Category Archives: Art and architecture.

IT’S GRIM DOWN SOUTH.

I couldn’t think of a theme for this post until I was caught up in the transport chaos that is almost the norm down here. [almost as scary as the Hieronymus Bosch painting seen below] After a lovely weekend I was dropped off a few streets away from  Woking station as the traffic came to a stand still. I was going to catch a train up to London Waterloo to begin my journey home but the station was closed as the lines were blocked due to ongoing weekend engineering works. I was pleased with my lateral thinking and quickly had an E-ticket on my phone for the coach to Heathrow to link in to the tube system. OK the bus was an hour late due to the traffic but once on board the driver skilfully navigated the traffic and dropped me off at Terminal 5. Should I go back to Preston or fly off to the Caribbean?

 

I was down here to see my old friend Mel [a regular walking companion on many of my posts here]  who has had some recent heart surgery and is on kidney dialysis, some people get a bad deal. He was feeling great and looked really well.

I’d arrived at Euston Friday lunchtime, usually I have a break in the British Library but today headed across the road to The Wellcome Collection, ‘the free museum for the incurably curious’.

 

What a strange but fascinating collection – artificial limbs, paintings, sex aids, obesity, pharmaceutical jars, Charles Darwin’s walking sticks, Napoleon’s toothbrush, Everest medicine chest and much more all collected by Sir Henry Wellcome.

The Garden of Earthly Delights from Hieronymus Bosch.

On at the moment is an exhibition Living with Buildings looking at the relationship between our health and the spaces we live in. Included is a painting by Pissaro, Andreas Gursky’s iconic photo of apartments in Paris, the Paimio chair. There is a separate Global Clinic exhibition looking at a new design for simple and sympathetic installations in emergency situations and remote locations.

Oh and there is a nice cafe and an upside down Gormley statue. Quite a place and one I’ll put on my visit list for trips to Euston.

 

Whilst Mel was at hospital Saturday morning I visited the Woking Lightbox for an Impressionism Exhibition. This gallery is only small but seems to organise some outstanding displays and this was no exception…

There was a good selection of paintings but I was intrigued by the previously unknown bronze statues. A glorious infants head [Dalou], a simple peasant worker [Dalou] and a brutal figure [Rodin] drew my attention.

Next door was an exhibition of Elisabeth Frink’s works and when you step in the room you are confronted by …

… the gallery lady on duty felt uncomfortable when alone with this figure.

I joined up with Mel’s wife for a street Korean lunch at Shins, I was confused by the menu and smiling staff so I just opted for a tofu Bipimbap – tasty and filling. The Katsu curry looked good as did the glass noodle soup. Waiting at the bus stop was an experience as we were directly below the cranes working on some new sky scrapers almost as scary as Frinks works. These will completely transform the skyline not necessarily for the better according to local opinion, but they may save some fields being built on.

Sunday morning saw us at the RHS Wisley garden, it was clear and sunny but very cold so we headed to the cafe for hot drinks. A walk around the grounds is always selective but we managed to see the vegetable plot, rock gardens, Bowles corner, alpine houses and the Tropical Glasshouse. The autumn colours were still prominent and I found this a relaxing interlude in a busy schedule, I am envious of having this wonderful place on your doorstep and being able to visit regularly and leisurely to see the changing seasons.

I didn’t fly off to the Caribbean but caught the train to Paddington and a bus to Euston. With all the rearrangements and travel this morning I’d not eaten so I ventured into a Nepalese Restaurant in a nearby side street for a late lunch. https://www.great-nepalese.com/eat/  It was actually quite authentic and made me wish I was back in Kathmandu but I ended up in Preston.

A LITTLE MORE OF THE LOT.

It’s the end of August and I’m back in the Lot Valley, France, for a couple of weeks as is usual.

The house of my friends is as welcoming as ever and the weather is perfect. The problem is I can’t get out of bed in the morning. My stiffness in shoulders and hips has intensified and nobody sees me until lunchtime when I’m the head chef. After that I’m semi OK and can walk up the easy Combe de Filhol behind the house. To my amazement on an oak tree I spot a luxuriant fungi. Orange and yellow bracts sprout from the tree, I’ve no idea what it is but I suspect it is edible and return to cut off a few slices.

A quick search suggests, no proves, it is  ‘chicken in the woods’  – a delicacy in some regions. Without further to do I fry a piece up and season up with salt and pepper. It tastes good but more like a lemon flavoured mushroom than chicken. I start with a small piece, some people are allergic to them, but the next day fry up more pieces for friends who realise I’m not dead.

Nothing to do with the fungus but I slowly become worse with the stiffness and pain, almost certainly PMR [look it up], and have to resort to the steroids prescribed to me. I take two after breakfast and two the same evening and miraculously the next morning I’m virtually back to normal. Life is returned and  I’m able to do some gardening, swim and go on my usual walks around the area. I enjoy a lovely walk along the ridge to the communication tower and back along the vineyards. Buzzards flying above and butterflies fluttering alongside, blues and clouded yellows. From the ridge I have great views of Puy L’Eveque above the River Lot and am impressed by the size of the church above the town, arrowed below. I don’t think I’ve ever visited it,

So a couple of days later we make a pilgrimage to investigate. What a find! The church of Saint Sauveur began in the 13th century and is in an elevated position with views over the valley. It is of course built from limestone giving it a clean bright appearance. There is an elegant arched entrance porch soaring up to the bell tower. Elaborate stone carvings are found above the door. The interior is generally plain with high vaulted Gothic arches but there are fine stained glass windows. Coming back outside we can see where the building was extended in the  C19th. High on the North East wall is a strange observation tower. Surrounding the church are masses of burial vaults.

Apart from that it is mainly eating and drinking at the numerous local hostelries. In particular Le Pigeonnier alongside the River Lot gives a fine view of Puy L’Eveque’s medieval houses rising from the valley. In contrast Le Cote Lot restaurant in the Bellevue Hotel has a fine terrace room looking down onto the Lot below. Le Caillau courtyard restaurant close to the house has a romantic atmosphere with fine food but due to its popularity we found the service has deteriorated. More fine evening dining was experienced at La Venus Restaurant in nearby Prayssac and of course we made our usual pilgrimage to the Brit Hotel in Fumel for their fabulous lunchtime buffet.

Looking up at Puy L’Eveque from Le Pigeonnier.

Looking down from Cote Lot to the river.

Le Caillau courtyard.

The Brit’s Buffet.

Back at the house mirabelles, quince, plums and figs all collected locally gave a healthier balance to our diet.

It will be a wrench returning to the UK as Autumn starts.

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 7. Golspie to Brora.

A perfect walk.

Breakfast was shared with a man from France who was taking a dog and a cat over to Orkney – that is a long story. The day was perfect – fresh and clear. The trail went out of town past the houses of the former Sutherland estate with their Duke’s statue looking down on them. In the close up photo below the quarry used for stone for the base can be made out. Onto the dunes  and a path towards Dunrobin Castle the largest house in the Highlands and once owned by the notorious Duke Of Sutherland. I saw it from below and it did look impressive, I was too early for their falconry display. A bit further on and I diverted up to Dun Liath broch expecting I’d be the only one there but a mini bus pulled in and discharged a group of tourists who were mainly interested in taking selfies of themselves. After they departed I wandered round the 2000 year old ruins in peace. After regaining the shore I dropped onto the beach as the tide was out. There were some interesting rocks covered in seaweed, one reminding me of Dougal the dog from The Magic Roundabout. There were seals on the rocks and exposed sandbanks, their calls were hauntingly human. I arrived into Brora by the harbour area where a few fishing boats were preparing to go out to their lobster pots. Nearby was the old ice house used when the harbour was more prosperous. This coast was famous for its herrings which would have been smoked locally. Up the road was a clock war memorial of unusual design. I lunched in the delightful Linda’s Cafe and enquired about a taxi who could pick me up if I walked a few more miles up the coast, none was available but they suggested I would be able to catch a bus back. So off I went again over the golf course onto the perfect beach for two or three miles. A swim was needed halfway to cool me down. At the end of the golfcourse I clambered over the railway and landed on the A9 where I managed to flag down a bus back to Brora.

Notice Trail waymark.

Brora Golf Course.

Endless sands.

My airbnb was good with plenty of time for stimulating conversation with the hostesses and the Jack Russell. There was a private episode in my bedroom when becoming concerned I may have a tick attached to my derrière.  I attempted to locate it without the benefit of mirrors with no success until I came up with idea of a selfie from my phone. Eventually I focused in to the right area, a false alarm as it happens, but I hate to think what Google may have done with my images.  Now all I have to do is persuade someone to drive me back up the A9 in the morning which will make for an easier day’s walk to Helmsdale.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 5. Tain to Embo.

A day of two halves.

Two halves scenically and weather wise. It drizzled in the morning but was hot and sunny for the afternoon.

Dornoch Firth.

Breakfast in The Royal was excellent and made entertaining by a group of plonkers on a nearby table. On some sort of group activity holiday the 30somethings were engrossed in laptops and tablets and ignoring the staff. Their ‘leader’ announced that they had to leave at 9am and went off to rouse a couple of late risers. After 8.30 they eventually switched off, almost, their electronic devices and put in complex orders for the cooked breakfast. Not surprisingly they started getting frustrated with the slightest of delays and complaints were put to the waitress who dealt with the little darlings with restrained Scottish aplomb and a wry smile.

After passing the Glenmorangie Distillery little estate lanes were used before dropping down to another brush with the A9 to get across the Dornoch Firth – 30 minutes of fumes and speeding cars. I was glad to clamber down a steep bank onto the shore. The track eventually swung away from the coast onto a road past farms. Bulls guarded the fields and there was some equine presence at some stables. It was along here it started drizzling, so off with my shirt and on with the waterproof. A little further the JO’G Trail was signed into Camore Woods, pine woods standing on a gravel ridge from the ice age. Within this area were several obvious mounds which are the remains of hut circles and chambered cairns 3000 yrs old. A standing stone was seen in a field on the right seemingly reflecting the steeple of Dornoch Cathedral. As an aside I noticed for the first time the sound of rain falling on different trees – almost silent on the pines but waterfall like on the larger deciduous  leaves.

Dornoch was busy with tourists, I visited the cathedral with its beautiful vaulted ceiling and then found a little cafe in the square behind for a light lunch. The rain had now stopped, the sun was out and fortified I walked down to Dornoch Royal golf course which has been used for the open in the past. The fairways were narrow between the sand dunes and the bunkers looked horrendous. The track on the edge of the course was directly above the sandy deserted beaches and I couldn’t resist a paddle which turned into a brief refreshing swim.

I was dry by the time I walked through a large camping/caravan park and into the little village of Embo. This was made up of streets of small houses presumably a fishing industry in the past. My B and B for the night was comfortable and peaceful.

 

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 4. Invergordon to Tain.

Quiet roads.

It was only in the morning as I left that I noticed all the wall murals in town depicting the history and culture of the area. There is also a distillery on the edge of town, a part of Whyte & Mackay producing grain spirit for the blending industry.

The B817 road along Nigg Bay was almost absent of cars and for some of the way I could use the beach. Oil rigs were prominent in the bay.The villages passed had no facilities so I pushed on and found even quieter lanes inland. The odd cyclist passed me with a cheery greeting [not all cyclists are odd!] A petrol station appeared and an ice cream was purchased.

The A9 was perishingly close but I was able to continue on an old road which was slowly being reclaimed by nature. At its end it was a short hop across the main road to reach the rather isolated Shandwick Arms where I rested over a Belhaven ale and sandwich. Despite being refreshed I soon ran into blocked ways and escaped to fields and barbed wire crossings. Then all was all plain sailing on little used lanes passing small crofts. I didn’t try to join up with the JO’G Trail in the forests which I had heard was difficult. So I was soon dropping into Tain a prosperous looking town just above the Dornoch Firth. It was only in the last few hundred yards that I touched the JO’G Trail. An uneventful day’s walk through very pleasant scenery.

On the outskirts of town today a Highland gathering and games were taking place. My hotel was central and the games continued into the night by the sound of it.

 

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 3. Culbokie to Invergordon.

Over and along the Cromarty Firth.

After a breakfast of fresh farm eggs I took the lane dropping down to the Cromarty. The causeway bridge carrying the A9 was plainly visible, it looked a long way across. The traffic was heavy and fast but there was an adequate footway on the verge for my 30 minute crossing. As well as the traffic hazards terns were dive bombing me at the far side. I couldn’t wait to leave the road on the other side and I probably took the wrong path which led me up to the railway but no further. I resorted to trespassing along the line, The Far North Line, for a distance until I reached the level crossing I should have been on.  These private level crossings were a frequent feature across the single line railway, there aren’t many trains per day.  My track went up to a house and then onto a quiet country lane high above the water so there were good views all morning. The only people using the lanes were cyclists, many on a LEJOG trip. Groups of them were using backup transport which meant they could travel light. The busy A9 was somewhere out of sight and sound.

I arrived in sleepy Evanton at coffee time and the Novar Arms duly obliged. The B817 road was a bit busier but immediately out of the village was a signed cycle path in the trees alongside the road so the continuation was quite pleasant. Interestingly most cyclists persisted on the fast road leaving me to enjoy their cycle route. This gave me time to take in the views and high above me on a hill was the Fyrish Monument. Built in 1782 for Sir Hector Munro lord of the area who had served in India. It represents the Gate of Negapatam, a port in Madras, which General Munro took for the British in 1781. At the time the local population was being cleared off the lands they had worked for centuries to make way for profitable forestry and sheep. Survival was a problem and it is said the folly was built to help keep the locals in labour. The view from up there must be good but no time today. Along the road were signs of the Novar Estate, Sir Hector’s home. now concentrating on tourism of the shooting and fishing variety, somewhere in there is the big house. Out of interest his two sons were both killed in India one by a tiger and the other by a shark!  His daughter married and the estate passed into new hands.

The cycle path ran out leaving a stretch on a boring footpath adjacent the busy but safe road into Alness. A thriving little high street on which I found the basic Cafe Picante for a cheese toastie. I got the impression that most of the staff were central European as well as many of the clients. Oh and why do all these villages have so many, mainly Turkish, barbers?

Wanting to lengthen the day I pushed on a further 3 miles or so to Invergordon. This meant leaving the route of JO’G Trail, not that there had been much evidence of signage throughout the day. Again I was lucky as there was a cycleway out of town parallel to the road. I dropped down past the renowned Dalmore Distillerry to the shores of the Cromarty which I followed pleasantly into town. Along here I passed a standing stone marked as a Symbol Stone on the map. This is the Bronze Age Thief’s Stone which has three C6th or C7th  Pictish symbols carved on it, I couldn’t make them out. Looking back up the Cromarty I’m fairly sure that is Ben Wyvis in the back ground.

The views down the water were dominated by oil rigs in for repair. They looked strange with their legs up in the air.

Invergordon was an unpretentious town with a wide high street. It was at one time an important naval base and there are masses of old fuel tanks still on the edge of the houses. Aluminium smelting works closed and the oil rig business was a saviour. As I found later when wandering down to the harbour Cruise ships now call here because of its deep waters. One was being piped out this evening on its way further north.

The Marine Hotel where I stayed benefits from the cruises by the bus drivers and guides staying here, It was basic but friendly.

What had appeared to be a day on lanes turned very pleasant and interesting.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. 1. Inverness to North Kessock.

The beginning of how to avoid the A9.

As part of my ongoing Lands End to John O’Groats exploits another week was looming. We are having such hot weather down here i thought Scotland could give some relief. A few weeks ago JD and I filled the gap in the Scottish Lowlands leaving me only a section north from Inverness. I had heard horror stories of people walking on the A9 and was determined to avoid it if at all possible. A little eleventh hour research came up with the John O’Groats Trail, a coastal route from Inverness.  This was a new venture and is only just being plotted and waymarked. There were warnings of navigational difficulties and awkward terrain particularly in summer when the vegetation is high and dense. There was however a website, http://www.jogt.org.uk/  and I was able to  download some route descriptions from https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/john-o-groats-trail.shtml before I left. Before I knew it, most of my trips are last-minute decisions, I was stepping off the train in Inverness. I was not impressed by the city – too many tourists, too many drunks and beggars, too many cheap high street shops. I was therefore glad I had booked a B and B across the river for the first night, this gave me an easy 4 miles evening walk to help me on the way and escape the city. I didn’t even stop for a coffee.

The official start of the trail is outside the castle where there is a fine statue of the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, the one of Bonnie Prince Charlie fame. I did find a waymark for the JO’G Trail. Pleasant walking initially alongside the River Ness led into industrial estates where the only building of interest was Cromwell’s Tower – this is all that remains of a great fort here completed in 1682, It seemed incongruous in the industrial setting.

Once alongside the Beauly Firth the massive Kessock Bridge carrying the A9 made itself present. A scramble up the banking onto the pathway felt illegal. The way across was scary up close to thundering traffic which seemed to be ignoring the 50mph limit. It was a long way down to the water and my search for dolphins was futile.

Thankfully off onto quieter lanes at the far side life became tranquil once more. My B and B on this north side was a haven of peace overlooking the Beauly Firth. I slept well anticipating some interesting explorative walking.

*****