A Week in the Wild West (of Scotland)

 

distant-islands

June was a month of travelling for me. After a short break in Madrid, I spent a week in the wild west of Scotland. The Ardnamurchan peninsula is the most westerly point in the UK and it’s very remote. There are no towns, no shopping malls, and barely any cellphone reception. It’s a perfect place to relax and spend some time at a slower pace of life – reading, hiking, eating good food, and watching out for wildlife. Continue reading

It’s been a while…

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Flowers by the lake

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I’ve been busy with…oh, you know…life and things. I think sometimes we use busy as a synonym for stressed.

“How are you?” “Oh, I’m busy,” you say, implying your frenetic, feet-hardly-ever-touch-the-ground life.

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“Solitude is a human presumption”: Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer

“Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot”

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Prodigal Summer is the second novel by Barbara Kingsolver that I have read. She is arguably most well-known for her bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible (published in 1998), but I became acquainted with her writing when I read and enjoyed Flight Behaviour (2012) last year. In many aspects, Prodigal Summer (2012) is similar to Flight Behaviour: both novels are set in rural locations in the South (Virginia and Tennessee, respectively), nature and ecological themes are key points, and female protagonists with grit and independence are at the forefront of these novels.

Three stories form the plot of Prodigal Summer. There is the reclusive “hillbilly accent[ed]” biologist, Deanna Wolfe, who lives in a mountain cabin and works as a forest ranger, maintaining the trails and protecting the wildlife. A few miles below the mountain, Lusa Maluf Landowksi has married into an insular family that does not readily accept her. Meanwhile, a couple more miles down the road, two elderly neighbours, Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley, live in bordering properties and bicker about God and farming on an almost daily basis, but perhaps they have more in common than they can see.

Kingsolver’s background as a biologist is clear in her writing, as she brings environmental themes into her stories and writes about them with eloquence and insight. I enjoy her evocative descriptions of Southern Appalachia and she writes about nature in a way that I find very soothing. The human stories are well-drawn too. I don’t always enjoy stories with multiple main characters and story-lines, but Kingsolver executes this literary technique with smooth transitions. The chapters alternate between “Predators” (Deanna’s story), “Moth Love” (Lusa) and “Old Chestnuts” (Garnett and Nannie): the stories are different but the characters are living out their lives against the same backdrop and the location is as much a part of the novel as the human characters.

Have you read any novels by Barbara Kingsolver? Do you like the blend of ecological and human themes which seems to be characteristic of her writing?

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all my readers!

Ring out wild bells to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Even though it’s the New Year, the twelve days of Christmas don’t finish until Twelfth Night on January 6, so I thought I’d share some Christmassy photos.

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It’s the time of year for winter walks, when the morning dawns clear, bright and frosty:

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A treat after a bracing walk: lebkuchen and a cappuccino, made using the milk frother that was a Christmas gift from my mother. If you’re a coffee drinker, I recommend that you treat yourself to a milk frother. It adds a special touch to a cup of coffee and I love being able to make cappuccinos at home now!

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Happy 2015 everyone!

Snow and Poetry

For Day 19 of Zero to Hero, the challenge is to “publish a post using a format you’ve never used before”. The slideshow below contains a photo gallery (a format which is new to me) of wintry pictures which I took a couple of years ago, plus a cento I composed to go with them. A cento is like a poetic mash-up, with lines from poems by different authors rearranged into a new, unique poem. For a wonderful example of a cento that the BBC recently produced as a promo for one of their channels, click here: BBC Cento.

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And here is my complete cento in order. All of the authors’ names and the titles of the poems are in the captions of the gallery slideshow. In respective order, I composed the cento with quotes from poems by Robert Frost, Emily Bronte, John Clare, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
And fifteen wild Decembers
From those brown hills have melted into spring.
The winter comes; I walk alone.

Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone.
Sharp is the night, but stars with frost alive
Leap off the rim of earth across the dome.

The secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Alnwick Gardens and a trip to Hogwarts (Alnwick Castle)

Situated in the north-east of England, the Alnwick Garden is a wonderful place to spend a day, exploring and wandering around the 12-acre garden. It is next to the historic Alnwick Castle, which was used as a filming location for the first two Harry Potter movies. Formal gardens at Alnwick were first created in 1750 by the well-known Georgian landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

Throughout the centuries, the gardens at Alnwick were developed by the Dukes of Northumberland, especially during the Victorian era when it was a time of great discoveries in the plant kingdom. Today the Alnwick Garden is owned by a community charity. After a period of development, the gardens opened to the public in 2002.

The Grand Cascade is the focal point of the garden.

Grand Cascade Alnwick

There are steps each side of the Cascade, allowing visitors to get up close and personal. Every thirty minutes, jets of water spray up from the Cascade in a dancing display of water which moves from the top of the water feature right down to the very last pool.

Fountains

Fountain 2

It reminds me of a similar water feature at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, although the Chatsworth cascade is 300 years old (you can see spectacular photos by clicking here). The Grand Cascade at Alnwick is a modern interpretation with a classical style.

Near the Cascade is a topiary serpent and between its coils, you find contemporary water features which delight children and adults alike with their mixture of visual effects and illusions.

After enjoying the water features hidden in the coils of the topiary serpent, we strolled through the bamboo labyrinth which was created by Adrian Fisher. If you have followed Cultural Life for a while, you might remember that I wrote about another of Adrian Fisher’s creations a few months ago: the ostensibly straightforward but fiendishly difficult five-pointed star maze at Scone Palace in Scotland. The bamboo labyrinth was a lot easier and it took less than five minutes to weave our way through it.

A clue inside the labyrinth

A clue inside the labyrinth

We had lunch in the Treehouse Restaurant, a truly unique dining experience. It is one of the largest tree houses in the world and it feels like something out of the Harry Potter books!

The Treehouse Restaurant

The Treehouse Restaurant

You reach the treehouse via aerial walkways, lined with twinkling lights.

I enjoyed a two course lunch of grilled red mullet and baby squid followed by halloumi salad with artichoke heart and chickpeas.

Inside the Treehouse Restaurant

Inside the Treehouse Restaurant

After lunch we walked to the Ornamental Garden, a pretty area just above the Grand Cascade.

The entrance to the Ornamental Garden

The entrance to the Ornamental Garden

A peaceful place to sit

A peaceful place to sit

Alnwick Castle, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, is a short stroll from the gardens. It was used as a filming location for the first two Harry Potter movies. Photography is not allowed inside the castle but I took a few photos of the exterior. You can view some photos inside the castle on their website here.

Part of Alnwick Castle

A view of part of Alnwick Castle

The castle is filled with history from different eras. But it is still very much a family home; the Percy family have lived in the castle for 700 years. As well as the beautiful furniture and historical artefacts, a lot of people visit the castle due to the Harry Potter connection. Harry’s first broomstick lesson took place within the grounds of Alnwick Castle (aka Hogwarts!) and when Ron crashed the flying Ford Anglia into the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the scene was filmed at Alnwick Castle.

Quidditch lessons were filmed on the lawns at Alnwick!

Quidditch lessons were filmed on the lawns at Alnwick!

The beautiful blue of the clock on the Alnwick tower stands out on a rainy day

The beautiful blue of the clock on the Alnwick tower stood out.

I plan to post all these photos plus a few more into a Cultural Life gallery in the next few days; I hope you enjoy browsing them.

Alnwick Castle and Gardens are wonderful places to visit. There is so much to see and do and a whole lot of history to soak up.

Do you enjoy visiting gardens and historic buildings? Let me know your recommendations from around the world!