Friday, 22 December 2006

Inferno Re-Visited

Dante was wrong. There are ten circles of Hell.

A foretaste of this last, and deepest, darkest circle, is vouchsafed to those who venture out at this time of year… From years of such observation, the full extent of the nightmare can finally be made known.

Beyond Limbo, beyond the city of Dis, at the bottom of the Pit, lies the Door. It glows with a hellish light, and is girt about with glittering sigils and symbols.

Above the door, an archaic sign reads ‘Lucifer, Asmodeus and Beelzebub, licensed purveyors of wines, spirits, beer, tobacco, despair and game. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

The Door is guarded by a demon, who does not try to keep out the poor damned souls clustering at the entryway; rather, it forces upon each a torturous device of metal, wheeled and cage-like, and hastens them through the portal. Barriers swing wide of their own account, drawing the damned deeper into that which lies beyond. A hot, burning wind blows over the damned souls as they enter, a foretaste of what is to come. Eyes wide, the souls behold a huge cavern, stretching on for eternity, and find in their hands a piece of parchment, a list of such length as to take almost forever to glean from the serried ranks of razor-edged shelves that line the endless aisles…

And thus they set out upon their futile quest – to gather everything on the list in their trembling hands. For if they succeed, and gain the FinalCheckOut, they will be released from this torment, and will forever rest in peace – or so they believe, for none has ever succeeded in escaping. For many are the trials and tribulations that lie ahead, and loud is the Infernal Muzack playing all around.

The wheeled devices go not where the damned direct them, but follow a path of their own that takes the soul not past the cool Havens of the Frozen Foods but onwards to the Sprouts of Doom. A cry of woe rings the Vegetable Department – for Lo, there are no leeks until Tuesday! The hot breath of the mighty Heaters increases. And the damned are forced to loose their collars, and sweat breaks out on each face. One soul reaches the Infinite Shelf of Baking Products, but alas – there are raisins, sultanas, dried apricots, dried apple flakes, sunflower seeds, self-raising flour, self-deflating flour, organic flour, inorganic flour, gluten-free flour, flour-free flour – but no chocolate chips. Perhaps they have been relocated?

The damned soul beseeches a passing imp, pallid and be-spotted, which calls to its brood mate, ‘Sharon, where are the chocolate chips?’

The imp Sharon scratches the tips of her horns with her tail, tilting the festive baubles hung thereon, and responds, ‘Aisle 134,237,901, with the biscuits. Been there since the new EU regulations came in.’

The soul sinks its head in its hands and weeps.

In Seasonal Goods, a fight breaks out as one damned soul pounces on the last roll of wrapping paper and bears it off in triumph.

They cannot leave until their list is fulfilled, precisely As It Is Writ, with no substitutions or alternative manufacturers, for Our Dad will only eat a certain brand of beans. Which are currently out of stock. And no item shall be Past Its Sell By Date, for this renders it invalid. Should a persistent soul, after many millennia crawling the aisles, finally see ahead the haven of the FinalCheckOut, it is certain that the queue will stretch to the rear of the Great Cavern, beyond even the Bread Counter. And it will not proceed, for there will be those who try to substitute items, or who have forgotten the frozen peas. Or have cartons of milk that have split. And if by some chance the damned soul finds itself at the end of the eternally halted conveyor belt, the demon at the till will close the checkout as the soul starts to empty the trolley’s contents onto the conveyor. And there will be a wailing and a gnashing of teeth.

And ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ will begin again on the loudspeakers…

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Travels with a Temporary Dog

For reasons that are too complex to go into, Mum has become temporary custodian of a small dog. Consequently, when Mum comes to visit, the dog comes too. Like now.

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Looks cute and innocent, doesn’t she? Hah!

She is a ‘combination terrier’ - Lakeland, Yorkshire and Border, to be precise, but in terms of attitude and personality her breed is now designated ‘Monstrous Baskervillian’. It’s very deceptive; she is small, quite dainty in a fluffy sort of way, and all of 12 years old, so you would think age would have brought some sort of decorum to her.

Not a hope.

For a start, she hates other dogs. She wants to tear them to bits. It is, quite frankly, embarrassing - Mum takes her out, and if they meet another dog, the snarling-like-a-banshee begins. Other owners wave at their dog ‘Oh, it’s OK, they won’t hurt her’ and Mum has to reply - ‘no, it’s her that’s the problem!’ Now, if Mum sees another dog in the distance, she takes evasive action. The streets in my village are linked by a maze of alleyways between the houses, so it’s no problem to simply sideslip off one road on to another - but she feels she’s becoming known as 'the disappearing woman' - one minute she’s there, the next time people look up, she’s gone. I feel a myth coming on…

Then there’s the business with the food bowl. She eats the dried mixed biscuit stuff, and eats when she wants to - which is mostly at night. She likes the big meaty chunks, and eats those first, working her way gradually down to the boring beige and green bits, which get left until last. She doesn’t get a refill until she’s finished the last lot; at this point she lets us know by bringing her bowl into the living room and dropping it in a marked manner in the middle of the floor. She has been known to tip out the last few green bits onto the kitchen floor and pretend the bowl is empty. If we are busy, and ignore her, she is quite likely to whack one of us across the shins with the bowl. (Coming in from a long car trip and wanting a drink, she once threw an empty bucket at Mum) If she finishes her food at night, one is quite likely to find the bowl placed carefully in the middle of the bathroom doorway, where it can be stepped on during a nocturnal foray to the toilet…

She is also very vocal. Not in a ‘woof-woof’ or ‘yap-yap’, or even a ‘whine-whine’ sort of way, though. Nope. This dog makes a strange, throaty noise rather akin to the creaking of the front door of the Addams Family mansion. It’s known, colloquially, as ’mumping and grumping’. Like 'hrmfh.. grmph... urrrrnnn.... mmfphmmfph'. This happens when she thinks something is up - or if something is not happening that she thinks should be - like walks, or attention. In the car it's constant at low speeds, (she's quite settled if we're going fast) and the complaints when we go round corners and roundabouts increase in pitch and volume and can be expressed in Human as something along the lines of 'ohmigodyou'renotgoinginastraightline.. you'regoingroundsomething… your'egoingtokillus…augh'.....

She travels in the passenger foot-well - I tried using a harness in the back but being an escapologist of Houdini standard, this was doomed from the start. Plus, being attached to the seatbelt, she pulled this forward, and I was inclined to get a wet nose in my ear at inopportune moments. So the foot-well it is, ideally with Mum as guardian, and she’s reasonably OK there. One just has to get used to the idea of reaching to change gear and encountering a wet nose instead of the gear-lever. Going from ‘second’ to ‘dog-nose’ is not the most pleasant manoeuvre.

And she’s a drama queen. If we encounter a sudden bump in the road, she is quite likely to take off vertically. (I must point out - she doesn’t do this with her real owner. ) If you stand close to one hair of her tail, you’d think she’d been murdered. She has a range of facial expressions from smug to disdain to utter horror (like when we go out without her).

She loves people. She loves heat. She loves games and walks.

She reminds us why we haven’t had a dog for forty years……

Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Climate Control

The weather is being peculiar. Here at the end of October, it’s been ludicrously warm, interspersed with high winds and lashing rain. All of which conspires to give me a problem: windscreen fogging. The warmth means that as soon as it rains, and the outside temperature plummets, the residual warm air in the car (and this is with the heater on cool) hits the cold glass and - POW! - instant loss of visibility. Usual response - to put the blower on the windscreen - fails miserably, only causing more fogging. I try turning the heat up, as I do in winter - it just gets worse.

I try to approach this logically.

Fogging is caused by condensation - warm, moisture laden air passing over a cold surface, the water condenses out onto the surface. It’s meteorological.

I need to equalise the temperature somehow.
To clear the rear window, you put the inbuilt heating element on - this heats up the glass and stops the condensation. Heating up the windscreen - by using the hot air blower - does not have the same effect. It doesn’t prevent the condensation, it makes it worse, except for a thin strip at the bottom, which clears a bit. Hmmm. OK - so there’s even more moisture in the air now, with it being warmer. (And I’m melting…) So I need to take the moisture out of the air - dry it out. I stick on the air conditioning and the air recycling, whizzing the moist warm air through the drier, in effect, and not letting any new damp stuff in. This isn’t very effective, but does reach halfway up the windscreen. Something is working, I’m just not sure what.

SO - if heating up the screen fails, try the opposite! Cool the air down.

Turn down the heater, and blow cold air across the screen. This still fails to give me visibility. Take it down a notch - I stick on the air conditioning, turn up the blower, and wheee! The screen clears almost immediately. I freeze, but I can now see where I’m going.

So the answer, at least in warm-ish weather, is to cool down the air that’s actually hitting the windscreen - effectively putting a thin layer of icy air between the screen and the moist air. Now that’s quite logical, but given the meteorology involved, it leaves me with one question. When the moist warm air hits the icy layer, why doesn’t it condense out? My guess is that the cold air is moving too much - but I still wanna know - why aren’t there clouds forming just above my head?


Friday, 27 October 2006

Being a Tourist – 16 October

Duties concluded, we are free to sight-see! This may take some time, so I recommend you get a cup of coffee (or the beverage of your choice) and settle in for a while.

I decide to have another lie-in; you understand, these are not late lie-ins, merely to about 9.00 am, when the noise of traffic, trams and people outside drives me out of my bed to the shower! I forego breakfast in the hotel and decide to do the real tourist thing – to find a café and sit outside, watching the world go by whilst sipping on a café au lait.
I set out to find the cathedral. Of necessity born of joint damage, I move slowly, so it’s a gentle amble, checking out the shops as I go, (and beginning to understand Liz’s fascination for the shoe shops!) and soak in the difference of the place. It reminds me of York, in a way, trendy shops giving way to the more tourist-trap versions as I near the cathedral itself. It rises from the houses much in the way York Minster – or indeed Beverley Minster in my home town – does; there is no clear view of the building, just glimpses of facades through gaps between other buildings. I find a road leading to the North doors, and stop to take it all in.

It seems to be red sandstone – the only time I have seen this before is St Magnus in Orkney – of course I may be wrong, not having a geological hammer with me (and I doubt I would have been allowed to take samples!), and the details in the carving are still very clear, which I wouldn’t expect in something subject to the weathering of centuries. The North Porch (apologies if I get this wrong, but I’m guessing direction!) is fascinating, and I stop at a café, order petit dejeuner and sit down outside to take in the view.
Croissant, café au lait, et cathedral.
On one side, the Wise and Foolish Virgins look smugly at each other. On the other, the Vices backstab the Virtues. Above the door, the Virgin Mary dies and is buried. Higher still, Kings on horseback ride around the sides of the towers, and above all – gargoyles. Crowding each buttress, each cornice, they hang out halfway to the sky, open mouthed at the antics below.

I love gargoyles! The chief beauty of Gothic architecture, for me, lies in the gargoyles. I wish our modern architecture had room for them, it would be so much more fun!
Off to my left, an old merchant house looks more German than French, reflecting the mixed nature of the Alsace region.

A strange noise attracts my attention. There is a man with a barrel organ to my right, and another group that I can only describe as the local equivalent of a mariachi band to my left, but another, deeper, more visceral noise underlies it all. Finishing my coffee, I pay the bill and go to find out what’s happening.

Russian horns! They look more like old brass telescopes, but the sound is wonderful. They play classical music, sounds Russian to me (but what do I know!) and it clashes deliciously, in a way that makes me want to laugh out loud, with the accordion/mariachi version of ‘Delilah’ that is still playing around the corner.
I wander back to the tourist office to meet up with Liz and Lucy, who are halfway through the walking tour, cleverly guided by mp3 directions. We head for the cathedral to see the astrological clock, only to find that demand means that the doors are closed before the 12.30 pm ‘performance’. So we wait for it to finish (quietly cursing!) on the steps below the outer clock.

Once the doors open, we make our way inside. The clock is a masterpiece of automata; created in the 1400’s, and repaired and extended in the 18th century, it has some of the oldest moving mechanical figures in Europe. But the first thing that meets the eye as you enter by the (probably) West gate is the Angel column. It represents the Day of Judgement, gospel writers below angels below archangels and holy figures, and it’s quite beautiful.

OK, back to the clock. It’s absolutely huge, and I don’t know if the picture gives any idea of how big it is. I apologise for wobbly bits in the picture, as I’ve stuck two together to show you what it looks like. What are we looking at?

Top left – a rooster, which crows – apparently represents Peter’s denial. Below this, a lot of mechanism which drives (bottom left, behind the grille) an ecclesiastical clock – which, I guess, is something that will tell the date of Easter or something of the sort – it goes into epochs and all sorts of things. The pictures are of the muse of astronomy, Urania, Copernicus and…umm. Guilty, don’t remember!
Top right – and below – the stairway that rises for the maintenance man (very narrow steps!)
In the middle: at the top, I think, it’s the figure of Christ and the apostles parade past him each day at noon - hence 12.30 – the clock works on astronomical time rather than official time (remember Leap Years?). Below that figures representing the ages of man parade at intervals – childhood, youth, maturity and old age. Under them, a black and gold globe shows the phases of the moon, and below that, the astrological signs revolve around the heavens. At the foot of these sit two cherubs, one with a bell (which rings the quarter hours) and one with an hourglass (which turns on the – half - hours?). Between them, there is a clockface with two sets of hands, one showing official time, one showing ‘real’. Under these - (I told you it was huge!) – and this is under the dark shelf at the lower third of the picture – are a series of Roman chariots representing the days of the week – today it’s Luna, in a chariot drawn by stags (how appropriate!).
The big disc below that shows the Earth, with hands that reflect the length of the day at this time of year. I’m guessing that the globe revolves to show the side of the Earth facing the Sun. Behind the man who is inconveniently standing in the middle is an orrery, mapping the heavens.
And one small detail, which I love and which I have failed to represent clearly, is the light coloured band to the right bottom corner. This has the months of the year on it, from top to bottom and back up again (and the appropriate sign of the Zodiac) and in the door to the right of it is a slit, which makes the midday sun shine on the appropriate time of year. I love this clock!!!!
On either side of the big disc at the bottom are the emblems of Night and Day. Day is a chap in Roman armour, who points at the current time. Night, on the other hand, is to be quite frank, a bit of a floozy. I mean, look at that frock…

Liz and Lucy head off to finish their tour, and I set out around the cathedral to se what they’ve already seen. It’s gorgeous, and not that huge – it bears comparison with either Minster – and has a number of rather enchanting features such as this -

On the left, a representation of the preacher’s dog, put there to keep him company during long hours in the pulpit! And then there’s the organ loft, hung like a swallow’s nest high in the vaulting, (I doubt it still works, but it’s amazing! And think of the organist climbing all that way up there…) After a while, I venture back into the word outside, blinking in the sunshine, and take a trip on the wee tram that runs round the old part of the city. It travels through the more picturesque streets, bucking over the tram lines, squeezing through the narrow lanes of Petit France, crossing and re-crossing the river. It’s a nice way to see the sights.
I met up with the others back at the cathedral, for quick refueling stop consisting of patisserie, and we head down to the river to take in the sights on the boat trip. The day has become warm and sunny, and we opt for the open top boat. For the first part, we cover relatively familiar ground, seeing the old part of the city from the water, traversing a couple of locks, passing the old washing stations and the tanners’ houses, before turning upriver towards the more modern elements of the European Parliament buildings.

It’s a relaxed and relaxing way to see the sights, (and you can get off on certain trips and see things more closely) and we finally wander back ashore with thoughts of shopping and coffee. Liz heads off shoe-shop-wards, and Lucy and I decide to be a little more leisurely and find yet another café –this time with a more Germanic flavour. But before we split up, I find another gargoyle, this time on the downspouts of the Rohan Palace…

Tomorrow we head back to Scotland, via Orly and Charles de Gaulle, over the cloud covered land, before dropping down through the grey layers to an Aberdeen little different for our absence. Tonight, wandering back towards the hotel, before a final meal at our favorite haunt, we see that we have made some form of impact on the city. In a plant-pot on one of the main shopping streets, Excalibur waits for the Once and Future King…

Random memories?

The panic of trying to by a tram ticket and finding the machine broken – and the delight in discovering how to get it to tell you what to do in English! And the tram system itself – regular, efficient, and cheap. And clean!!
The bats swooping over the Music Hall.
Small, silent, smiling children.
The Eiffel Tower, lit up and glittering at night.
Finding words in French that I didn’t know I knew suddenly at the front of my brain.
Sunrise through mist, and the cathedral rising through it, clad in scaffolding that looked like part of the building – a lacework tracery edging the steeples.
Discovering – as if I should have thought different – that kids are very much the same, wherever you are.
A wealth of very charming men!
Sun on the water.
Plane trees, reminding me of the old slogan – plane trees aren’t.
Market stalls, farmers’ market on Friday, antiques market on Saturday, neither of which we had time to see (or spend money in!)
The Eiffel Tower during the day, from the window of the coach between airports.
Nightfall rushing towards us across the clouds.
A crazy idea, that seemed to work!

Home again, how long ago it feels…

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Encounters - 15 October

So I had a lie-in, of course…what did you expect?

Sunday morning in Strasbourg is relaxed. The trams still run, naturally, and there is a to-ing and fro-ing of people, but a lot sit out around the squares, just taking in the ambience and enjoying the sunshine. Which is what I did, for a while. Until I got into conversation with another taker of the morning air – he passed by with his dog, and smiled. Being polite, I smiled back. He commented on the weather, and I replied, in my fractured French. He enquired if I was German – no, Anglais. He spoke fractured English. He asked if he could sit down on the bench I was on. There was no-one else on it, and it’s a free country, after all. We began to chat – the usual niceties, the weather, where we were from; he was from Mauritius, did I know where it was – yes, in the Indian Ocean – he seemed surprised. He was an ex-sailor, he had been to England but had come to France and now had his dog. We considered how places had changed over the recent past – wages, job opportunities and the like.
Was I here with anyone?
Yes – I explained about the science fair.
Was I here with my wife?
I blinked, but reckoned he meant husband – no, some colleagues.
Was I married?
In retrospect, I guess this is the point where alarm bells rang. Quietly. And I should have invented a large hairy man lurking in the background. But being me, I told the truth.
No, I work with them, which is quite enough!
‘Do you not like sex then? There is plenty in France! If you like women there are some hot ones!’ the conversation became more graphic.
I’m not exactly sure what I said here, but I made my excuses, politely thanked him for his company and scurried back to the safety of the hotel and the ‘Bringing the Cows Down the Mountain’ celebrations on the local TV channel. And the weekend meteorological programme.
I shouldn’t be let out without a keeper.

Meanwhile, Liz and Lucy had made their way to the Museum of Modern Art, and had discovered, amongst other things, the exhibition of erotica...

We meet up at the tent just before 2.00 pm, and as the doors opened, a positive flood of people come in, and it’s non-stop thereafter. Joanna has difficulties getting away to catch her plane, being in the throes of tree-making. One very small and utterly enchanting little girl comes in with her mother, and proceeds to make a tree, with my help. I can tell her Mum wants to get on and get home, but the wee lass is engrossed, and won’t quit until the tree is completed to her satisfaction. Mum has the rueful, ‘I know we’ll be doing this at home’ look I’ve come to know, but she is very patient. Eventually, they leave, clutching a tree, partly in pieces – I’d explained it was best to take it that way so bits didn’t become ‘perdue’. When I next look up, the little one is back again, busy with paper. She cuts and folds for a while and then silently presents her creation to me.
‘Pour moi?’
She nods, silently smiling, and goes off to find her mother.

Outside the stag herd grows apace. David the Security Man is now a convert ‘I thought this was stupid when it started, but it is all about families, which is the important thing - it is wonderful!’ he confides to Lucy.
One lad has been coming back for three days now, making part of a stag until he has to go. The first day, his half-built creation had ‘gone for recycling’ at the end of the day; when he came back and it wasn’t there he had set to and rebuilt it, and this time it was saved overnight – he’s back again today and is very intent on his task. He finishes just as the event does, and proudly displays his creature. He then has to go home on the tram (he was late yesterday, we expected him to be grounded!) and so leaves it, content that he has finished it at last. He takes the last of the ‘giveaways’ with him.

Time to pack up. The tent is stripped down in about 45 minutes, all the stands a mass of frantically packing people. We say a sad farewell to Eric and Delphine (and leave her with the last of the marshmallows!) The organizer is delighted – she reckons we’ve had 11,700 people through the tent since opening on Friday (I don’t know where the numbers came form, but there was semi-controlled entry, so maybe it’s not too much a case of creative accounting.) I reckon we’ve seen at least 700 to 800 of them on our stand(s) over the three days. She wants one of our stags for her office, and we give her my little fellow, as he’s small enough to fit and strong enough to have survived this far. I’m glad – I didn’t want to witness the moment when he would be broken up and sent for recycling. OK, so I’m daft! It’s not news!

The three of us head back to the hotel, to clean up and relax. From my window, I watch a distant plane draw a contrail across the clear blue sky, and am staggered that we have only been here four days; it seems much longer.
Then it’s out for supper at the tavern at the back of the square – a seafood and local produce place, wonderful langoustine bisque, steak the way I like it (shown to the grill briefly), and a large measure of beer. We make plans for our sightseeing trip tomorrow – Liz wants to do a walking tour, Lucy wants to see the astronomical clock at the cathedral, I want to do the river trip. The shoe shops are also exerting a certain call on Liz…

We agree to meet up at the cathedral at 12.15-ish, and take it from there. We leave the tavern, which has suddenly turned into THE place to watch the football, and head back across the square, early for a change. Above the Music Hall, small shapes are flickering back and forth. Bats, chasing moths drawn in by the lights illuminating the building at night. It’s air combat to rival anything previously seen in the skies over France, wingtip turns, dives and barrel rolls. The bats don’t have it all their own way, the moths drop like stones to evade their pursuers, sending the bats off course, skimming the roof tiles at high speed.

We watch, the only ones on the square looking up.

Monday, 23 October 2006

“Another Ten Hours of Fractured French …” - 14 October

And that pretty much sums it up – 9.00 am to 7.00 pm, straight through with no breaks! There is a phenomenal stream of people coming through the exhibits. One woman asks if we are to be a regular feature in Strasbourg – ‘the children need something like this, something to do, to gain their interest.’ More teachers ask for details of the activities. The second projector produced has no more effect than the first; the projector screen looks unused and lonely, and Eric and I decide to go for Plan B. I design a poster, and he translates it, we stick pieces of A4 together and I draw it out, and together we stick it up on the screen. It explains the rationale behind what we are doing on the stand, the theory behind ‘Simple Science’. My paper stag stands atop the wooden booth at the front of the stand, inviting explanation.

Outside, the Saturday morning school groups are head-to-head building stags. Security Man David shakes his head, and grins. Gradually the school groups give way to families, all ages involved in serious stag creation. Elegantly clad ladies crouch, sticky tape in hand, as their children get down to the serious business of rolling lengths of newsprint. I’ve wrecked my thumbnail taking staples out of papers, and today have brought my nail clippers to take up the duty. At home, I’d have had my penknife, but there are some things that just won’t pass airport security!

The herd grows bigger. Even Bill Oddie and Simon King haven’t got this many beasts in their AutumnWatch programme. Fortunately, ours are silent, although their makers aren’t; constant chatter and laughter mark the place outside the tent beside the monument. One teenage girl remarks that it’s the first time she’s had fun in this place. It’s not all children. Adult groups take part too; some serious paper engineering resulting in fine, upstanding creations with multiple-branching antlers – here, Lucy presents one of the finest of the morning.

And so it goes on, all day. Our French improves, more in desperation than by skill, and every so often we check our newly-produced lists of ‘words we need’ with Eric and/or Delphine. By the time 7.00 pm rolls around, we’re shattered, and head back to our hotel. I realise I haven’t mentioned this so far – not having had much time to think beyond paper and photographs.
It’s very nice, the Kleber Hotel, just off the square beside the crossing of the two tram lines. Each room is individually ‘themed’, and named as well as numbered – a blessing to the confused visitor. My room overlooks the tram station, at Homme du Fer (named after the first train), and is decorated in grape colours – fresh green and deep aubergine-purple. There is a flat screen TV – it’s taken me until now to find the French-speaking stations, to try and find a weather forecast. I’m surprised at how warm it is, 20C on the first day, and it stays pretty much the same throughout, although mornings are slightly cooler and misty. The heat means I leave the windows open, and all night long, if I wake, I can hear the soft rumble of the trams as they cross the junction below.

They blow their horns to warn of their approach, but seem to suspend this in the small hours – not for a lack of people, for the streets seem constantly busy – starting again at around 6.00 am. Liz is less fortunate – her room is near what is probably an air-conditioning plant, and is constantly noisy. Lucy has a room with two double beds, and we threaten her with being the venue for an all-night party on the last night.

We head for the Tête du Lard again for dinner. Tomorrow is the last day of the festival, and we work from 2.00 until 6.00 pm, and then do the final clear up – a short day, and an opportunity for a little sightseeing in the morning. Or for a lie in!

Paper Trees and Challenging Stags - 13 October

Hmm, Friday the 13th.
Actually, that’s usually a good day in my family and so it is today - my luggage has finally arrived! Oh, the joy of using my usual toothpaste - relegated to the hold baggage by security restrictions, along with shampoo and moisturiser- little things gain unexpected significance.

We open to the public at the tent in Place Broglie at 10.00 am, and it’s pretty constant from then on, with troops of visiting school children until lunchtime, followed by families in the afternoon and early evening. Our activities for this day, and the rest of the weekend, are constructing paper trees using only four A4 pieces of (recycled) paper and scissors- ‘pas de scotch, pas de colle’ as I grow used to explaining - and making ‘Highland Stags’ from newspaper and tape - papers cannot be cut or torn, and the tallest is the winner. All deer should have antlers, ideally branching, and both trees and stags should be free-standing. It’s an exercise in strength of construction, in counterbalance and cross-bracing, in planning and thinking through a design, and in the subsequent execution. We also relate it to the actual living things, to the shape and structure of a tree, with the roots to hold it up and a strong trunk, and to the way a stag has a strong neck to balance the spread of the antlers. Simple materials, simple ideas, and more complex than it appears. It’s a far cry from much of the other stuff that’s going on at the fair - we are next door to a wonderful solar-powered oven, designed for use in Central Africa to reduce the deforestation for fuel, and opposite us, something looking at all the things that cause pollution in homes - there is a particularly disturbing picture of a dust mite! There are stands promoting solvent-free glues and mastics, medicines, and to be quite frank, a lot of stuff that is beyond my dodgy translations! Much of the ‘hands on’ involves looking at pictures, down microscopes and doing quizzes, as far as I can make out. Which makes us even more of an oddity!

We are constantly asked what we are doing, how and why is this science, and when we explain, it’s like a light-bulb going on - teachers in particular want details of the activities to use for themselves.
Our fragile French is bolstered by the arrival of the inestimable Eric. He is serious, meticulous, and dedicated to correcting our linguistic mistakes.
He’s also great to have around - our explanations to visitors are often punctuated by cries of ‘Eric, what’s the word for…’ and he’s utterly unflappable.
Lunch is taken on the run - Liz dives out to the bakers for baguettes - and the paper forest grows steadily.

Outside, the herd of stags is also growing, much to the amusement of passers-by and the security man, David, who shakes his head in gentle Gallic derision. Lucy is brilliant at conveying what to do by means of a broad smile and one-word exclamations. ‘Voila! Formidable!’
‘Say it with conviction’ she says ‘…and you get away with a lot!’
The solvent-free glue man is entranced, and brings offerings of apple tart. I can’t resist having a go at building a stag of my own – he’s not the tallest of beasties, but quite stable and not a bad-looking lad, if I say so myself!

The trees seem to be the favourite of the smaller children, whist the adolescents - and later, adults - seem to enjoy the stags, often competing between groups to see who can make the tallest. Liz and Lucy are kept on the hop measuring and recording, and awarding prizes. I go between activities, taking pictures and updating the rolling slideshow - the projector fails utterly, so we have two laptops constantly showing pictures from the activities in Scotland and in France. In between cursing the vagaries of technology under my breath, I help out Annette and Eric with trees. In the middle of the afternoon, Annette turns into Joanna, also from the BA in London, a running handover punctuated by tree building. Joanna bravely dons the red t-shirt we all wear as ‘uniform’ (we look like a mis-matched punnet of tomatoes) and dives in.
In a similar vein, at 5.00 pm Eric turns into his sister Delphine - or rather she takes over the shift - she’s bouncier, less serious, and quite an artist in her own right - she has to have a go at making a paper tree - with astonishing results.

Suddenly it’s 7.00 pm, and it’s over for the day. We stagger as far as the café next to our hotel for dinner, and at some point before we collapse into bed, Lucy comes up with the title of tomorrow’s diary entry…….

Sunday, 22 October 2006

Marshmallows and Spaghetti – 12 October

Morning arrives far too soon. After breakfast, we head out into the gathering daylight, to take the tram to our first destination.

The cathedral rises beyond Place Kleber, shrouded in the early mist. It’s busier than I would have imagined this early, with people heading out for their work, and the tram – a modern, sleek and very clean machine – full of commuters. We are heading south of the city, to a secondary school– to deliver our first workshop; building towers from dry spaghetti and mini-marshmallows (see, I told you I’d tell you why Lucy’s luggage was full of them!).

What’s this to do with science? Well, it is a great way to teach the basic principles of engineering – strong shapes (triangles) versus weak (squares), material limitations (the marshmallows can only take so much!), task constraints (limited materials), and the need for precision (you need to make sure your spaghetti strands are broken to the same length, or suffer the consequences in terms of tower instability). Using simple materials makes it very accessible, and the sheer daftness of some of the ideas makes it a lot of fun. We have to explain this many times over the next few days, starting with the contact teacher at our first school.

Annette is the picture of calm, armed with maps and directions, and we alight from the tram on a wide street, tree-lined and cool. A brief consultation and we make our way to our destination. The sun is starting to break through as, at ten to nine, we arrive at the school gates, and the mist begins to clear.

It’s not quite what we were led to expect – we thought we were operating throughout in the International Schools, where most of the children speak English. Not so. Is this the time to explain that none of us is fluent in French? This school is in an Educational Priority Zone (ZEP) – which means a certain level of deprivation, and a certain level of - umm – how do you put it in this age of political correctness? – behavioural challenge. Apparently. In fact, we didn’t see it – the kids were great. Admittedly they looked at us as if we were mad to start with, but in this job you get used to that. They listened carefully, they grinned, and they set to with a will. And made some wonderful structures.

We had two classes at the secondary school, before heading back into town for lunch, (having had no dinner, by this time we were ravenous!) - and a date with the International School in the afternoon – three classes of primary level children, from five years up. Now, we haven’t done this with kids that young before, so it’s a challenge! We decide, for the youngest, to make triangles and squares, and take it from there – and they came up with some terrific constructions; the main problem was preventing them from eating the marshmallows, even though they had been on the floor by then. Fortunately, English is the main language here and we can explain in more detail why not! It was still an extremely sticky experience for all of us, and I hope the school cleaners will forgive us…

School finishes at 4.30 pm and we take our leave, heading back to the tram and to Place Broglie, where the Strasbourg Fête de la Science is taking place over the next three days. Two long tents in the middle of the market place, one for talks and one for stands; we discover that we have one small booth in which to do both workshops – building trees from paper without using tape or glue or staples, and building stags from whole sheets of newspaper and sticky tape – both aiming to make the tallest construction possible. It just ain’t possible in the allocated space (given that the nuclear physicists next door have nicked six inches of our space anyway!). One activity will have to go outside – which makes our original plan of two or three to do the activities at a time while the other takes a break rather unlikely. We are due to get a couple of students to help with translations, which is a blessing!

We set up as best we can, although it turns out that the projector provided to show the running slideshow (my job) doesn’t cope well with sunshine. By 7.30 pm we’ve done as much as we can, and head back to the hotel, to clean up and check on our luggage. Liz and Lucy’s has arrived – mine is still stranded in limbo somewhere….I go to wash out things for tomorrow.

We are recommended a place called ‘La Tête du Lard’ for dinner. To British ears this sounds a little off-putting, but it turns out to be excellent. We try the local speciality, ‘Tarte Flambée’ – like a very thin pizza with bacon and onions and – well, a selection of other things, such as cheese or mushrooms. Delicious! And an alcoholic ice-cream sort of dessert, and – because we obligingly moved halfway through to accommodate a large group – a complimentary glass of wine from the management!
Tomorrow we need to be back at the tent for 9.00 am, so head back to the hotel and bed.

Here Comes the Night – 11 October

With a ‘thunk’, the wheels retract, and we climb from a damp, grey landscape into nothingness. Outside the window, blank grey-white. Inside, a narrow aisle lies between the leather-look padded seats, one to the left, two to the right. We swallow hard, equalising the pressure in our ears as the plane climbs, lifting above the thick rolls of stratus into a gap between the layers, the sky brightening as we ascend. Suddenly we pop out into sunlit blueness, over a fuzzy white blanket that covers the whole of Britain.
‘The weather’s better up here’ I try a half-hearted joke to cover my apprehension. The ironic secret is, I’m not that keen on flying. I gaze out of the window to take my mind off what I know of flaps and ailerons, lift and control procedures. I’m not reassured to see another aircraft away to port, leaving a clear contrail in the thin air. Sunlight paints it white, glinting off metal.
We’re heading for France. Strasbourg, by way of Paris (Charles de Gaulle), to be exact. It’s part of the European Science Festival, and we are Britain’s contribution to the year-long series of events, where each participating nation sends a team to another country to demonstrate ‘science activities’ for schools and the general public. ‘We’ are Liz, Lucy and myself, from Scotland, representing the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA), and we’ll be delivering some of the activities that have been used during North-East Scotland’s National Science Week over the last three years. Which is why Lucy’s cabin baggage is full of mini-marshmallows. And mine contains a laptop computer which makes it weight half a ton. And I think Liz has more marshmallows in her luggage, too. I’ll explain why later!

I continue to look out of the window, contemplating catching a few minutes sleep; it’s been a long day already, helping to run a training session for teachers on how school grounds can be used throughout the curriculum, and I could use the downtime. Outside, the sun is going down, a glory of coral and gold to starboard, catching the tops of the few clouds that rise above the flat layer below our wings. Away to port, where sky meets cloud, a thick dark-blue line runs straight as a ruler from north to south, moving inexorably towards us.
The terminator.
Not Big Arnie, but the edge of night, hastening across the face of the Earth as it turns away from the sunlight. Cumulonimbus rise below, edged in pink and gold, sending long blue shadows out towards the onset of darkness. I guess we’re somewhere over the Channel by now, and beginning our long descent towards Paris. No stars yet, but a deepening blueness, the last few glancing rays of light catch the tops of the cloud as we slide back down into the featureless nothing. The hard bump of clear-air turbulence rocks the plane, marking the gap between cloud layers. The flash of strobe lighting and navigation lights is the only illumination as we find more cloud and sink ever downwards.

No stars? Below lie constellations, glittering rivers of light and nebular clusters against the blackness of the land. I glance to starboard and am struck by the shimmering lights of the Eiffel Tower – good grief – it’s just there - just like its picture…
I’m still feeling faintly amused by my ridiculous reaction when we are instructed to fasten seatbelts for landing.

Wheels down, flaps down, bump. We slow down gradually, lights racing too fast for comfort past the wingtips. Taxiways lead inexorably towards hardstanding.
Passengers for Strasbourg and Pau will be met at the foot of the aircraft steps.’ We exchange baffled glances.
Right enough, we are met by a man in a yellow jacket, who hastens us and our cabin baggage aboard a minibus, and takes off across the airfield as if in the Paris-Dakar rally. We have very little time to make our connecting flight, and we have been battling a headwind all the way south from Aberdeen. This is how Air France solves the problem – personal escort by a charming chap called Pascal, who guides us all the way, reassuring us that it isn’t far, we will catch our flight, all is well… Charles de Gaulle is a vast airport – we’re at terminal 2F, we need to be at terminal 2D, but we need to go via 2B to go through immigration – and we must hike from 2B to 2D, which is no small distance. Red-faced and sweaty, I follow the ever-calm Pascal, who, true to his word, delivers us to the check-in for our onward connection to Strasbourg. We join the queue, which seems to be going nowhere.

This is perhaps the point to relate that Liz has a long history of being separated from her luggage on overseas trips.

The flight to Strasbourg goes without a hitch, an Airbus conveys us to our destination in wide-bodied comfort and around 45 minutes. We reach the baggage hall, and wait.
And wait.
One lone suitcase is left to make the endless circuit of the conveyor belt. It’s not one of ours. A lady from the airport comes to meet us. Our luggage has not arrived, it is still in Paris, it will be put on the first flight in the morning; if we could just accompany her and give some details? Dutifully, we do as asked. She gives us overnight survival packs, and tells us to call her if there has been no result within 24 hours.
We slump into a taxi to our hotel, and the lights of Strasbourg pass pretty much unheeded. It’s after 11.00 pm, local time, when we arrive, and meet up with Annette, who is the representative of the BA’s Head Office, and who has done the recce for tomorrow’s school visits. Breakfast at 7.00 am. I stagger into the shower in my room, and turn it on full blast, thanking whatever small household god drove me to pack a spare t-shirt, travel towel and clean set of underwear around the laptop in my cabin baggage.
Sleep, to the rumble of the city trams.

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Bee in his Bonnet?

The new postman doesn’t like my garden. There are too many things in it. He leaves me notes – ‘can you cut back your bushes because of the bees’. He threatens to leave my post at other houses. I feel like saying – you’re a postman, you should be brave – after all, what about dogs? Surely a few bees aren’t a problem? They don’t want to bite your ankles! If I’m home, I see him bending down as he pass the window, preparing to duck under the honeysuckles that run along the wall and over the front door - and incidentally act as a porch, giving shelter when I come home in the rain and am grovelling about in my bag or pocket trying to find my keys. He doesn’t like the honeysuckle 'massive'. It has bees. And moths. And spiders. And various other wildlife. It shelters my snails. And one part of it has big blousy cream and pink flowers in summer, and the other has smaller, delicate white and cream flowers in the early spring, sometimes when the snow is still on the ground, and it defies the worst of the weather.
I don’t think he likes the fuchsia bush by the gate either. From small beginnings it has grown to about two metres in height, and three wide, and at this time of year it’s dripping with red and purple flowers, humming with honey and bumble bees, a clarion call of colour as the sere shades of autumn creep into the rest of the garden. But it doesn’t get in the way. It’s been trimmed back so it doesn’t hang too far over the wall, or get in the way as you come through the gate. There’s a clematis somewhere in the mix as well, a small-flowered blue alpine one, with feathery seed-heads late in the season. This also defies the weather and the salt wind to surprise me with its delicacy and toughness.
The last postman liked my garden – since he’s retired (and taken the job of school crossing guard) he also delivers papers, and we swap gardening thoughts and seeds as the year goes round.

But we all have to get on, and so every so often, I trim the honeysuckle. But not very often!

Aliens in the Undergrowth

Damp mornings, heavy with dew. Cobwebs - or to give it the local name, slammach, - hangs wet on the gorse bushes like pieces of cloud ripped off and caught up in the spines. Cows loom out of the fog, strange in the half-light. And in the undergrowth, something odd is appearing. Overnight, they have appeared, aliens from another world. They troop through the woodlands, small trolls transfixed by daylight, or raise their strange heads through the grass of suburban lawns. One or two are breaking through the pavement in the village. Others emerge from the bark of trees, or cluster in whispering congregations as the rain drips from the leaves on their heads, raising small clouds of fine dust to be carried away on the slightest breeze. They are friends, killers, and clean-up merchants.


It’s a great time of year for them, and after the warm summer, this damp autumn has brought them out in their hundreds. Much misunderstood, coveted by some and reviled by others, it’s time they had a proper place in our everyday lives. In fact they do - we just aren’t aware of it most of the time.
So, some years ago, a group of us got together to develop a programme for schools which looks at the wonderful weirdnesses that are fungi, to help children understand how they grow, and their place in the natural and unnatural world around us.

This week has seen ‘The Good, the Bad and the Fungi, 2006’. (Yes, I know! Groan!!) We have discovered spores and how they travel, how they grow into fungi, the mystical world of mycelium, how fairy rings develop, how the fungus got its spots. We have come face to face with a wide variety of the real thing - the red and white fly agaric waiting for the fairytale to begin: white-weeping ugly milk caps: the solid shelf of the birch polypore: clusters of yellow sulphur tuft: the delicate glistening white of porcelain fungus, high above our heads on the dead branch of a beech tree: the blotches of tar spot, breaking down the fallen sycamore leaves, and a host of others. We have discovered how fungi help trees and other plants to grow by exchanging mineral salts for food, how they break down dead material, and how some can kill through parasitism. We’ve considered how this fits into the environment, how dead wood provides food and shelter for other creatures and how fungi fit into food webs. We’ve played parachute games, blown up balloons, made badges, discovered the small beasties that appear when you leave fungi to rot - and we’ve had to clean up some of the aftermath too!

And we’ve learned to look very carefully into the undergrowth.

Equinox Days

Swallows improvise
A coda to the summer
On telephone wires

The opening bars
herald autumn’s symphony,
a fanfare of geese.

I’ve been doing a bit of time travelling over the past couple of weeks - my own personal TARDIS being a combination of my car and the road between North East Scotland and East Yorkshire. Unexpected necessity means I have been up and down twice in three weeks - eight hours each way gives time to observe the passing landscape.

It’s a bit of a contest between summer and autumn - which is further advanced? Earlier in the year, as the harvest was being gathered in, south was well ahead of north - now, with the turning of the season and the rapidly shortening days, it has swapped over, and the north has the autumnal ascendancy. Travelling up and down, I find myself moving between the seasons. Here in the North, the leaves are already falling, crisp brown and yellow, filling the guttering and clogging the drains. The autumn fogs lie heavy, hiding the hills and clinging in the river valleys, clammy in the residual warmth. Wearing a jacket keeps out the wet, but is too warm yet for comfort.

South, in the one short week between my visits to Mum’s place, her Virginia creeper changed colour from green to crimson, scarlet and orange, burning up the side of the house in one last defiant outburst. The leaves there haven’t fallen yet, but will soon lie in brilliant drifts along the driveway, waiting for the garden vacuum and the collection bags where they will lie through the winter, turning into rich leaf-mould for the garden. The hedgehog leaves tracks in the heavy dew on the lawn, but we haven’t seen her recently - too busy with motherhood, we suspect. The hedgehog box will be installed soon, to provide a snug retreat for her winter hibernation.

The country seems to have been split; south of the border the summer lingers with sunshine days and kick-off-the-duvet nights. Driving through it reveals ploughed fields and stubble, and the last calves of the year with their mothers. As the evening descends, straw bales rise like ancient monoliths, black against deepening blue. North of the divide, there is rain. The sky hangs low, like a grubby wet dishcloth, spray and rain mingling on the roads. Safety lies only in the dim gleam of red tail-lights, for little else can be seen through the mist. Returning home, I wonder if there has been a power cut - even the flares from the gas terminal are invisible in the thickness of the murk - only the occasional glow of houses as I pass reassures me that there is still a world beyond my windscreen.

Evening’s fading light
shows monsters in the hedgerows.
Gorse becoming ghoul.

In my eye’s corner
tree becomes giant, stone wall
turns to crocodile.

Sunlight cannot show
this hidden face of the land
only dusk reveals.

Sunday, 24 September 2006

Brief Encounter – Eigg Anchorage

So we’d sailed over from Barra, and at the end of the day, dropped anchor on the south side of Eigg harbour. A shore party had been exploring the island, we’d had dinner, and were enjoying a glass of wine and some music on deck when a passing prawn boat gave our cook a notion for next day’s lunch. After a short discussion, the skipper and two of the female members of the party set off in the dinghy, and returned with a huge bucket of langoustines and some smaller prawns, traded, in best nautical fashion, for cans of lager. OK- it may be stereotypical, or even sexist, to send the bosun to bat her eyelashes at the fishermen, but it works!

It was a strangely calm night – strange, because the forecast had sternly said ‘Force 8 Northerly gale, imminent’, which was why we anchored where we did, sheltered from the oncoming winds. It never materialised, though they kept warning us about it! A few stars were showing through broken cloud, their numbers growing as the sky cleared. Out here, free of the intrusive lights of towns and cities, the sky seems immense – a swathe of brilliance curving from horizon to horizon, some stars seeming close enough to become tangled in the rigging, others as far away across time as to be nothing but a distant memory of something that once was.

The last few night-owls were loafing on deck, idly chatting and finishing up the wine, when there was a faint splash from the starboard side. We look at each other, and go to the rail to see. There’s something in the water, sliding quite quickly along beside the hull. ‘A seal’ says someone. I’m not so sure, and flick my torch briefly into the darkness. Not a seal. A long body and tail, broad flat head with a short nose, thick fur. The otter turns his head to look up at us, powerful tail driving him through the water. He’s about five feet long, or so it seems, and unconcerned by our presence. He swims alongside, vanishing under the overhang of the stern, before reappearing briefly, then diving with a hint of a splash. Bubbles trail away in the torchlight, heading for the prawn boat. It’s obvious where his interests lie.

Next morning, we tell Mum. She turns an interesting shade of green.

Monday, 11 September 2006

Dolphin Days - August 2006

OK, so I haven’t been around much recently. Like most people involved with schools, summer is the time to take off on holiday, lay back and relax, and watch the world go by. At this point in my life, this has become inextricably bound up with sailing off the west coast.

Travelling as the wind and tide dictates, watching the weather come in off the Atlantic and the changing light on the water, you see the land from the outside, a different, older face of Scotland. This is the road the Vikings took, and the lost stragglers of the Armada, the way of the Lords of the Isles, the main highway of the early settlers and traders, the lifeline for the isolated communities up and down the fringe of the land. It bustled with fishing fleets and small ferries and steam puffers plying their trade from the Clyde to the Summer Isles.
Now it’s left mostly to the tourists, and the trade is carried on the red and black liveried Cal-Mac ferries, the scatter of small fishing boats is outweighed by the cages of fish farms, and, far out in the Minch, the low-slung forms of tankers head for the northern terminal of Flotta, or beyond, their potential for environmental disaster a thin rust-clad steel wall away from actuality.

It’s still a wonderful place for wildlife.

Previous trips have brought contact with sea eagles, porpoises and whales, and great gatherings of basking sharks, sifting the waters north of Canna for plankton. Phosphorescent plankton danced in Loch Dunvegan, an underwater firework ballet glowing green under midnight skies. Gatherings of seals have watched us sweat on the halyards, or haul up the anchor from remote bays. There’s always something different to look forward to.

This year, our first encounter is the resident seal in Mallaig harbour, idly watching us load up the boat and refuel. It’s an Atlantic grey seal, the larger of the two species found regularly round our coasts, and it views us regally down the length of its long Roman nose.

The next couple of days see us heading out past Rum and Canna, across the Minch towards the Outer Hebridean islands, Uist, Benbecula and Barra. Porpoises slide past us, small and dark, and the ‘phooff!’ of their exhalations recalls one of their old local names – “puffin’ pigs”. They roll along as if they are wheels, with little splashing, and they don’t stay long. A small pod of common dolphins dashes past on their way to somewhere, slapping the water with their tails as if revelling in their speed and grace – and leave us trailing in their wake. Heading towards Castlebay on Barra, I’m at the wheel, holding 110 tonnes of ship with over 3000 square feet of sail on a course for the evening’s anchorage, when I notice a flock of birds away off to starboard. I squint against the light, and can just make out something large in the water, so I call it out to the rest of the crew. At this point it launches itself into the air – a minke whale, breaching. It drops back with a flurry of white water, and vanishes into the depths, as everyone rushes to the rail to try and see it.

The following day, as we head back towards Eigg from Barra, after a night of ceilidh music and dancing on the deck, (and there are a few sore heads this morning!) we spot a gathering of gannets. Plunge-diving in large numbers, they mark another shoal of fish, a bait-ball, and a magnet for predators, both above and below water.

Out of the grey water to starboard comes another pod of dolphins, around twelve of them, including one small calf. This group aren’t playing today, and head straight into the bait-ball, chasing the fish back and forth, until we can see the splashes as they leap clear of the water. More dolphins come from the port side, another fifteen or so, and five of them break off to join us, riding our bow wave for the next few minutes before turning back to join the feeding frenzy. It’s exhilarating to watch them sliding effortlessly from side to side of the bowsprit, a stream of bubbles rising from each blowhole as they come to the surface, the arched back and sharp fins cutting through the water. Dolphins are very sensual creatures and these are, in fact, indulging themselves in full-body pleasure; the pressure waves from our progress and the waves acting like a natural version of something bought in an Ann Summers shop. The skipper grins at me as we explain what’s happening to the others. “Dirty wee divvels!”

There are more seals, more porpoises, ravens and red deer, skuas and shearwaters, before the voyage is over for this year.

Sail Training Vessel ‘Leader’
Trinity Sailing

(All photos courtesy of my brother!)

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

It's not quite International Rescue...

Our local nature reserve is having a bit of work done.

Over time, willow scrub has encroached on a lot of the marshland, and the nineteenth-century canalisation of the burn that runs into the loch has resulted in the water becoming eutrophic - full of nitrate run-off from the surrounding farmland and from the ‘deposits’ of the thousands of geese that spend the winter here. Years of rough weather have eroded the islands in the loch, reducing the available nesting space for terns and other seabirds. With only two sluices, controlling the water flow through the site is difficult, and there are permanently flooded areas where it would be better to have seasonal changes in water level.

Recent grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from the EU have enabled much of this to be put right, and improved; new sluices and changes to the topography of the main wet grassland areas will enable the water levels to be controlled more precisely, to enable ideal grass and invertebrate conditions for spring nesting waders, such as redshank and lapwing, and winter grazing for the geese. The burn is being diverted to run on its old course, winding through reedbeds; this has the advantage of slowing down the flow, trapping the silt and nitrates in the reeds, preventing them reaching the loch, and providing better habitat for other waterbirds such as bittern and marsh harrier. Ultimately, the loch can be cleaned up and water quality improved. There will be better access to hides and improved disabled provision. All in all, a major project and one that will have significant and positive impact on the reserve.

Of course, all this work has to be done whilst taking care of the marshland - so it’s taken some pretty specialised machinery. Two of the original islands have been reinstated, by means of a very ingenious monorail system which transported reinforcing edging and gravel out into the loch in a matter of days before being taken down with little or no impact on the ground. All the remaining machinery is ‘big footprint’ stuff - wide tyres to spread the load and cut down on soil compaction and compression, and the schedule carefully organised so that scrub is taken up and burned on site in a specialised burner, before the ash goes on the surrounding fields as fertiliser, the cutters and burner making a slow and precise progress through the old willows. It has been planned like a military campaign, trying to get it done in before the birds return in autumn. Naturally, there is some disturbance now, but the terns on the island in front of the visitor centre haven’t been put off (over 130 pairs nested this year), and the moorhens seem to be multiplying faster than ever! With the resident ducks in eclipse - all are brown and growing new feathers - Mum refuses to try and sort them out while they are like this, (she says it’s just too much effort) so we went just to see how the work was progressing from the vantage point of the visitor centre.

For a Saturday afternoon, it was still busy. A bulldozer was remodelling the wet grassland area in front of the centre, shoving the soil (to the evident delight of the gulls who were picking it over for worms and other wee beasties) into a big heap, which was being loaded by a digger into a tipper truck, which took it elsewhere in the field where the levels need building up. Scrub cutters were busy, away to the right by the lochside, where the burner was doing its job. Another digger was busy to the left, several fields away on the other side of the burn, cutting the new channel, and yet another parked in the field beyond that, attracting the attention of the cows. The burn itself runs from left to right at the back of the field directly in front of where we were sitting. Much of the willow scrub to the right has vanished, leaving clear views across to the old wind pump tower. Another cutter, truck and a quad bike were parked at the back of this field, near the burn.

We played ‘Spot the Machinery’ for a while, and idly tried to sort Arctic from Common terns. After about twenty minutes of this, we were contemplating going home for tea, when the driver of the parked cutter returned, got into his vehicle and went to do some work on the willows by the burn to the left of the field. This is an area bounded by reedbeds and willow scrub, rather narrow where the bank of the burn runs at the bottom of another field, and required taking the cutter across the top of one of the sluices. He hadn’t been there long, and we wanted to see how the machine worked, so we watched through binoculars, agreeing that he seemed to be at a somewhat precarious angle.

The long arm of the cutter waved about a bit, hauled a few bushes out, and then waved in a more uncertain fashion. The machine looked to be well down the bank by the burn. After a minute or two, the cutter arm appeared again swinging round and we got the feeling that it was trying to get purchase on the top of the bank. This was complicated by a nearby fence-line and another field of cows. The driver got out and jogged back towards the other machinery at work in front of us.

‘He’s got it stuck’ says Mum.

The driver of the bulldozer parked his machine, got out, and walked back to the cutter with the original driver. They stood around for a while, scratching their heads and inspecting it. The ‘dozer driver had a go at getting it out of the ditch, and failed. Meanwhile, the drivers of the tipper and the digger parked their machines, and wandered over to have a look. There was more head scratching.

The digger driver went back, and carefully drove his machine up close to the cutter, and seemed to be rearranging the cut scrub to try to provide less slippery footing. This didn’t work. The ‘dozer driver had ago at the same, with similar lack of success. More scratching of heads. A mobile phone was put to use. At this point, the tipper driver and the digger driver took the quad bike down to join the rest of the incident. There were now four of them, standing around the cutter. Evidently the power of head scratching wasn’t working.

The pair on the quad vanished, somewhere into the willows. Evidently they crossed the burn somewhere higher up, as the quad appeared some time later on the far side (with only one of them on board) and headed up the field to the parked digger. Then a white van appeared from behind the willows, and headed up the field at speed; when it stopped for the driver to open the gate and get out onto the farm track , we could see it was driven by the tipper driver. He took off at speed down the farm track towards the area where the machinery is generally parked when not in action.

‘Wonder where he’s off to?’ we said. ‘Shall we stay and see if they get it out?’

The digger driver collected the other digger driver (who had been sitting in his cab) and headed in the direction of the gate. No sooner had they got there than the white van came back, and both vehicles set off for the incident site.

Now there were five men, all stood around, looking at the cutter and scratching their heads. The original driver of the cutter got out a camera to take some pictures. The second digger driver now got into the stranded cutter, and the ‘dozer driver assumed control of the digger. The tipper driver brought the quad bike round, and hitched a chain from the digger to the cutter, before beating a hasty retreat. With much effort and a cloud of diesel smoke, the digger began to move backwards. The arm of the cutter waved around precariously again, and the original driver took more photos, before waving instructions about avoiding the fence. The importance of this was obvious, as the cows in the field were, by now, gathering to see what was happening. The digger continued to move backwards.

Slowly, majestically, and in another cloud of diesel smoke, the cutter emerged from the ditch.

I don’t know if they heard the cheering and applause from the visitor centre.

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Life’s Little Mysteries (3)

The weather, never settled for long, has changed again. After baking heat - always welcome when venturing into the city to shop (aye, right!) - Saturday night brought heavy rain. Driving home late, I became aware that things were moving in the headlights’ beam. Frogs. Lots of frogs. They’ve spent the hot spell hidden under the dry stone walls or in deep undergrowth, until the rain came. Then it’s way-hay! Look chaps - puddles! Which made driving the back roads rather more akin to a slalom course, avoiding frogicide.

Arriving home, we unpacked the car; another slalom session as we avoided the snails sliding happily across the path. With rain dripping down my neck from the tailgate of the car, I turned and noticed around fifteen on the end wall of the house, all heading upwards. One slid purposefully up the edge of the gable; all seemed bent on reaching the roof, or even the chimneystack. Those on the path made their slow and stately way to the wall, and proceeded upwards. I couldn’t see anything up there that might attract their attention, no algae, no moss, no tempting plants at all.
Were they trying to tell me that flood were expected? Is there a snail nightclub somewhere on my roof? Do they gather up there in the first rain after the last full moon in July for some esoteric snail ritual? Baffled, I took the last of the shopping indoors and went to dry off.
In the morning there were no snails to be seen. And none that night on the window pane. I began to wonder if some silent interstellar space-shell had descended in the damp night and taken them away, to report on their observations of Earth life.

Wherever they went, it was a short trip - five were back last night. Of course, it was ‘Mastermind’ and ‘University Challenge’ on the TV. How else can interstellar snails learn?

Friday, 21 July 2006

Life in Slow Motion

The snails live on the walls of my garden, hiding under the shrubs, or clustered together in the evenings on the living room window, where they gather under the edge of the sash frame. Are they watching the TV? On wet nights they can be found idly perambulating across the path, and in the morning as I go to work I see their silvery trails across the doormat, or on a plant pot or two. I don’t begrudge them the small amount of damage they do; for some reason I find snails quite appealing. Slugs, on the other hand, have little to recommend them; they lurk under the rims of the plant pots, lumps of slime and gristle that surprise your fingers when you go to move the pot. I find it odd that I regard them so differently. What difference does a shell make? The snails, I will admit, are great performers when, on occasion, I take them to schools. Set on the back of my hand, they soon come out of their shells and extend their long eyestalks, peering myopically at the children as if to say ‘What’s this? Who are you?’ The children, for their part, seem equally fascinated by their small alien visitors, and talk back to them.

Snails in this part of the world are usually found at the seaside. Most of the underlying native rock is granite, which doesn’t provide sufficient calcium for them to grow their shells; by the sea, they take advantage of the crushed shell in the sandy soil, taken up by the plants that they eat, and they grow to the size of golf balls. It must be a precarious existence in some ways, being close to the sea. After all, how many of us have gone out with the salt pot at night to put an end to crawling lettuce lovers?

The warm, damp weather has spiced up the lives of the snails on the walls. Yesterday Mum caught several of them flagrantly mating, moistly entwined amid the foliage. Snails love-lives are complex; they are hermaphrodite, so each fertilises the other. In courtship - for snails do choose their partners - they fire small ‘arrows’ at each other, reeling each other in on thin white thread until their bodies are pressed together. D-I-Y Cupid? Or have they been watching old westerns on the TV, in the evenings? Whichever, I wait for the eggs to appear, and a new generation of snails to make their slow way to the window pane.

Haar, Haar

So here I am, back home. While the rest of the UK has baked in record temperatures and relentless sunshine, my little corner of Scotland has remained cool and green. Driving north is like stepping back a few weeks in time; the tired greens of the trees perk up, the crisp brown lawns turn green, and the wildflowers rewind. The crops, being harvested at the beginning of my journey, are barely turning golden. Sometimes, if I travel up and down enough, I can end up with two springs, or two autumns.

Waking to cool grey daylight after two weeks of heat comes as a bit of a shock. Stepping out into a damp, foggy morning is like walking into middle of a pearl - a gentle luminescent glow as the sun tries to penetrate the mist. (Hmm - that image leaves me as the grit in the oyster - ah well!) As I drive inland to work the mist thins, becoming a fairly bright and sunny day.
It’s been a feature of this area as long as I can remember. Waking to the bull roar of the foghorn, leaving home in dank dimness, only to find that ten miles inland has been basking in sunshine. It’s the haar. The sea fog. It lies along this coast like a grey veil for most of the summer.

So why do we have the dubious privilege of this phenomenon?

When the air gets warmed up by the sun, as happens in the summer, it can hold a lot more moisture. When this is suddenly cooled, the moisture condenses out. Pass warm air over a cool surface such as the sea, and this happens; and the North Sea is cold. Believe me, I’ve been in it, it’s cold.
So fog forms. Add an on-shore breeze, and the fog is pushed inland, covering town and countryside indiscriminately. Now although the land is warmer, and this clears the fog, the breeze pushes more inland to take over - where I used to live, you could watch it ebbing and flowing like the tide, making its way up the fields, sneaking along the hedges until it was beaten back by the land’s warmth. So there’s a band of land along the coast that stays foggy. With a stronger breeze, or if the land is cooler, it can travel a long way inland, tracing cold clammy fingers up the rivers and glens.
Sometimes the sun is strong enough to warm the land; it burns through and the haar clears. Sometimes it doesn’t, and we spend our days in a strange shadowless brightness.

And the name? Haar - I’m not sure where it comes from. The word has a Scandinavian feel to it. South of the border, it’s called a sea fret, and locally in Yorkshire a sea roak. (Bird-watching one day at the seashore, someone commented that there was a sea roak. After a short while, a visiting birder enquired what was the difference between that and a normal rook….)

It’s a feature of the east coast, and is why the land stays greener, and the inhabitants paler, than elsewhere. And why we shout at the radio, when the newsreader talks of heat-waves.

Saturday, 15 July 2006

Humber Mud

To the south and east, there is water.
South is the Humber Estuary, a slow brown ooze; East, the cold grey blue of the North Sea. Where these meet, a long crooked finger of almost-land juts out into the tide, an ever-changing desolation of sand and shingle and mud. Each winter brings a realignment, a chance to breaking away from the mainland, and is followed by the need to rebuild the road that straggles to the end of this impudent finger.

The road itself is a patchwork of concrete slabs, some inlaid with old railway lines, and odd strips of interlocking blocks which can be dug up and re-laid, at least where there is sufficient land to put them. A single track, with occasional passing places and lay-bys, it connects the isolated lifeboat station and coastguard to the rest of the world. To leave the road surface is to risk grounding, and becoming stuck in deep, soft sand. High banks, covered in bramble, leathery grey-green sea buckthorn and spiny marram grass both protect the roadway and threaten to engulf it. Convolvulus twines through the scrub, turning striped trumpet flowers towards today’s blue sky. It’s not always so welcoming. There are gaps, views of the estuary. Wide mudflats shimmer with mirages in the heat, dotted with distant birds wavering in the haze. Oystercatchers probe the mud deeply with carrot-coloured beaks, triumphantly hauling out ragworms, a lone grey plover potters about mournfully, poking a shorter beak into the semi-liquid ooze for small crustaceans and shellfish. No wonder it looks miserable.
Curlews, longest beaks of all, stalk the outer flats, searching the deepest mud. A distant line of black dots out on the water resolves itself through the binoculars into a flock of scoter, black seaducks gathered together to moult their spring feathers. Surprised by a seal, they take to the air in a flurry of dark wings, only to land with a barely controlled splash a few hundred metres away.
On the seaward side lies the beach, lined with scattered concrete blocks – tank barriers – like children’s toys left out and weathered in a forgotten corner.
A slick of muddy water spreads from the river mouth beyond sight of land. Container ships wait out beyond the channel for the tide to turn, bound for Hull and Grimsby, or up river to Goole. To reach there, they will pass under the span of the Humber Bridge, 25 years old today and only just visible on the horizon.
At the end of the land lies the small community of Spurn – houses, for the lifeboat men permanently stationed here; the road is too risky to rely on its being passable during a storm when they might be needed. The old lighthouse and landward tower now are home only to pigeons.

Wending our way back along the track, we come across a patch of sea holly, crisp silver grey-green, flowers tinged with electric blue. A survivor, like Spurn itself.

High Moor

Yorkshire is a big place. Not quite as vast as Texas, I grant you, but big enough to be diverse. My teenage years were spent exploring various parts of it, bird-watching along the muddy Humber estuary, hiking over the high expanses of the Moors; the rolling chalk of the Wolds and the boulder clay of Holderness are always a part of my childhood. Over the last couple of days, we’ve revisited some of these places.

North and west of Mum’s place lie the Wolds – a long ridge of chalk running from the bird-covered cliffs at Flamborough Head to the Humber Bridge, and stretching on south through Lincolnshire. To get almost anywhere outside East Yorkshire, you have to cross these uplands, once medieval sheep pasture and now covered with arable fields, barley and oats parched and ready for harvest under a bleach-blue sky. I wonder vaguely why there are no ancient chalk figures here, as there are on the Downs; perhaps the tribes that inhabited this area held to different gods, perhaps there were fewer regiments to carve out military memorials as they have around Salisbury, perhaps the land proved too fertile to use in this way. I don’t know. The chalk lies very close to the surface; some fields, overploughed, are nothing but pale rubble wastelands. This used to be an open expanse of prairie fields, a result of ‘big is best ‘ in farming, but more enlightened farmers have restored the hedgerows and shelter belts, there are trees again. Roadsides are billows of blue meadow cranesbill and violet scabious; candy-striped convolvulus makes intricate mosaic patches on close cut turf. Vast purple-blue fields of borage, a new crop for the new millennium, punctuate the pale gold of the cereals.

Coming down into the flatlands of the Vale of Pickering, (an old lake bed) we can see the moors rising to the north. A haze of purple-brown, lush green in the folds and gullies, they lack the homeliness of the chalk. From a gold-grey stone that makes for picturesque villages full of coaches and tourists, the land changes; harsh grey drystane dykes trace possession across the hillside, marking inbye from outbye, home farm from common land. Winding narrow roads lead up to the tops, through dales rich with greenery, flourishing oak and ash by the sides of the stony, brown-water becks; bracken, an unwelcome green invader, spreads from mooredge to roadside, and provides concealment for the sudden sheep that materialise in our path. We search for ring ousels amongst the tumbled stone walls, but find nothing but straggly rows of young rooks, dotted along the fence lines, waiting for food, and numerous woodpigeons. Pigeons have an odd, and annoying, ability to look interesting – disguising themselves briefly as falcons, cuckoos, anything – before revealing themselves with a mocking clap of their wings.

The high tops are wide open spaces, ablaze with magenta bell heather, patterned with the dark scars of muirburn. The lurking hummocks of heather-clad shooting butts mirror the rounded forms of the tumuli on the ridges, ancient burial mounds linked by the network of old tracks over the moors. Standing stones and old carved crosses mark the crossing of these ways, tracks used still by long-distance walkers. My feet remember long days and nights, hiking these dusty, peaty, muddy, stony trails.

We turn for home. Far away towards the sea, the distant carious tooth of the Fylingdales early warning radar rises above the heather, its truncated pyramid a degree more sinister than its three round forerunners. On Egton High Moor, we stop the car and listen. A contented buzzing of bees, the ever-disgruntled bleating of sheep, the haunting whistle of curlew building to a wild crescendo – does someone have to come out every morning and wind them up? (Sorry, dear, can’t stop, have to go and reset the curlews…)

You can go back.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Take Your Partner for the Hedgehog Waltz.

The hedgehog situation grows more complex.

Tonight, our small visitor turns up for her mealworms as usual, only to be joined after about ten minutes by another, larger, hedgehog.
He is slightly lighter coloured, and a bit scruffier - designer stubble? He feeds his face briefly, before his mind turns to other things.

He begins to snuffle at 'our' hedgehog, and they begin a long slow dance around the lawn. He snuffles his way towards her back end, she backs away, and they gradually go round in a series of small spirals, orbitting around the end of her nose. She sits down firmly, making a point; he snuffles along her side, she gets up and backs away, he changes direction - is he getting dizzy by now? - they swing like a small binary star across the lawn and under the azaleas. The bushes shake. The pair emerge, rotating back across to the rockery, and back once more to the azaleas. Is she really not interested or is she merely being coy? She certainly doesn't take the opportunity to escape when he briefly backs off.

They vanish again, and the bushes tremble. It's getting hard to see what's going on, and to be honest I'm beginning to feel a little voyeuristic. Mum peers out of the back door and comes in to report that they are sitting side by side under the arch that leads to the lawn, under a rainbow of clematis. Hmm. Has she succumbed to his rough charms? No - merely a brief break in the dance - they head off in front of the garage, still circling.

It's a long slow courtship, with hedgehogs. And a very careful one.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

The Visitors

Hummingbird Hawk Moth – 3 Jul 06

Waiting for the bus, conveniently outside the house, we’re inspecting the shrubs that grow over the wall, debating how far they need to be trimmed back to prevent decapitation of passing pavement cyclists, and how high they need to be cut back off the ground to prevent dogs using the convenient cover as – well, a 'convenience' – when we notice something strange in the honeysuckle.

A hummingbird hawkmoth. Flashing subliminal terracotta red hindwings, soft beige and black-and-white-striped body, hovering beside the flowers, extending its long proboscis like a refuelling probe on a fighter aircraft connecting with the tanker, it moves with delicate precision.
Is this an indicator of warmer summers? We haven’t seen one here for over 20 years. We watch it working over the flowers, until it vanishes with speed somewhere over the garden wall, and the bus arrives.

Hedgehog – 4 Jul 06

Mum peers out of the back window, and whispers.
‘She’s here.’

It looks like someone has left an old coconut on the lawn. Snuffling about, minutely inspecting each blade of grass, each small patch of the lawn for the dried mealworms my mother leaves out. Heat and hard ground mean fewer worms and beetles, so every little helps. Almost every night she comes – Mrs Tiggywinkle in person - around 9.30 to 10 pm. Sometimes she lingers, but mostly she stays for about 20 minutes. Well, we don’t really know if she is really a ‘she’, but we make an educated guess. She’s small and neat, light brown fur edging a tidy bristle-cut hair-do, black-eyed and black-nosed. She has surprisingly long legs, moving with a rolling sailor’s gait. Trundling about like a small clockwork toy, leaving a trail through the grass, she disappears into the undergrowth of the flowerbeds, to reappear and cross the path before vanishing into the gathering darkness under the hawthorn tree at the bottom of the garden.

‘Think I’d better get some more mealworms,’ says Mum.

Sunday, 2 July 2006

Sneeze or Freeze...

The colours are changing again - yellow hangs on tenaciously in the form of fields thick with buttercups, and in the vast, almost indefineable range of dandeliony-things (OK, I know I'm supposed to know what they all are but a summer idleness creeps in - hawkweeds, cat's ears, hawksbits, coltfoot, and dandelions are just some of the range to select from), the white is there in the form of ox-eye daisies, but is slowly changing; the 'palest-maiden's-blush-to-hot-flush' pinks of dog roses, tall spikes of foxgloves in every shade from white to carmine, red campion, vibrant scarlet of field poppies, the red haze of grasses... it's glorious, but somewhere in it all is a lurking hay-fever trigger.

Driving whilst sneezing is a hazardous occupation. And driving for over 400 miles whilst sneezing is not conducive to road safety. Fortunately, the car has air conditioning, which comes complete with - fanfare - pollen filters! Which saved the day, but revealed a slight downside - you need to keep it switched on. Which is all very well when the sun is shining and its 20 degrees or so, but when it starts to rain and the temperature drops, being in the car becomes rather like stepping inside one of those big freezers in the supermarket. There is a likelihood of frostbite. But what is the alternative?

So this summer, if you see someone, on the hottest of days, driving around with the windows closed, wearing woolly gloves, hat and scarf... it could be me, avoiding hayfever.