If it’s Monday, it must be Hoy

P1020684After our undignified departure from Leith, we chugged steadily northwards overnight and arrived on Monday at the Orkney island of Hoy.  More specifically, the quay at the village of Lyness on the island’s east coast.

We knew a little of the area’s history: the fact that the British Navy was based here during both World Wars, and the story of the scuttling of the German fleet in nearby Scapa Flow just after the First World War.  What we didn’t know was that during both wars there was a massive military encampment at Lyness, which must have roughly quadrupled the size of the village.  Barracks, stores, workshops, warehouses, pumping stations, even a series of massive oil tanks and (later) an entire reservoir of oil under the neighbouring hillside – this camp was vast.

Now, of course, there are no military personnel left, except for those buried, movingly, in the military cemetery at Lyness.  The buildings, however, survive, some ruined, some still intact, and all providing an extraordinary and poignant backdrop to some stunningly beautiful scenery.

Most of the official tours were heading off north-west-wards to see the famous Old Man of Hoy sea stack, but we’d chosen to explore locally on foot by ourselves and were really glad we had.  We discovered the cemetery, a memorial to British and Russian sailors killed during the Great War, a fascinating museum of the history of Lyness and Scapa Flow, and a walk up the hill of Wee Fea past masses of industrial archaeology, often just lying at our feet.  Chuck in loads of wild flowers, a good selection of birds, and tea and cake at the museum’s tea room, and you have the makings of a really fantastic afternoon stroll.

Here’s a small selection of the photos I took, showing the cemetery, the village still dominated by ruined military buildings, and an old army oil pumping station near the top of Wee Fea.




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Cruising Orkney, Shetland & St Kilda

We set off last Sunday on a week’s cruise courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) around the islands of northern Scotland: Orkney, Shetland and St Kilda.  This was a bit of a dream for both of us since we’d never been to Orkney or Shetland before and were really looking forward to it.  Sadly, although all the places we visited were amazing, the ship was a major letdown in all sorts of ways.

Obviously, the NTS don’t run a fleet of cruise liners themselves, so when they want to organise their once- or twice-yearly cruises they charter a ship from somebody else.  Four years ago we did another trip with them, to the Western Isles, and they borrowed a boat from Saga for the week.  This worked really well.  The ship was small enough to be intimate (and to get into some otherwise unreachable ports), and the Scottish captain and crew knew the waters like their own high streets and were able to improvise when necessary.

This time, we were on a ship called the MV Berlin, owned by a German outfit called FTI Cruises and staffed by a motley crew from a dizzying array of countries.  We’d never heard of them before, but bolstered by previous NTS experience, were perfectly happy to give it a go.  Bad move!  The first inkling that everything might not be perfect came when we saw our cabin – small, drab, and so lacking in storage that I lived out of a holdall all week.  Then the food at dinner was unappetising.  Of course, those are only niggles (although, at the price we’d paid for the holiday, expensive niggles), but worse was to come when the ship had to be lugged out of Leith harbour backwards by not one but two tugs – one yanking, the other shoving.  This didn’t bode well for the state of the ship’s thrusters, and other equally important bits of equipment proved not to be working later on, as you will see!

It got worse.  The crew seemed to be either inexperienced or poorly trained and didn’t function well as a team, whilst the captain made some decisions that could only be described as bizarre, like taking the ship through the Pentland Firth (a notorious strip of water between Orkney and the northern tip of Scotland) in a force eight gale without working stabilisers, and allowing passengers ashore on St Kilda without checking the local tide timetables first.  Both of those had Serious Consequences; more details in the next few days…

In the end we’ve seen some wonderful places that we wouldn’t otherwise have managed to get to, so from that point of view the trip was a success.  Hoy and Skara Brae in Orkney; Fetlar and Lerwick in Shetland; and the fishing port of Peterhead on the Scottish mainland were all fascinating in very different ways, with archaeology, museums, shops, scenery, and coastal walks that we absolutely loved.  We took hundreds of photos, and have made a mental note to go back to both Kirkwall and Lerwick again in the not-to-distant future, perhaps even with the NTS.

We won’t, however, be setting foot on the MV Berlin again!

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Liverpool trip

Although I’m originally from Liverpool, I hadn’t been back for over twenty years, ever since a disastrous visit in about 1995 when the streets were piled with filth and everything looked so scruffy it broke my heart.

That all changed yesterday, when a sudden realisation that my passport had expired meant a hasty trip to the passport office for a renewal – and that’s our nearest branch.  We got the train down from Windermere, got the paperwork lodged with them, and then had four hours to kill in the city while they prepared the actual passport.  So we set off to explore… pretty much everything!

We must have walked over 4 miles, from Lime Street Station to the waterfront, to the business district, to the huge new shopping area of ‘Liverpool One’… and then back again.  On route we saw lots of interesting ‘things’ including the famous Beatles statue (I queued up for a photo), some of the original old buildings, new venues like the museum on the waterfront (where we had a really good and cheap lunch), and lots of new bits of sculpture, art, and heritage trails.

It’s changed out of all recognition from that scruffy place of the mid-90s into an incredibly smart, cosmopolitan, bustling city that beats Birmingham, Manchester and even Glasgow into so many cocked hats, in my opinion.  In fact, wandering the streets, the feel was far more of a London of the north than any other city I’ve visited in the last 20 years.  Even on a drab, wet day of constant spattering rain, it was vibrant and interesting, and we’d have loved to stay and see more.

Sadly, we couldn’t as we had things on over the weekend, but we’ve made a mental note to go back soon and stop over a few more nights so we can visit some of the new museums, get up the hill to the cathedrals again and generally mooch around more.

Here’s a few photos I managed to grab in spite of the drizzle, including some rather damp pigeons… and that Beatles statue, minus John’s foot.






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The Sea Garden

seagardenI’ve just finished reading Sam Llewellyn’s mystery-in-a-garden The Sea Garden, and loved it.

As I say in my Goodreads review, I’m a complete sucker for any kind of mystery involving gardens (Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Savage Garden, Thornyhold), and this was no exception.

The present-day heroine Victoria uncovers a skull in the ancient, rambling and mysterious garden she and her husband have just inherited on an island off the Cornish coast.  When the skull vanishes again before she’s had a chance to examine it properly, she sets off on an investigation of who it could have belonged to and why it was buried there.  And uncovers a whole furniture-store of closets full of family skeletons and secrets in the process.

The writing was every bit as good as Mary Stewart at her best and the unexpected humour reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett.  Since those are two of my favourite authors it’s hardly surprising I liked this.

The ending was perhaps a little too melodramatic for my liking, but it fitted well with the ‘gothic’ feel of the book, and with the historical elements, and it tied everything up very neatly.

I’m hoping Mr Llewellyn will write more books in a similar vein, that I can look out for and devour.

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Phone-friendly website

I noticed a few weeks ago that my website was doing weird things on my mobile phone, with text and graphics re-sizing seemingly at random, which made it quite hard to read.

After a crash course (self taught) in HTML5 and CSS, I’m proud to say that I’ve coded a new version of my site from scratch.  And although it isn’t yet perfect, at least the text is all the same size now, which is a good start!

At the same time I’ve gone through and fixed a few broken links, checked which stories/books are still available, added some more information to my biography, and included a new short story, Footprints, in the ‘Tasters’ section, which is available to read free on the site.  Oh – and I’ve chucked in some pretty new graphics and a general new look into the bargain.

The new improved (I hope!) version is here and I hope you like it.  In the meantime, I’m off to lie down in a darkened room before all that coding kills me…

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Fearful Symmetry

tigerExcellent news today – I’ve had my first short story in ages published over at the Library of Rejected Beauty.

The Library does what it says in that wonderful title – collects stories and other assorted creative content that have been rejected elsewhere, often multiple times, but which the creator still considers to have some worth or beauty.

In my case that was ‘Fearful Symmetry’, a short story I wrote for a contest years ago, and have had no luck placing anywhere, perhaps because it’s told in second person point of view which can be unpopular.  Basically, it tells the story of a dark and dangerous forest during a thunderstorm, but with a unique twist at the end.  And the quote about tigers is something my own Mum used to say to me when I was a small child, which gives it a personal touch as well.

I’ve always loved the hot, steamy and vaguely threatening atmosphere I managed to conjure up in the story, and I’m delighted to say that the Library of Rejected Beauty liked it too.  You can read it over at their website, free, today by following this link.  I hope you enjoy it.  At the very least, you may never feel the same way about curtains again!

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Filed under fiction, short stories, Writing

Birmingham Blues

crayLast weekend we dashed down to Birmingham for a very last-minute treat – a concert by the Robert Cray Band.

I’ve been a fan of Cray for years, ever since I heard his famous track ‘Right Next Door’ on a compilation Blues album.  I shouldn’t like it really since it’s borderline soul which I’m less keen on, but the catchy tune and poignant lyrics have stayed with me and it’s still one of my favourites.  So I was delighted when he turned up on Later With Jools Holland the other week, and even more delighted when Dave suddenly said, “He’s touring.  He’s coming to Birmingham!”

Cue a mad scramble for tickets, not helped by falling foul of Viagogo (overpriced and under-ethical, but more on that later).  But two days before the event, the tickets arrived and off we went.  And the concert was worth every penny.  The first half hour was filled with a back-up act, Jeb Loy Nichols, who sang southern US blues/folk, accompanied only by his own guitar, and quipped about his recent move to Wales.  He was surprisingly good and an excellent choice, but paled by comparison when the lights darkened again and Cray and his band came on.

Like so many legends, the difference was striking and immediate.  The sheer professionalism, the passion, shone through.  His guitar playing is every bit as skilled in real life as it is on his recordings (so no tweaking by the production team) and his voice is as smooth as molten molasses, if you’ll pardon the cliché.  What I wasn’t expecting, but loved, was the sense of mischief as he pretended to grumble at his roadie, told the audience “We not so bad after all” and teased his band by keeping them in suspense at the end of some of the tracks.

We got an hour and a half of great music and entertainment.  Not much of a light-show, perhaps, but then he really didn’t need any gimmicks or extras – the power of his music alone carried the event.  I loved every minute and would happily go and see him again.  Just not using Viagogo for the tickets.

A word of warning – Viagogo aren’t an official seller, they purely act as brokers for people trying to re-sell unwanted tickets for a range of music and sporting events.  And they’re not particularly honest.  They add vast amounts to the face value of the tickets in the shape of tax, handling fees and postage (even for e-tickets!), which can bump the cost up by three or even four times.  They don’t make this clear during the purchasing process; the price you see when you click ‘confirm’ is nowhere near the price you end up paying.  And there is no way, at all, of cancelling the transaction or getting a refund.  All you can do is sell the tickets back to them, presumably at considerable loss to yourself.  In the end, we were ‘lucky’.  The tickets arrived in time (some don’t).  They were legit (some aren’t).  And we only paid three times face value (some cost even more).

But I’d never, ever use the company again, and strongly recommend that nobody else does either.  Over two hundred quid for a concert that should have cost sixty?  Now that really is the Blues.

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