here’s how a book town can charm you.

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Clutter Books & Clobber charity shop
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Past the gorgeous tulips you enter the shop that will cast a spell. You shall have to make efforts the size of Hercules to leave those doors.
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Collectors’ editions
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Sketches of quirky personalities
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Punch Library, ladies and gentlemen. Did you even know that it existed?
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That spot of red is Adi browsing books. The very sight of which made my imaginative monocles fall off. 

Finally I leave you with the words of a writer, Eric Robson, who makes me nod vigorously (here you have the Indian head nod), as he says this: “First, a confession: I spend far too much on books. Which is why this idea of creating a Book Town in Sedbergh is a thoroughly bad idea. Until now my nearest Book Towns were Hay‑on‑Wye and Wigtown, which meant my obsessions were held in check by sheer distance. Now it’s going to be far too easy. I can already hear my bank manager turning in his vault. I won’t be able to resist. And there are thousands of other bibliophiles holding their heads in their hands as we speak. ‘Not Sedbergh!’ I hear them cry just before they get into their car and are drawn slowly but surely towards the Howgills.”

 

Ed Has a Little Bottle-Fed Lamb

If you have been dreaming of Bruges, a guest post by a fellow blogger, dream on, and then may I bring you back to the Cornish climes? This post is about Meg, a border collie, her master Ed, a farmer, and new-born lambs.

Now The Byre is an atmospheric barn conversion in Lostwithiel, Cornwall (You can book it through Cornish Cottage Holidays and there are other cottages on the farm too). We got a fantastic bargain. For 8 nights we paid up £385 and then Ed threw in a free night. Now no one in all our years of renting cottages in the countryside has been ever so kind as Ed. A free night! Egad. We had one more day of exploring the countryside in Cornwall which we cannot resist even if it means that we have to return home to Northampton bleary-eyed, post a long day of walks and then 5-odd hours of driving.

Ed lives with his vet wife, Nicki, in Lostwithiel in a rambling farmhouse. They have a menagerie of sorts. A tabby cat who likes to lie flat on their guest bed and luxuriate in the fact that Ed’s son and girlfriend had just vacated its quarters, and then there are the two dogs, Meg and Gizzie. Meg is a border collie who does a fair bit of work in rounding up the sheep and Gizzie is a Jack Russell Terrier who was rescued by Ed and Nicki because he had too many brothers too deal with in his previous home and had therefore started to exhibit signs of aggression. You would not suspect his troubled past from his mien now. He is just a typical Jack Russell, as curious and friendly as they come. You have met both Meg and Gizzie, in a face off, in my previous post.

Then there are the couple’s flock of Shropshire sheep which seemed to tick off on all counts attributed to the 1929 heritage description of the Shropshire sheep’s general appearance: “Alert, attractive, indicating breeding and quality, with stylish carriage and a symmetrical form, showing the true characteristics of the Shropshire.” I do not know about quality but they certainly possessed style *I hear your sniggering

In the lead photo, you see Ed feeding the lamb. That is not because he is trying to domesticate him. In reality, the little one’s mother had refused him milk, so Ed has become his de facto mum and dad. When we left them, Ed was trying to get him to join the flock who have 9 acres of land for their chewing and pooping pleasure.

Ed’s father owned a huge farm where he kept a herd of 200 cattle but dairy farming became a part of his history to be talked about because of the change in times, inflation and the fact that his son and daughter were carving out their own niche in life.

“Plus all my conversation was going to be centred around cows, you know,” said Ed.

The son is a communications press officer with a cricket board and the daughter is a psychologist. So Ed sold off his farms and bought the farmhouse with Nicki where they lead a quiet life with their menagerie. They even have bee colonies, where on a cold grey and windy day amidst a patch of berries, rhubarb and leeks, we heard about the intelligence of bees, how they can figure out ways of stinging you, apart from gazing at an ewe who had just given birth to twins. She was busy licking them clean even as the red trails of placenta hung down her behind. You see, the placenta is not snipped off as in humans, because they have their own ways of dealing with. They often eat it up if they are wary of predators around their babies. Nature surely equips her creatures, does she not?

But beware of Meg’s charms. She is no less than a Madonna. She comes without tight corset tops, skinny jeans, or the need to colour her mouth siren red. Everyday before leaving the cottage and after our return, we used to have a session of squealing and whining and crooning – all of which she did. We had long conversations. Adi, Meg and I. She had a fairly unladylike comportment, I have to admit and about which I did berate her but to no avail. Having identified Adi as the Belly Rub Guy, every time she spotted him, she would start crooning, raise her hind leg, and in a brief second or two, lie upside down for her quota of rubs. If you do meet her, carry a big batch of belly rubs for her, will you?

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Meg the Madonna
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Who wants to be a lady, gah!
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Stylish Shropshires 
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Ewe are looking at an ewe so please do not go ewe once you spot what we have been talking about.
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Bottle-fed boy. He had a soft and springy feel to him.
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Ed’s bee colonies 
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‘Did you say, you cannot see us seeing you? Take your rude self off our pasture.’
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Lambs’ Tales