October 28, 2017

So, we’re home again – leaving an Ireland bathed in sunshine and arriving back in Bigtownshire to the massed and looming clouds…

clouds over scotland

This morning, checking to see what was still standing in the garden (pretty much everything thanks for asking, including the greenhouse – and the daleks kept their heads screwed on as well), I was admiring these flowers which seem to be unstoppable. My mother picked them up in Aldi for five quid as a garden-warming gift when we first moved in, and they’ve been pretty much flowering ever since.

Dianthus in the rain

This photo doesn’t do justice to the colour of this flower which is a much deeper red

Certainly in June this year they were flowering their little heads off and kept on going and when they started to fade and look a bit ragged at the end of this summer I almost hesitated to cut them back because I knew it would encourage them to put on a second flush and I was worried it might actually kill them. So far, though, despite the haircut, combined with wind, storms, rain, slugs and hares, nothing seems to dent their enthusiasm. Clearly, wherever Aldi gets its plants from is doing something right.

dianthus in June

the same plants in June – everything else in this photo has realised it’s autumn and gone to ground

The only problem was that for ages I had forgotten what they were actually called (they did have labels but I lost them), making it harder to find out how to look after them – had they needed any looking after which, apparently, they don’t – or, more importantly, to sound as if I knew what I was doing when other gardeners came to visit. A quick Google suggests that they are some kind of Dianthus, possibly Neon Star, which should come in handy when I need to replace them when they inevitably die after I post this. Or I can just keep calling them what I’ve been calling them up to now when pressed – “Oh, those? They’re Fromaldi forafiver”.

pink dianthus


October 26, 2017

Today being our last day here, we headed to Tollymore Forest Park because it’s got to be done: one of those places that was a fixture of my childhood, but which I am only now beginning to properly appreciate.

Tollymore entrance

And despite having come here regularly for over 40 years, I still somehow managed to miss the entrance and was practically at Bryansford before I realised my mistake.

tollymore autumn

tollymore in autumn

Worth the uphill pedal though … if only to work up an appetite for our tea.

tollymore in autumn

Back home tomorrow, to find out if everything is still standing in the garden.

Tollymore in autumn

A Stroll in the Park

October 24, 2017

While all these bike rides and seaside walks are all very well, what else is Newcastle for if not for walking in the Mournes? So today, we decided it was time to go and tackle some of those contour lines directly, on foot. Paradoxically, the easiest climb for us is also the hardest, because Slieve Donard rises right from the back of where we’re staying, and is reasonably easy to navigate because there’s a pretty clear path all the way to the top. The fact that it’s 850m pretty much straight up from our sea-level house is neither here nor there – in recognition of our lack of climbing fitness, and out of respect for our ageing knees, our only aim was to go up as far as could and then come back down again with ligaments and self-respect intact.

all-terrain barrow

How to carry your tools up a steep and rocky path … I did suggest suspension forks for the next iteration

Stopping off to chat with the cheery volunteer rangers of the Mourne Heritage Trust* (and their impressive all-terrain frankenbarrow) who were busy repairing the path, we headed upwards, very grateful for their efforts as this route up Donard gets a lot of visitors and even mountains made of granite aren’t immune to the effects of lots and lots of feet.

donard path

There were pauses to admire the view, and how far we’d come

view from donard

Quite frequent pauses …

view from donard

In the end, reaching the saddle between Donard and Commedagh, we decided that was a good enough point to stop and turn around (550m worth of climbing in the end). It wasn’t just the steepness of the climb that remained that gave us pause – as the realisation that it was already a long way down …

long way down

Given the way we felt by the time we’d reached the bottom and staggered into Maud’s to be revived with millionaire’s shortbread and salted caramel ice cream (delicious, in case you’re wondering), that was definitely the right decision.

*Who, I note from their website, also suffer from an ASBO buzzard

Turning Left in October

October 22, 2017

So you’d think that cycling somewhere new would be pretty easy this month, seeing as we actually are somewhere different and we remembered to bring our bikes. There’s just one problem with cycling around here though, if you want to go a bit further afield – the map* looks like this:

OSNI map of the Mournes

Note: not a lot of roads, but a large number of contour lines

There are only really 4 roads out of Newcastle, and none of them are a lot of fun to cycle on, and we’ve already cycled to the two nearest places that aren’t too horrible to ride to. Anyway, with a bit of discussion and looking at various maps, paper and digital, we settled on Castlewellan, via some back roads which turned out pretty pleasant for cycling.

Back road to Castlewellan

Even though we were cycling away from the worst of the contours, Newcastle is on the coast and Castlewellan is not, and I hadn’t really clocked just how uphill the whole outward leg was going to be, nor that it was straight into a fairly ferocious headwind, so I was glad to have a little encouragement just before we topped out the climb.

big ring time

(There were slightly less encouraging words on offer for the way down. We did wonder if these get changed seasonally …).

The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved

I suddenly realised, looking at the chapter and verse for this, why we talk about ‘jeremiads’.

Still, it was worth it when we arrived – not just a lovely walk around the lake at Castlewellan Park, but the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’ve saved £5 by not arriving by car.

beech trees in Castlewellan forest park

We then invested the savings in our ongoing project to sample the cake offer in every cafe in the area (chocolate fudge cake with ice cream plus two bottomless coffees in Bilbo’s Bistro, if you’re interested), and rolled home, very glad it was downhill all the way …

downhill home
* If you were following along in July, you’ll know that this is an OSNI map, not an Ordnance Survey one.

Breaking the Waves

October 21, 2017

danger breaking waves signI’ll be honest – I thought this sign was a little bit over-the-top when I saw it on the harbour wall when we arrived this week. Don’t they know that one of the chief pleasures in Newcastle during blowing weather is going down to the sea front to watch the waves crashing over the wall?

But then the wind picked up and the waves got going and as I was out today just at the top of the tide, I could see (from a safe distance) that the waves were breaking right over the harbour wall as if it wasn’t there and I thought maybe they had a point.

harbour wall

You’ll have to click for bigness – it was a very a safe distance

The sea front is a little bit more sheltered but if you do want to go out and capture the drama of the waves then I have a couple of top tips for you:

waves crashing over sea front

One is to actually make sure your camera lens hasn’t fogged up so your most dramatic shots are actually in focus:

blurry waves

And tip number two is to remember that waves can also come from behind you … so keep an eye out if you don’t want to end up drenched from tip to toe…

water spilling over the wall


October 20, 2017

It’s fair to say that the weather has been pretty mixed on our Irish sunshine break so far, but today the stars aligned: a morning of sunshine and light winds, I’d finished the work I had (inevitably) brought with me and our bikes were calling us…

Newcastle sea front

Besides, we had a mission – to find a washed-up coke bottle cap.

We didn’t ride far – just to Murlough nature reserve where we parked the bikes and wandered through the dunes for a while before ending up on the beach.

Mournes seen from Murlough

Sadly, it didn’t take long to achieve our goal (in fact I found two – and any number of other pieces of plastic among the seaweed).

coca cola bottle cap

This was the strangest. A plastic float of some kind, possibly, thoroughly colonised by barnacles and what might be sea anemones (or possibly aliens).

sea creatures washed up

We took the caps and left the rest (maybe I’ll bring a bag next time) and cycled back home into what had become a freshening headwind.

cake station cafe

All the better for working up an appetite.

That Hurricane Damage in Full

October 17, 2017

Having read some of the tweets from Ireland during Ophelia’s visit yesterday, I’ll spare you my eerie calm before the storm and weird blood-red sun anecdotes (but you know, it was very strange). When the storm finally arrived, we lay in bed last night listening to it hammering around the house hoping that the greenhouse would survive and glad that at least we’d given the two trees most likely to cause any damage a haircut.

With the cold light of morning we went out to survey the damage:

headless daleks


Our dalek army had been decapitated (fortunately, we had spent Sunday filling the two new bins with the contents of the pile-o’-stuff, so we only had to retrieve the lids, not go hunting for the bins themselves).

felled tree

One of our wedding anniversary twiglets had been blown over, although it was possible to resurrect it as it had only bent, not snapped.*

battered tree

The cows’ tree – whose tree tube had suffered somewhat from their enthusiastic attention – appeared battered but unbowed.

And you’ll be pleased to note from the photo above that the greenhouse is still standing and indeed completely unscathed, testament to the efforts of the other half and a friend, who spent two days constructing it.  Other than that, as the wind had helpfully blown away all the leaves that had fallen already, the garden actually looked tidier than it was before the storm.

Tomorrow we set off for Northern Ireland – or what’s left of it – for what we’re confident will be a sunshine break, very glad that we didn’t book the ferry for today as we had originally planned.

* I would claim this as a metaphor but two of the other trees we planted this spring didn’t survive, so I’m not reading too much into their fate, just at the moment.

Early Doors

October 14, 2017

Ever since I inadvertently angered the Weather Gods by implying that they couldn’t make it drizzle all day any more, they’ve been steadily proving me wrong. Today, after optimistically putting out and then taking back in the washing, forgetting that Bigtownshire specialises in its own special kind of rain that the forecasters can’t see, let alone forecast, I headed for Bigtown for a spot of history and poetry.

Forgotten Doors

One of the ‘forgotten doors’ of Bigtown, resurrected for the afternoon

Poetry readings, in my experience, are generally held indoors in the warm and dry and accompanied by wine and even nibbles. Clearly this is a tactical error: it turns out that if you invite people instead to march through Bigtown unrefreshed in the drizzle, instead of the usual turnout of the poet, the poet’s mates, and the odd lost soul who has wandered in by mistake, you get a veritable crowd.

gathered audience

Trust me, this is a giant crowd for poetry …

So many, in fact that the combined effect of distance, umbrellas and traffic completely drowned out the poets, so after a while I peeled off to head home while I still had parts of me that weren’t drenched. I clearly haven’t the stamina for poetry in Scotland.

And neither, I noted, do the local cows.

cows sheltering from the rain

Still, I can at least confirm that the new pannier is definitely Waterproof in Scotland.

More weather related shenanigans to come as we attempt to get to Norn Iron in the teeth of the remains of Hurricane Ophelia…


October 13, 2017

What’s that lumbering towards the wall?

dalek invasion

We appear to be having a dalek invasion.

compost daleks

Oh, okay, we have ordered a couple of new compost bins, hopefully more Tardis-like than Dalek-like, given that they are already dwarfed by the pile-o’-stuff waiting to go into them.

When we moved here, we (I) had big plans for a corner where we could do extensive and Proper Composting, and while those plans have been maturing* the pile of grass clippings, strimmings, weeds and other material which will ultimately feed this proper compost has steadily grown as the other half gets on with actual gardening as opposed to dreaming, talking and blogging about it. The original Dalek is full of kitchen and garden waste and although it never actually fills up, nor has it yet turned the bottom layer into compost. Meanwhile, I suspect that towards the bottom of the pile-o’-stuff some good organic matter might lurk but first I need somewhere to put the top of the pile.

Clearly, while a Proper Composting Solution is still ultimately the goal, we were in increasing need of a temporary solution. I’m always reluctant to bring new plastic into the world, but it turns out compost Daleks are generally made of recycled plastic, and besides there was a buy-one get-one-half-price offer on the go.

And obviously, just because we’ve tripled our emergency composting capacity, I won’t now relax and wait until Dalek No. 3 is bulging at the seams before starting work in the Proper Composting Solution. Of course not. What do you take me for?

* they have developed sliding-block-puzzle tendencies in the process, as first we need to check the septic tank is all in good order, then move the pile of woodchips that were left in the wrong place, dig out the very nice soil underneath the woodchips where the old compost heap clearly was and put it to good use, get hold of materials for composting bays, actually build the composting bays, get hold of some more manure, which involves sourcing a trailer that nobody minds us putting horse poo into, build a trellis to hide the composting bays, find something nice to grow on the trellis …

I Feel it in my Fingers, I Feel it in my Toes

October 11, 2017

Yesterday, enjoying coffee and cake with a friend in a cafe, as an unexpected shower suddenly emptied the High Street, I mentioned how we’d barely had a day all summer when it hadn’t rained at least once. “At least it’s better than those days when it just rains steadily all day,” my friend pointed out. “True,” I said, and then added before anyone could stop me, “We don’t seem to get those so often as we used to.”

park after the rain

Regular readers of this blog will know exactly what happened next. Especially as I was supposed to be spending this afternoon at an event in the Bigtown Park in which the Weather Gods take a particular interest. Although, to be fair, once I’d headed out on the bike sans spare gloves and waterproof trousers on the (as it turned out) flimsy grounds that the forecast was for it to clear up, it went from steady pacing-itself drizzle to steady pacing-itself drizzle interspersed with apocalyptic stairrods. This lasted all the way into Bigtown, and up to the other end of town where I needed to pick up a bike trailer, then cleared up into a glorious sunny autumn afternoon, so that everyone at the event could say ‘and isn’t it lovely that the rain stopped just in time?’ and I could smile through gritted teeth and tried not to let my socks squelch too loudly.

Park after the rain

Bigtown has apparently been found to be the happiest place in Scotland, from which I can only surmise that they were mostly surveying the local ducks.

Park after the rain

That said, the park does scrub up rather nicely when it has been well rinsed. Very, very well rinsed.

bike, trailer and tree

And I can report that the fastest way to tow a bike trailer home, is to concentrate on how wonderful it will be to peel off your sodden socks and sit down with dry feet in front of the fire.